The Most Abused Prescription Drugs

Discover the most abused prescription drugs, their effects, and how to address addiction.

By Rosewood Recovery Team
July 10, 2024

Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is a significant issue affecting individuals across the globe. To address this problem, it is important to first understand the definition of misuse and the scope of the issue.

Definition of Misuse

Misuse of prescription drugs refers to using these medications in a manner other than prescribed by a healthcare professional. This can include taking higher dosages, using the drugs for non-medical purposes, or combining them with other substances to enhance their effects. It is crucial to adhere to the prescribed dosage and instructions to avoid potential health risks and complications.

Scope of the Issue

Prescription drug misuse is a widespread problem that affects individuals of various ages and backgrounds. In the United States alone, there is a significant scope of prescription drug misuse among people aged 12 or older. The 2022 Monitoring the Future Survey revealed that young people in the United States have engaged in prescription drug misuse.

Certain types of prescription drugs are more commonly abused than others. The most frequently misused prescription drugs include:

  • Opioid painkillers: These medications are often prescribed to manage severe pain, but they carry a high risk of dependence and addiction when misused.
  • Anti-anxiety medicines: Drugs such as benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety disorders, but their sedating effects can be addictive.
  • Sedatives: These medications, also known as tranquilizers, are prescribed to treat sleep disorders and anxiety. When misused, they can lead to harmful consequences.
  • Stimulants: Drugs like amphetamines are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy but can be misused for their euphoric and energy-boosting effects.

Understanding the most abused prescription drugs is crucial in addressing the issue and implementing effective prevention strategies. It is important to promote awareness about the potential risks and consequences associated with prescription drug misuse. Through education, counseling, and support, individuals can seek the help they need and overcome prescription drug abuse.

In the subsequent sections, we will explore the effects of prescription drug abuse, ways to address the issue, and strategies for prevention.

Most Abused Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse is a growing concern, and certain medications are more commonly misused than others. Understanding which drugs are frequently abused can help raise awareness and promote prevention efforts. The most abused prescription drugs include opioid painkillers, anti-anxiety medicines, sedatives, and stimulants.

Opioid Painkillers

Opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone (found in OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, and Roxicodone), are among the most abused prescription drugs [1]. These medications are often abused by crushing, snorting, or injecting them, significantly raising the risk of overdose. Street names for these drugs include "oxy," "O.C.," "oxycotton" for OxyContin, and "percs" for Percocet or Percodan.

Hydrocodone-containing drugs like Vicodin, Lortab, and Lorcet are also opioids that can be misused. They can cause drowsiness, constipation, and dangerous breathing problems in high doses. Street names for Vicodin include "vike" and "Watson-387." Withdrawal symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, indicating dependence.

Anti-Anxiety Medicines

Anti-anxiety medicines, particularly benzodiazepines, are commonly misused. These medications, including Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin, are prescribed to manage anxiety disorders and panic attacks. However, they can also produce a sense of relaxation and euphoria when taken in higher doses or without a prescription. Misuse of benzodiazepines can lead to respiratory depression, sedation, and even overdose [1].


Sedatives, such as sleep medications and barbiturates, are often misused due to their calming effects. Drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata are prescribed to treat insomnia, but their misuse can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Barbiturates, though less commonly prescribed today, can still be misused and pose significant risks. Overdosing on sedatives can cause respiratory depression and potentially be life-threatening.


Stimulant medications, primarily prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are also subject to misuse. Drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta can increase focus and alertness when used as prescribed. However, higher doses or non-medical use can lead to dangerous side effects such as a rise in body temperature, irregular heartbeat, and even cardiac arrest. Common nicknames for amphetamines include "bennies," "black beauties," and "speed".

It's important to note that the misuse of prescription drugs can have severe consequences, including addiction, physical health risks, and emotional impact. If you or someone you know is struggling with prescription drug abuse, seeking help from qualified professionals is essential. Treatment options, counseling, and support groups can provide the necessary resources and guidance for recovery. For more information on addiction treatment and support, visit our article on qualities of effective addiction treatment centers and what does a drug abuse counselor do?.

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse can have significant effects on both physical and emotional well-being, while also being recognized as an illness. Understanding these effects is crucial in addressing the consequences of misuse.

Physical Health Risks

Prescription drug abuse carries an immediate threat to physical health. The misuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, can lead to unintentional overdose, respiratory depression, cardiac arrest, coma, and even death. The long-term physical side effects worsen over time as tolerance to the drug increases. This often results in the need for higher doses, leading to various health issues.

