Prescription Drugs

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse affects millions of Americans and their families each year.

The misuse (non-medical use) of prescription drugs is a serious public health concern affecting us globally as well as right here in the United States.

Abuse of prescription drug categories ranging from opioid painkillers to central nervous system (CNS) depressants and stimulants can lead to both dependency and addiction, each of which can be characterized by compulsive drug seeking behavior and habitual use of harmful and excessive substances.

Take some time to learn more about prescription drug abuse and this epidemic as it affects our nation. For more information on spotting signs of a prescription substance problem, click here.

The US Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated one third of those over the age of 12 who tried drugs for the first time in 2009, did so by abusing a prescription drug. Further, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports over 6,000 first-time prescription drug abuse initiates per day in 2010–a trend which translated to a staggering annual 2.4 million new prescription pill abusers in the one year alone.

The abuse of prescribed medications has quickly become one of the most common forms of drug abuse among the American substance abusing population. A wide variety of prescription substances are abused, among them powerful painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulant medications and more.

Although we see a national epidemic in and amongst a number of different prescription drug categories, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports disturbing trends among opioid painkillers (drugs like OxyContin, oxycodone, hydrcodone, etc.) The abuse (or misuse) of these highly potent prescription pain relievers is reportedly linked to 3 out of 4 prescription drug overdose fatalities. In 2008 alone, opioid painkillers caused nearly 15,000 deaths–a number far greater than heroin and cocaine combined.

The CDC also reports a 300% increase in the sale of opioid painkiller drugs since 1999, a trend which parallels the increasing overdose deaths seen connected to prescription pain drug abuse. In addition to overdose-induced deaths, prescription misuse is also linked to over 400,000 emergency room visits annually.

Commonly Prescribed Medications: Use and Consequences


Oxycodone (OxyContin)
Propoxyphene (Darvon)
Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
Meperidine (Demerol)
Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
CNS DepressantsBarbiturates

Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal)


Diazepam (Valium)
Chlordiazepoxide hydrochloride (Librium)
Alprazolam (Xanax)
Triazolam (Halcion)
Estazolam (ProSom)

Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
Sibutramine hydrochloride monohydrate (Meridia)
Generally prescribed for

Postsurgical pain relief
Management of acute or chronic pain
Relief of coughs and diarrhea
Generally prescribed for

Panic attacks
Acute stress reactions
Sleep disorders
Anesthesia (at high doses)
Generally prescribed for

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Depression that does not respond to other treatment
Short-term treatment of obesity
In the bodyOpioids attach to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, blocking the transmission of pain messages to the brain. In the bodyCNS depressants slow brain activity through actions on the GABA system and, therefore, produce a calming effect. In the bodyStimulants enhance brain activity, causing an increase in alertness, attention, and energy.
Effects of short-term use

Blocked pain messages
Depressed respiration
(depending on dose)
Effects of short-term use

A “sleepy” and uncoordinated feeling during the first few days, as the body becomes accustomed to (tolerant of) the effects, these feelings diminish.
Effects of short-term use

Elevated blood pressure
Increased heart rate
Increased respiration
Suppressed appetite
Sleep deprivation
Effects of long-term use
Potential for tolerance, physical dependence, withdrawal, and/or addiction
Effects of long-term use
Potential for tolerance, physical dependence, withdrawal, and/or addiction
Effects of long-term use
Potential for addiction
Possible negative effects
Severe respiratory depression or death following a large single dose.
Possible negative effects
Seizures following a rebound in brain activity after reducing or discontinuing use.
Possible negative effects

Dangerously high body temperatures or an irregular heartbeat after taking high doses
Cardiovascular failure or lethal seizures
For some stimulants, hostility or feelings of paranoia after taking high doses repeatedly over a short period of time
Should not be used with
Other substances that cause CNS depression, including:

-General anesthetics
Should not be used with
Other substances that cause CNS depression, including:

-Prescription opioid pain medicines
-Some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications
Should not be used with

-Over-the-counter cold medicines containing decongestants
-Antidepressants, unless supervised by a physician.
-Some asthma medications

The information on this chart is courtesy of substance abuse expert, Terrence T. Gorski.

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