Prescription drug abuse: The most commonly addictive drugs


Between 30-50 percent of people who take medications under a medical prescription in the United States don’t do so in the indicated manner and have an addiction to them.

Statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) show that 52 million people have used prescription drugs without needing them at least once in their lives.

Addiction to prescription drugs is the third most common cause of substance abuse in people 14 years old and up, only surpassed by alcohol and marijuana.

When consumption of a prescription drug is considered “abuse”

According to the National Institute against Drug Abuse, prescription drug abuse  happens when someone takes a medication that wasn’t prescribed for them, when they use it for a different condition than the one it was prescribed for, and when they ingest a higher dose or in a different manner from what the doctor indicated.

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, the most abused pharmaceuticals are:

  • Analgesics
  • Sedatives
  • Stimulants

Abuse of prescription analgesics

Analgesics are medicines for pain relief derived from opiates. Their negative effects, explains the National Library of Medicine, are:

  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth
  • Stupor
  • Lack of coordination
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness

Analgesics are particularly dangerous when used in combination with alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, and if they’re taken in excess, they can become so addictive that they have been linked with accidental overdoses causing death.

Some prescription medications that are derived from opium are:

  • Hydrocodone (known by its commercial name, Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (sold under the name Oxycontin)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Tramadol
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydromorphone
  • Meperidine

Illustration of a pill with a brain inside

Abuse of tranquilizers or sedatives

Sedatives are central nervous system depressants. Their function, according to the National Library of Medicine, is to diminish the brain’s normal functioning in order to produce an effect of calm or sleepiness. They are called barbiturates and benzodiazepines, and generally they’re prescribed for anxiety disorders, panic attacks and sleep disorders.

Barbiturates include:

  • Amytal
  • Nembutal
  • Fenobarbital
  • Seconal

Benzodiazepines are better known by their commercial names:

  • Aprazolam (Xanax)
  • Loazepam (Ativan)
  • Diazepam (Valium)

Medications for sleep are also abused, such as Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta.

When sedatives are taken in excess or not following the doctor’s instruction, explains the National Library of Medicine, the sedatives can have very harmful effects on the body, among them:

  • Diminished attention
  • Loss of judgment
  • Problems with coordination
  • Low blood pressure
  • Difficulties with memory
  • Problems with diction
  • Dizzy spells
  • Withdrawal when they’re not taken after prolonged use

Addiction to sedatives may also lower the heart and respiratory rhythm, especially when combined with other medicines, alcohol or over the counter medications for the flu and allergies.

Stimulant abuse

Stimulants are substances that accelerate the transmission of messages between the brain and the body, so that the person will be more alert and active.

According to the National Library of Medicine, stimulants are prescribed for attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, depression, and narcolepsy, a condition that provokes episodes of irresistible sleepiness during the day, because the brain has difficulty controlling when to sleep and when to stay awake.

The best known ones are as follows:


  • Adderall
  • Bifetamin
  • Dexedrine


  • Ritalin
  • Metadate
  • Quillivant
  • Concerta

According to the National Library of Medicine, stimulants produce a sense of euphoria, are addictive and if they’re abused they can trigger serious disorders in the body, such as:

  • Aggressive, violent behavior
  • Extremely high temperature
  • Convulsions
  • Delirium or hallucinations
  • Dizziness and irregular heartbeat
  • Rise in blood pressure
  • Compression of the blood vessels and opening of respiratory conducts
  • High risk of stroke

Prescription drug abuse is on the rise

Although experts on the topic say they can’t exactly identify why it’s happening, The National Institute Against Drug Abuse attributes the rise in abuse of pharmaceutical to the fact that today it is easier than ever to get prescription medications, and that many consider them to be safer than illicit drugs.

Another factor is how easily medicines that normally require a prescription can be freely obtained on the Internet.

Many medications are sold under a prescription because they can be addictive, and most doctors will only renew the prescription if the patient visits the office so they can make sure the patient is not developing an addiction.

According to Born Healthy by the March of Dimes, pregnant women must be especially careful and follow faithfully their doctor’s instructions when taking prescription medications in order to avoid premature delivery and birth defects.

If you’re expecting a baby, talk to your doctor before taking any type of medication, even if it’s over the counter.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), offers an informative page, where there’s more on the topic.

Additional information about specific medications by category, how they’re used and their health risks is available at: Selected Prescription Drugs With Potential For Abuse

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