What Are The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs?

It all started after your back surgery. Your doctor prescribed some pain medication and you took it regularly, as prescribed. Every once in awhile, you felt like you needed a little more, so you popped an extra pill or two. A few weeks later you found yourself back in your doctor’s office, lying about your pain just so you could get more. Now you can’t function without them. You know you probably should stop but the withdrawal is too intense when you try. You never considered it might happen to you, but you’re addicted to your prescription drugs.

The scenario above is more common than you might think. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 54 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at least once in their lifetime. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also revealed that an estimated 2.1 million Americans misused prescription drugs for the first time over the past year. Data from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health was even more worrisome, reporting an estimated 6.4 million Americans ages 12 or older were misusing prescription drugs.

Misuse of prescription drugs is a serious problem in the U.S. and a 2013 report from the Substance Abuse for Mental Health Services Administration showed a related increase in emergency room visits, overdose deaths and addiction treatment services associated with prescription drugs.

Prescription Drug Abuse Defined

Prescription drug misuse or abuse is defined as any non-medical usage of a drug prescribed by a doctor or taking a medicine in any other dosage or manner other than prescribed. Examples include:

  • Taking prescription medicine to get high
  • Taking someone else’s prescription (even to alleviate a legitimate medical problem)
  • Taking a larger dose than your doctor prescribed
  • Taking your prescription medication more often than prescribed

The three classes of prescription drugs most commonly misused are opioids, sedatives and stimulants.

Prescription Opioids

Opioids are commonly prescribed by doctors to relieve pain. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine states opioid misuse has skyrocketed and is the one of the fastest growing forms of drug use in the United States. The amount of misinformation and skewed perceptions about the addictive properties of these drugs may be a large factor in this.

Common signs of prescription opioid abuse may include slurred speech, muscle twitches, constipation, loss of appetite, pinpoint pupils or lethargy. Frequently abused prescription opioids include:

    1. Tylenol 3 and Robitussin (Codeine) – Prescribed as a cough suppressant and pain reliever, this drug is also known by various other brand names. It is taken in tablet, liquid or capsule form.
    2. Sublimaze, Actiq, Duragesic (Fentanyl) – Commonly prescribed to relieve ongoing pain from cancer. It is most often administered in lozenge or patch form.
    3. Vicodin (Hydrocodone) – A powerful narcotic painkiller, this drug comes in capsule, liquid or tablet form and is swallowed, snorted or injected.
    4. Dilaudid (Hydromorphone) – Often prescribed for surgical patients in recovery to manage moderate to severe pain, this medication comes in pill or liquid form.
    5. Demerol (Meperidine) – This drug is a pain reliever and is also sometimes used to enhance anesthesia before or during surgery. It comes in tablet or liquid form.
    6. Dolophine, Methadose (Methadone) – This drug is prescribed for pain management or to help people cope with opioid addiction, but it is very addictive itself. It is taken in tablet or liquid form.
    7. Duramorph, Roxanol (Morphine) – This drug is used to treat chronic conditions and to manage extreme pain. It comes in tablet, liquid or capsule form. When misused, it is injected, swallowed or smoked.
    8. Opana (Oxymorphone) – Frequently prescribed to manage moderate to severe pain, this drug comes in tablet form and when misused, can be swallowed, snorted or injected.

Prescription Sedatives

When prescribed by a doctor, these medications are usually used to treat sleeping problems or anxiety. Signs of misuse may include slurred speech, loss of interest in recreational activities, loss of coordination, lethargy and possible short-term memory loss.

  1. Luminol (Phenobarbital) – This drug is a barbiturate and is typically prescribed on a short-term basis to treat insomnia, as emergency treatment for seizures or to put you to sleep before surgery. It commonly comes in liquid, pill or capsule form.
  2. Valium (Diazepam) – This barbiturate is prescribed to treat muscle spasms, anxiety, seizures and sometimes alcohol withdrawal. It comes in pill, liquid or capsule form.
  3. Xanax (Alprazolam) – This drug is a benzodiazepine and is used to treat serious anxiety or panic disorders. It is most often abused with alcohol.
  4. Ambien (Zolpidem) – This is a prescription sleep medication that is usually prescribed by a doctor for a few weeks. It is a pill, liquid or capsule and when abused, is swallowed or injected.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Signs of misuse may include delusions, hallucinations, weight loss, dilated pupils, trouble sleeping, hyperactivity, paranoia, trouble sleeping and loss of appetite.

  1. Adderall (Amphetamine and Dextroamphetamine) – This stimulant is commonly prescribed by doctors for treatment of sleep disorders and ADHD. It comes in tablet or capsule form.
  2. Ritalin (Methylphenidate) – Often prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD and narcolepsy, this drug is often misused as a study aid.

Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse

Just because the prevalence of prescription drug abuse is growing, doesn’t mean you are powerless to it. There are several things you can do to prevent the misuse of prescription drugs in your life and in the lives of those you care about.

  1. Always take medication as prescribed. Talk to your doctor about the risks and correct usage of your medication and carefully review the information the pharmacist provides before taking it.
  2. Let your doctor know what other medications you are taking. This includes any over-the-counter medications.
  3. Properly dispose of any unused medications. Authorized collectors will take any unused prescription medications you may have lying around the house. You may also flush some medications down the drain. Never give them away to friends or family members.
  4. Get a second opinion. If you’re unsure about taking a prescribed medication or think there are other options, ask your doctor for alternatives or visit another doctor.


  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.pdf
  2. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015.pdf
  3. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2013_Treatment_Episode_Data_Set_National/2013_Treatment_Episode_Data_Set_National.pdf
  4. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/summary
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3387517/
  6. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts
  7. https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rx_drugs_placemat_508c_10052011.pdf
  8. https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rrprescription.pdf
  9. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/ensuringsafeuseofmedicine/safedisposalofmedicines/ucm186187.htm

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