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What Is Prescription Drug Abuse? The 6 Most Commonly Abused Substances

Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse: Causes, Risks, and Help


Prescription drug abuse has been one of the fastest growing substance abuse problems in the United States. After alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances. Prescription drug abuse can also be harder to identify or pin down because the drug is usually prescribed by a medical professional. Prescriptions may initially be given for chronic pain, injury recovery, or psychiatric conditions, but at some point misuse turns into abuse.

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse can start with taking medication without a prescription, taking more than prescribed, or using it for a different reason than the doctor prescribed. If any of these incidents happens accidentally or only once, they are usually classified as misuse. When it becomes a habit and you become dependent on the cycle of misuse, these can all turn into forms of abuse.

When you intentionally use a prescription medication in a manner other than what was prescribed by your doctor, then you are abusing that medication. The misuse can easily become an addiction. There are many reasons why someone may begin abusing prescription drugs. These may include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Injury recovery
  • Psychiatric conditions
  • Social pressure
  • Experimentation
  • Stress relief
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Increased alertness or concentration for work or school.

Because many prescription drugs activate the reward center of the brain, a person can become addicted to them very quickly. Despite harmful side effects and cycles of addiction, you may not be able to stop abusing the prescription drugs without external treatment.

And prescription drug abuse affects individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you’re young and experimenting, or elderly with chronic pain, prescription drug abuse is widespread across age groups and demographics. The types of drugs that people commonly abuse include painkillers, stimulants, and sedatives.

Why Is Prescription Drug Abuse So Prevalent?

According to the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, the number of adults abusing prescription drugs increased from 4.9 million to 12.5 million in just 20 years. Opioids prescribed for pain relief are the most commonly abused prescription.

Everyone is susceptible to abusing substances, but prescription drug abuse is particularly dangerous for young people since it can start off as misuse and quickly turn into full-blown addiction. Those at a higher risk for prescription drug abuse also include people who have a background of mental illness, having past or present substance abuse issues, being exposed to social pressures, and having easy access to prescription drugs. Though the focus is often on young people, older people who take multiple medications are also at risk for inadvertent misuse that can become an addiction later on.

What Are The 7 Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs?


Amphetamines are one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs. They are classified as stimulants prescribed by doctors to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD and ADHD) and narcolepsy. Examples include dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) and combination amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall). Because these drugs are commonly prescribed, they also have a high likelihood of being abused or misused. Over long periods of time, the misuse of amphetamines can cause high blood pressure, seizures, heart attack, stroke, paranoia, aggressiveness, and even hallucinations.


Hydrocodone is an opioid and is often available in combination with other ingredients. It is more commonly known by its brand name, Vicodin, which is combined with acetaminophen. Vicodin is normally prescribed for acute pain and injury recovery, and it is one of the most abused prescription drugs. The misuse and abuse of Vicodin (and other opioids) can lead to side effects such as excessive drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. More serious effects include confusion, low blood pressure, unconsciousness, coma, and even death. Vicodin becomes even more dangerous when combined with alcohol or other depressants.


Also an opioid, Oxycontin is a slow-release form of the narcotic drug oxycodone. It is commonly prescribed for chronic pain conditions because it provides relief over a longer period of time. Because of how commonly prescribed it is, Oxycontin is also commonly misused and abused. As with most opioids, Oxycontin is highly addictive. The drug can become extremely dangerous when the tablet is crushed down into powder, which eliminates the slow release. As a result, the powder becomes extremely potent and can be even be lethal if taken with other substances or in excess.

Cough Medicine

Another more surprising and yet commonly abused prescription drug is prescription cough medicine. These cough medicines often contain opioids, such as codeine, and antihistamines to help soothe coughing spells. Similar to Vicodin and other opioids, abusing these medications directly affects the central nervous system. Sometimes cough medicines bought over the counter can also lead to misuse. These cough medicines often contain the stimulant known as dextromethorphan. Taking too much can lead to increased heart rate, blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, slurred speech, and even paranoia. Although given over-the-counter, this does not mean that the medicine is harmless or unable to be misused.


Unlike the above stimulants, Benzodiazepines are depressants of the central nervous system. This means that they slow down both brain function and nervous system activity. “Benzos,” as they’re commonly called, fall under the category of sedatives or mild tranquilizers. Usually prescribed to treat insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks, examples of Benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), and clonazepam (Klonopin). Misuse and abuse of these prescriptions them can cause a range of side effects, including confusion, dizziness, impaired coordination and memory, and low blood pressure. Combining them with alcohol increases the risk of breathing problems and possibly even death.


The main ingredient found in Ritalin is Methylphenidate (also found in Concerta) and is a commonly abused stimulant. Like amphetamines, Ritalin is often prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. In addition to the likelihood of abusing other stimulants, the side effects of abusing methylphenidate can result in increased or decreased blood pressure, digestive issues, decreased appetite, and weight loss.

Getting Help with Prescription Drug Abuse

The fact that doctors prescribe such medications makes them seem less threatening. But as this summary shows, misuse and abuse of prescription drugs are common and very dangerous. If you or a loved one is struggling with prescription drug abuse, reach out to a treatment center today to get help and begin the process of recovery.

To learn more about how to start your healing journey at Impact Recovery, get in touch with a member of our team here.