Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic within the United States. The misuse of prescription drugs has the potential to escalate to devastating consequences for the individuals using the medications, as well as affect those who surround them. Medications abused most often within the U.S. include opioid pain relievers, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. Regardless of an individual’s rationale for using prescription drugs non-medically, the action has a significant impact on their mental and physical health. Although the abuse of prescription drugs can have serious effects on one’s life, effective treatment is available to overcome this issue.

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?


The misuse of prescription drugs describes any consumption of prescription drugs, whether intentional or unintentional, that does not adhere to the manner in which it was prescribed, or the use of prescription drugs by someone they were not prescribed to. Taking prescription drugs in order to “get high” or feel a sense of euphoria is known as “prescription drug abuse.” Non-medical use of prescription drugs, or taking a prescription for any use other than medical concern, also falls into the category of misuse and abuse.

The three categories of drugs most commonly abused are opioid pain relievers, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants. Opioid pain relievers are typically prescribed to treat acute or chronic pain. Examples of common opioids include OxyContin® and Vicodin®. Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants are typically prescribed to treat psychiatric conditions such as sleep disorders or anxiety. Examples of CNS depressants include Xanax® and Ambien®. Stimulants are typically prescribed to treat attention deficit disorders (i.e. ADHD). Popular examples of stimulants include Adderall® and Ritalin®.

Facts and Statistics


The United States has witnessed a dramatic increase in the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs over the course of the past two decades. Approximately 54 million Americans have misused or abused prescription drugs within their lifetime. Females are reported as being more likely than their male counterparts to misuse or abuse prescription drugs, accounting for 54 percent of those who misused or abused prescription drugs on the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Young adults, age 18 to 25, are the age group most affected by prescription drug abuse. It is estimated that an average of 5,784 adolescents per day abuse prescription drugs for the first time in the typical year. Older adults are also at a significant risk for misusing and abusing prescription drugs, although they are more likely to do so unintentionally than their younger counterparts.

The abuse of prescription drugs has been accompanied by a substantial increase in emergency room visits, hospitalizations, accidental overdoses and unintentional deaths since 1999. A demonstration of the severity of the prescription drug abuse epidemic is reflected by the following statistics:

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Prescription Drug Abuse


Prescription drug abuse may not be immediately noticeable to friends and family members. Taking prescription medication according to a physician’s instructions is normal and occasional unintentional misuse can occur, but when an individual begins to abuse medication they may begin to exhibit more obvious symptoms of abuse.

Signs that someone may be addicted to prescription drugs include:

  • Demonstrating physical symptoms of use (i.e. slurred speech, lack of coordination)
  • Dramatic changes in lifestyle related to sleep and diet
  • Significant changes in mood or behavior
  • Sudden increase in consumption of their prescription
  • Borrowing money to buy prescription drugs from another individual
  • Becoming secretive about prescription drug use
  • Filling multiple prescriptions for the same form of medication
  • Asking or taking prescription drugs from a friend or family member

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Causes and Risk Factors of Prescription Drug Abuse


Individual rationale for misusing or abusing prescription drugs varies significantly from person to person. Specific demographics, including women and young adults, are at an increased risk for abusing prescription drugs. Reasons for misusing or abusing prescription drugs can range from pain management to the need to feel euphoric. The majority of those who report using prescription medication non-medically also report having obtained the medication from their friends or family members. Access to prescription drugs has commonly been cited as a major driver of the prescription drug addiction epidemic in the United States. Due to the fact that prescription drugs can be obtained from a visit to a physician, many people are under the impression that prescribed medications are not as dangerous as illicit drugs. The misconception that prescription drugs cannot be abused in the same way as illicit drugs has the potential to contribute to unintentional misuse and even overdose.

Additional reasons given for misusing or abusing prescription drugs includes:

  • Recreation
  • Focus
  • Alcohol use
  • Being under the influence of additional drugs
  • Mental health
  • Grief or emotional coping
  • To relax
  • Social pressure

Health Concerns

The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs can have severe health consequences. The impact that prescription drugs have on the body ranges from acute to chronic, as well as indirect to direct effects. The severity of the influence prescription drugs have on the human body is dependent upon the medication and dose taken, as well as the frequency of use. Prescription drug abuse not only impacts the individual using the drugs, but it can also put others at risk, especially infants born to pregnant women using prescription drugs.

The use of opioid pain relievers is associated with acute effects, including but not limited to:

  • Feelings of tiredness or exhaustion
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory distress
  • Overdose or death

The use of CNS depressants is associated with acute effects, including but not limited to:

  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Feelings of tiredness or exhaustion
  • Disorientation
  • Lack of coordination
  • Overdose or death

The use of stimulants is associated with acute effects, including but not limited to:

  • Increased temperature or fever
  • Paranoia
  • Increased heart rate

Short-term or acute effects of prescription drug abuse overall can include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in wakefulness or alertness
  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Increased or decreased blood pressure
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Stroke
  • Psychosis
  • Overdose or death

Long-term or chronic effects of prescription drug abuse overall can include:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Cancer
  • Mental illness
  • Prescription drug abuse disorder
  • Increased risk for HIV/AIDS
  • Increased risk for hepatitis
  • Liver disease or damage

It is especially concerning for older adults, those 50 and older, to misuse or abuse prescription drugs, as they are the age group most likely to experience adverse health effects from medications. Older adults are more likely to experience negative health outcomes due to the fact that they are at risk for increased sensitivity to medications, and are more likely to have slower metabolisms and slower elimination of medication from their bodies. This population is at an increased risk for medication misuse as they are more likely than other age groups to be prescribed medication for anxiety, sleep disorders, and chronic pain. Those belonging to this age group are also more likely to be affected by combining alcohol with prescription drugs, leading to unintentional overdose.

Prescription Drug Abuse Treatment and Prognosis


If you or a loved one is concerned about someone’s use of prescription drugs, it may be time to seek professional help and treatment. Prescription drug addiction has devastating effects on one’s health and wellbeing. The process of ending the abuse of prescription drugs can be challenging and is best accomplished at a residential treatment facility using evidence-based therapies, integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders, active peer support, and a focus on relapse prevention. Ceasing the use of prescription drugs, specifically opioid pain relievers, can cause a person to have serious withdrawal symptoms, making an inpatient prescription drug abuse program the best option for someone to safely detox in a supporting and professional environment to work through his or her addiction for a lasting recovery.