The 7 Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
Almost everyone has received a prescription at one time or another. Prescription drugs are assigned to patients to help them overcome a medical issue, from chronic pain to trouble sleeping. But these beneficial medicines and pain relievers also have a dark side. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, making prescriptions the most commonly abused drugs after marijuana and alcohol.
What Constitutes Drug Abuse?
While medications are effective when taken correctly, some are addictive and dangerous — especially when taken without a prescription, used for reasons other than the prescribed purpose, or taken in more than the recommended dosage. And although most individuals take their prescription drugs responsibly, experts estimate that 52 million people have taken them for non-medical reasons or without a prescription at least once in their lifetime.
Even when well-intended, such behaviors can quickly spiral into drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse plays into our human physiology and doesn't discriminate, affecting people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and creeds.
Which Prescription Drugs Are Most Abused?
Due to their physical interactions, some drugs tend to be abused more than others. The three classes of prescription drugs that are most often abused are:
- Opioids: prescribed for pain relief
- CNS depressants: sedatives or tranquilizers prescribed for anxiety and sleep problems
- Stimulants: prescribed for obesity, sleep disorders like narcolepsy, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Specifically, here are seven of the most commonly abused prescription drugs.
Amphetamines are stimulants prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine are brand names of a few popular but highly addictive amphetamines. Some people use them to boost energy and alertness, keep their weight down, and get high. Abusing or misusing these drugs can cause seizures, heart attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, and aggressiveness.
Vicodin, Lortab, and Lorcet are three of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the United States. All three of these drugs combine the opioid hydrocodone — a narcotic medication that acts on the brain to relieve major pain — with acetaminophen, which relieves minor aches and pains and reduces fever.
Taking these drugs in a way not indicated by your doctor can easily lead to addiction. Side effects include slowed breathing, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, unconsciousness, or coma. Combining these drugs with alcohol or other sedatives will increase the risks of these side effects, making this Schedule II narcotic even more dangerous.
Oxycodone is another form of prescription painkiller that dulls pain if taken as directed but can cause a euphoric high in larger doses. Medications that utilize oxycodone include common options like Percocet, morphine, and OxyContin.
Percocet is typically used to treat moderate to severe pain, combining oxycodone with acetaminophen to target specific opioid receptors and provide feelings of pain relief, relaxation, and euphoria. Morphine is typically prescribed for severe around-the-clock pain that cannot be relieved by any other medications.
OxyContin is a slow-release form of oxycodone. Doctors tend to prescribe it for chronic pain like cancer and arthritis because it lasts for many hours. However, OxyContin is highly addictive and one of the most significant contributors to the opioid pandemic. Addicts often crush the medication to snort or inject it. In this case, instead of the narcotic slowly releasing in small doses over the course of 12 hours, crushing it releases the full amount all at once, which can cause fatal overdoses.
4. Codeine/Cough Medicine
Prescription cough medicines often contain codeine and strong antihistamines that can affect the central nervous system if taken in more than the recommended dose. Again, abusing opioids — including cough syrup with codeine — is highly addictive and gives the user feelings of pain relief, relaxation, and euphoria. But such abuse can lead to overdose and even death.
Over-the-counter cough medicines can also lead to issues. They often contain the drug dextromethorphan (DXM), a stimulant that can get you high and lead to increased heart rate, dizziness, slurred speech, and even hallucinations if you take too much. It is popular among teenagers because it is easy to find. Just because something is over-the-counter does not necessarily mean that it is safe for at-will usage. Always abide by the dosages and instructions on the packaging.
Sometimes referred to as "benzos," these central nervous system depressants slow down brain and nervous system activity. As such, doctors often prescribe them to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin fall into this category as sedatives and mild tranquilizers. But taking more than recommended can cause dizziness, confusion, impaired coordination, breathing problems, and death. Combining benzos with alcohol or other prescriptions increases these risks.
Barbiturates are another central nervous system depressant that may be prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Nembutal and Seconal are the two most popular. But when abused, barbiturate sedatives have the same risks and side effects as benzodiazepines, with the added possibility of fever and life-threatening withdrawals.
Popular in both prescription and non-prescription cold medicines, pseudoephedrine is a decongestant that helps to clear stuffy noses. However, it is also an ingredient used to make methamphetamine. To prevent this form of prescription drug abuse, there are laws to regulate and control the purchase of these products, and they are typically kept behind store counters. Individuals must present a photo ID and are limited in the amount they can legally purchase each month. Stores are also required to keep the purchaser's personal information on file for at least two years.
Statistics on Prescription Drug Abuse
Prescription drug abuse is a continually growing problem, especially in the United States. Consider the following statistics are from The Recovery Village, part of the Advanced Recovery Systems nationwide network of addiction treatment facilities:
- There are currently approximately 16 million people in the United States who abuse these medications.
- In general, men are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than women.
- Many individuals mistakenly believe prescription drugs are safer than street drugs.
- Full-time college students are twice as likely to use a stimulant for nonmedical reasons than those not enrolled in college.
- Approximately 1 in 4 teenagers reports abusing or misusing a prescription drug.
Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse
Knowing how addictive and dangerous certain prescription medicines can be, individuals need to be vigilant with their dosage. You should also monitor side effects, recognize when a problem might be developing, and alert a medical professional before addiction takes over.
If you ever have questions or are unsure about something, ask your doctor and read the information provided by your pharmacist. Tell your doctor about the vitamins and medications you are currently taking, including over-the-counter ones, and then follow all dosages as prescribed.
If you live with other people, keep all your medications, prescription or otherwise, secured at all times. Monitor the amounts to ensure that abuse is not happening in your household. If you no longer use certain prescriptions, properly dispose of them rather than leave them sitting around in your cabinets.
If you suspect a loved one is abusing prescription drugs, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for free referrals and information. All phone calls are confidential.
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