Prescription Drugs: Use and Abuse

Blue clipboard with a paper prescription attached and five pill capsules on top.

Some prescription drugs used to treat problems, such as pain, anxiety or sleep disorders, can become addictive and even deadly when misused. Misuse is defined as taking a drug for non-medical reasons, when more of the drug is used than prescribed or when you mix it with other drugs or alcohol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified the increase in annual deaths from drug overdose as epidemic. The center reports 45 Americans die each day overdosing on prescription drugs. That’s higher than the deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. Approximately half of these deaths involve combining a prescription drug with at least one other drug.

Surveys and research studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show the dramatic rise in prescription drug abuse corresponds to a similar increase in the number of prescriptions written.

  • More prescriptions being written mean more opportunities for abuse.
  • Some patients believe drugs prescribed by doctors are safer than other substances.
  • Those with chronic pain run the risk of being overmedicated.
  • Patients can jump from doctor to doctor and get multiple controlled-substance prescriptions.

Who is abusing prescription drugs?


resources to help your teen avoid substance abuse and dependence.

Certain groups seem to be at greater risk for abusing prescription drugs:

  • Service members
  • Adolescents and young adults
  • Middle-aged women
  • Older adult

The increase seems to come from the spike in combat-related injuries for service members, availability for younger users, the need for chronic pain management and the ease of jumping from doctor to doctor.

What are the most commonly abused prescription drugs?


how to spot the warning signs of addictive behavior.

Although many medications can be misused, the greatest problem with addiction and overdose occur with three classes of prescription drugs:

  • Opioids: pain relievers
  • Central nervous system depressants: tranquilizers and sedatives that slow brain activity
  • Stimulants: prescribed for a few health conditions, primarily attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

If you have been prescribed any of these medications, it's a good idea to educate yourself on how they work. See the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Commonly Abused Prescription Drug Chart for a listing of commercial and street names of drugs in each of these classes and their effects. Military OneSource is a good place to find help and resources if you are concerned about prescription drug abuse and dependence


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