The specific physical health risks vary depending on the type of drug being abused. For example, opioid painkillers can cause respiratory problems, constipation, and increased sensitivity to pain. Meanwhile, stimulant abuse can lead to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and even seizures. It's important to note that each prescription drug carries its own set of risks, and the consequences can be severe if the drugs are misused or taken without medical supervision.

Emotional Impact

The emotional effects of prescription drug abuse can be equally devastating. Individuals who abuse prescription drugs may experience feelings of hopelessness, shame, depression, dissatisfaction, and even suicidal thoughts. The continued abuse can lead to a loss of enjoyment in day-to-day life and a sense of entrapment.

Furthermore, the emotional impact extends beyond the individual struggling with addiction. Family members and loved ones often experience emotional distress, including feelings of concern, frustration, and helplessness. The ripple effect of prescription drug abuse can strain relationships and create a challenging environment for everyone involved.

Addiction as an Illness

Prescription drug addiction is recognized as a legitimate illness and disorder. It is not simply a matter of willpower or moral failing. When prescription drugs are misused, the brain undergoes chemical and structural alterations that lead to compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Individuals may continue taking prescription drugs not because they want to, but because they feel they have to due to the changes in the brain [4].

Addiction is characterized by progression, compulsion, and relapse. Recovery from prescription drug addiction becomes more challenging with prolonged abuse, as the brain sustains more damage the longer the abuse continues. Seeking professional help and support is crucial in addressing addiction and achieving long-term recovery. Substance abuse counseling and effective addiction treatment centers are valuable resources for individuals seeking assistance in overcoming prescription drug addiction [5].

By understanding the physical and emotional effects of prescription drug abuse and recognizing it as an illness, individuals can take proactive steps towards recovery and regain control over their lives. It is important to seek help, whether for oneself or for a loved one, in order to address the underlying issues and navigate the path to recovery [6]. Remember, recovery is possible, and support is available for those who seek it.

Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse

When it comes to addressing prescription drug abuse, there are various treatment options available to individuals seeking help. These options typically include counseling and support, as well as withdrawal and detoxification.

Treatment Options

Treatment options for prescription drug abuse can vary depending on the specific drug involved and the individual's needs. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or addiction specialist to determine the most appropriate course of action. According to Mayo Clinic, counseling is often a key component of treatment for prescription drug abuse. Counseling can be provided on an individual, group, or family basis, and it aims to address the underlying causes of drug abuse, develop coping mechanisms, and support recovery.

Counseling and Support

For individuals struggling with prescription drug abuse, seeking counseling and support is crucial. A licensed alcohol and drug counselor or other addiction specialist can provide guidance, assistance, and a listening ear. Individual counseling sessions can help individuals explore the root causes of their addiction, develop strategies to overcome cravings, and work towards long-term recovery. Group counseling can also be beneficial, as it provides a supportive environment where individuals can share their experiences, learn from others, and build a network of support. Family counseling may be particularly important, as it can help mend relationships strained by addiction and foster a supportive and understanding family environment.

Withdrawal and Detoxification

Depending on the specific prescription drug and the extent of its use, withdrawal and detoxification may be necessary components of treatment. Withdrawal refers to the physical and psychological symptoms that occur when an individual stops using a drug. It can be a challenging and uncomfortable process, and it is important to undergo withdrawal under the guidance of a healthcare provider. This ensures safety and minimizes the risk of complications. Detoxification involves the process of removing the drug from the body and managing withdrawal symptoms. It may be done on an outpatient or inpatient basis, depending on the severity of the addiction and the individual's needs. To learn more about withdrawal symptoms specific to certain drugs, such as oxycodone, check out our article on oxycodone withdrawal symptoms.

Addressing prescription drug abuse requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses counseling, support, and appropriate medical interventions. By seeking the help and guidance of healthcare professionals and addiction specialists, individuals can embark on a path towards recovery, healing, and a drug-free life. Remember, recovery is a journey, and with the right support, it is possible to overcome prescription drug abuse and reclaim a healthier and happier future.

Prevention Strategies

To combat the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, various prevention strategies have been implemented at both the state and federal levels. These strategies aim to address the issue from multiple angles, including monitoring programs, federal initiatives, and abuse-deterrent formulations.

Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs

Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs) are state-run electronic databases used to track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs to patients. PDMPs have been associated with lower rates of opioid prescribing and overdose in some states. These programs allow healthcare providers to monitor patients' medication histories and identify potential instances of drug misuse or diversion.

PDMPs provide valuable information to healthcare professionals, helping them make informed decisions when prescribing controlled substances. By identifying patterns of excessive medication use or potential doctor shopping, PDMPs can help prevent the overprescribing of medications and reduce the risk of addiction and overdose. These programs also facilitate communication and collaboration among healthcare providers, ensuring coordinated care and safer prescribing practices.

Federal Initiatives

In response to the growing opioid crisis, the federal government has taken significant steps to address opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose. In 2015, efforts were initiated to reduce overdose and prevent opioid use disorders. This led to coordinated federal actions and the establishment of initiatives like the National Institutes of Health's Helping End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative.

The HEAL Initiative focuses on advancing scientific research to improve prevention strategies, develop new treatments, and enhance pain management options. By investing in research and innovation, the federal government aims to find sustainable solutions to address the challenges posed by prescription drug misuse and addiction. These initiatives also promote public awareness and education, fostering a better understanding of the risks associated with prescription drug abuse.

Abuse-Deterrent Formulations

Manufacturers are developing abuse-deterrent formulations (ADF) of opioid medications to prevent misuse by snorting or injection. These formulations have been effective in decreasing the illicit value of drugs, making them less appealing for abuse. Some ADF opioids are already available on the market, and the FDA has called for the development of abuse-deterrent stimulants as well.

By incorporating technologies that make it more difficult to tamper with the drug, such as adding physical barriers or substances that discourage misuse, abuse-deterrent formulations aim to deter individuals from using prescription drugs in unintended ways. These efforts can help prevent the misuse of opioids and reduce the risk of addiction and overdose.

In addition to these prevention strategies, regulatory measures have also played a role in reducing prescription drug misuse. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassified hydrocodone products from schedule III to schedule II in 2014, leading to decreased prescribing without significant increases in the prescribing of other opioids. This demonstrates the effectiveness of medication regulation in reducing opioid prescribing.

By implementing these prevention strategies and continuing to explore new approaches, healthcare providers, policymakers, and researchers aim to mitigate the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, safeguarding the well-being of individuals and communities.

Approaching Loved Ones

When someone you care about is struggling with substance abuse, it can be challenging to know how to approach the situation. However, offering support and understanding can make a significant difference in their journey toward recovery. Here are some key steps to consider when approaching your loved ones.

Overcoming Denial

One of the first obstacles in addressing addiction is overcoming denial. Individuals struggling with addiction may be in denial about the severity of their problem or may try to downplay the impact of their substance abuse. It's essential to approach them with empathy and understanding, creating a safe space for open and honest communication.

To help your loved one overcome denial, provide specific examples of their behavior or consequences they may have faced as a result of their substance abuse. Encourage them to reflect on their actions and the impact it has had on their life and the lives of those around them. Let them know that you are there to support them and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Seeking Help

Encouraging your loved one to seek professional help is crucial in their journey toward recovery. Treatment options for prescription drug abuse vary depending on the type of drug used and individual needs. Counseling is often a key component of treatment, and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor or addiction specialist can provide individual, group, or family counseling.

Approach the topic of seeking help with compassion and understanding. Share resources and information about addiction treatment centers, support groups, and counseling services. Let your loved one know that they are not alone in their struggle and that professional help is available to guide them through the recovery process. Be prepared for resistance and understand that it may take time for them to fully accept the need for help.

Supporting Recovery

Supporting someone in their recovery journey is crucial for long-term success. Provide emotional support by being a good listener and offering encouragement. Attend support group meetings or therapy sessions with your loved one if appropriate, demonstrating your commitment to their well-being.

Educate yourself about prescription drug addiction, including the specific drug your loved one is struggling with. Understand the challenges they may face during the recovery process, such as oxycodone withdrawal symptoms, and be prepared to offer support and understanding during difficult times.

Encourage healthy habits and activities that promote overall well-being, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress-reducing techniques. Help create a supportive environment by removing triggers or substances that could potentially lead to relapse.

Remember, recovery is a lifelong process, and your ongoing support can make a significant difference. Be patient, understanding, and non-judgmental. Celebrate their milestones and acknowledge their efforts, no matter how small they may seem. With your support, your loved one can move toward a healthier and happier life free from the grips of prescription drug addiction.

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