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Introduction to Medications

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

As used in this website, the term 'medication' refers to a drug or other chemical compound that is administered into the body and which effects the body in a beneficial way, typically by relieving symptoms, or acting to remove or reduce causes of illness. There are lots of chemicals and drugs in existence, but not all of them are medications.

pile of green pillsPeople have been using medications to help cure disorders and illnesses for thousands of years. Originally, medications were derived from natural (typically plant) sources. Modern medications (as used by physicians) are almost exclusively synthesized in laboratories, however. Herbal medicines do exist and are very popular, but are discussed separately under our Alternative Medicine topic center.

The manufacture and use of medications is governed by law in most countries (if not all). With some exceptions (e.g., over the counter varieties), medicines must be prescribed by a licensed physician, and purchased from a licensed pharmacy before people can have access to them. Laws restricting public access to medications exist to protect the public health. Many medications can be dangerous (even lethal), and/or habit-forming (addictive) when misused. Physicians (and members of several other health professions such as nurse-practitioners, physician's assistants, dentists, etc. ) are trained in the use (and cross-use) of a variety of medicines. It is this training that allows these professionals to safely prescribe medicines to treat illness. Although medicines can today be purchased on the black market (on the street or via the Internet) without a doctor's prescription, it is both illegal and a very bad idea from a safety and health perspective to obtain medications this way (do not do this!)

Medicines are typically categorized into classes of related compounds and chemicals that produce particular effects on the body. Different class categorizations are in use, with some schemes categorizing medicines on the basis of how they affect the body and brain at a chemical and molecular level, and other schemes grouping them by the types of effects they have on the body and brain. For example, psychiatric medicines are often grouped by disorders, such that some medications are thought of as 'anti-depressants' while others are thought of as 'anti-psychotics', and still others are thought of as 'anti-anxiety' agents. The problem with these loose ways of organizing medications is that many medications can be used to treat multiple disorders. For instance, the popular anti-depressant medicine 'Paxil' is also useful in treating forms of anxiety. The 'anti-psychotic' medicine 'Zyprexa' is also sometimes found useful by doctors for treating forms of mood disorder. Though categorizing medicines by the types of disorders they are first used to treat is often not a very useful way of grouping them, the practice continues, nevertheless.

'Chemical and molecular effect' grouping schemes offer more precision. For instance, the 'selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors' (SSRIs) are a very popular class of modern psychiatric medication. SSRIs include the medicines, 'Proxac', 'Zoloft' and 'Paxil', as well as others. SSRI's all share a similar mode of action; they work by altering the availability of the brain chemical serotonin (a 'neurotransmitter' which governs mood). SSRIs alter people's moods; they are typically used to treat people who are depressed and/or anxious. Other popular (chemical/molecular effect) classes of mood-altering drugs include the 'Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors' (or MAOIs), the 'Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs), etc.

A variety of resources are available from this topic center. You can use online databases to look up medicines you have questions about. We also present articles which describe various medicines, and classes of medicines as treatments for various disorders. We hope you find the information you are looking for!