About Prescription Drug Abuse

When used appropriately, prescription drugs are safe and vitally needed by millions of Americans suffering from pain, disease and mental illness. The threat to public health and safety comes from the escalating misuse, abuse and diversion of prescription drugs. Often people mistakenly believe that because prescription drugs are legal or are prescribed by a doctor, they are safer than illicit drugs. Research clearly shows, however, that when prescription medications are used in ways other than they are prescribed, they can be very harmful and sometimes addictive.

Abuse, misuse, or the nonmedical use of prescription drugs is defined as taking a higher-than-prescribed dose of a pharmaceutical, taking a pharmaceutical prescribed for another individual, malicious poisoning of another person, or substance abuse involving pharmaceuticals.

The consequences of misusing prescription medications can include:

  • Overdose
  • Toxic reactions
  • Drug interactions that can lead to life-threatening conditions such as respiratory distress, hypertension or hypotension, seizures and death.

What Prescription Drugs Are Most Often Abused?

  • Opioids or pain relievers like OxyContin or Vicodin
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants like Valium, Librium, or Xanax used to treat anxiety, panic, sleep disorders, acute stress reactions, and muscle spasms
  • Stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall typically prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy
  • Anabolic-androgenic steroids like Anadrol or Equipoise, which enhance athletic performance and body sculpting

How Do People Get Prescription Drugs?

The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration indicates that prescription drugs are easily obtainable through family, friends and health care professionals (including doctors, dentists and pharmacists). 70 to 80 percent of people ages 12 and older surveyed in the 2010 Monitoring the Future Study said they got their drugs from a friend or relative and, very likely, those came from the family medicine cabinet. Only 4.3 percent got the pain relievers from a drug dealer or other stranger. Parents and other caregivers should store their prescription drugs carefully and dispose of any unused drugs before they fall into the wrong hands. The Internet is also contributing to the prescription drug problem. Often online pharmacies do not require prescriptions or appropriate identity verification. Thus, almost anyone with a credit card number who has access to a computer is able to obtain drugs online.

What Are the Health Effects of Prescription Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drugs?

People often think that prescription and OTC drugs are safer than illicit drugs, but that’s only true when taken exactly as prescribed and for the purpose intended. When abused, prescription and OTC drugs can be addictive and put abusers at risk for other adverse health effects, including overdose – especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol.

Stimulants can have strong effects on the cardiovascular system. Taking high doses of a stimulant can dangerously raise body temperature and cause irregular heartbeat or even heart failure or seizures. Also, taking some stimulants in high doses or repeatedly can lead to hostility and feelings of paranoia.

Opioids can produce drowsiness, cause constipation and – depending on the amount taken – depress breathing. The latter effects makes opioids particularly dangerous, especially when they are snorted or injected or combined with other drugs or alcohol.

CNS depressants can slow brain activity and cause sleepiness and loss of coordination.

Dextromethorphan can cause impaired motor function, numbness, nausea or vomiting, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. On rare occasions, hypoxic brain damage – caused by severe respiratory depression and lack of oxygen to the brain – has occurred due to the combination of dextromethorphan with decongestants often found in the medication.

What You Can Do?

Because prescription drugs are legal, they are easily accessible. Parents, law enforcement, the medical community, and all levels of government have a role to play in reducing prescription drug abuse. Here are some things you can do to reduce the abuse of prescription drugs:

  • Follow disposal guidelines: No matter who you are, you can help address this issue in your home. By following the guidelines, you reduce the risk of unintentional diversion or harm. Learn how to dispose of unused medicines, read the frequently asked questions about safe drug disposal, and get information on drug poisoning.
  • Talk to your kids: It’s important that our children learn about the use and abuse of prescription drugs. For tips on having conversations with kids, read Time to Talk for tools to talk to preschoolers and grade-schoolers, Teen Culture or tips with teens, and view sample conversation starters.
  • Take advantage of community take-back programs: Call your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service or your local police or sheriff’s department to see if a take-back program is available in your community.
  • Seek treatment and support individuals in recovery: If you or a loved one needs help with substance abuse, find a treatment center near you today. Thousands of individuals who have struggled with addition have now living healthy and happy lives with the help of treatment and recovery services.


To learn more about the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change or to get more information about our alcohol and drug treatment programs, please contact us at 866-242-6670.