Prescription Medication Use & Addiction

Prescription drug abuse is the intentional use of a medication without a prescription, in a way other than as prescribed, or for the experience or feeling it causes (for the “high”). It is a problem that deserves attention, especially from healthcare professionals. While prescription drugs can be powerful healing tools, they also pose serious health risks related to their abuse.31

In 2013, 6.5 million Americans aged 12 or older (2.5%) had used prescription drugs nonmedically in the past month.30 Additionally, there were approximately 2 million persons aged 12 or older who used psychotherapeutics nonmedically for the first time within the past year, which averages to approximately 5,500 initiates per day.38 The classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused are: opioid pain relievers, such as Vicodin® or OxyContin®; stimulants for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall®, Concerta®, or Ritalin®; and central nervous system (CNS) depressants for relieving anxiety, such as Valium® or Xanax®.1

Prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications account for most of the commonly abused drugs by high school seniors (Figure 9). After alcohol and marijuana, Rx and OTC medications are the most commonly abused substances by Americans age 14 and older. When asked how prescription narcotics were obtained for nonmedical use, 70% of 12th graders said they were given to them by a friend or relative.31

Figure 9.

Bar graph of past-year use of various drugs by 12th graders.

There are several factors that contribute to prescription drug abuse:

  • Misperceptions about their safety. Because these medications are prescribed by doctors, many patients assume the medications are safe to take under any circumstances. This is not the case. Prescription drugs act directly or indirectly on the same brain systems affected by illicit drugs. Using a medication other than as prescribed can lead to a variety of adverse health effects including overdose, addiction or death.
  • Increasing availability. Between 1991 and 2010, prescriptions for stimulants increased from 5 million to nearly 45 million and for opioid analgesics from about 75.5 million to 209.5 million.
  • Motivations to abuse. Patients may use prescription drugs to get high; to counter anxiety, pain, or sleep problems; or to enhance cognition. Whatever the motivation, prescription drug abuse comes with serious risks.31