Overview – What Are The Most Popular Prescription Drugs?

Drug Types:

  • 1. Opioid Painkillers (oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, etc.)
  • 2. Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, etc.)
  • 3. Amphetamines (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.)

Prescription drug abuse involves taking a pharmaceutical in any way other than as prescribed. This includes taking a higher dose than prescribed, altering the method in which the drug was intended to be used (such as chewing the pills, crushing the pills and snorting the resulting powder, or mixing the powder with a liquid and injecting the substance), and taking the drugs recreationally. There are many reasons a person might abuse prescription drugs: to get high, in an effort to counteract a growing tolerance, to lose weight by reducing appetite, to fit into a peer group due to peer pressure, to feed another addiction, or even to enhance highs from other drugs, including illegal drugs.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, 2009 marked the first year that drug overdose deaths, involving both prescription and illegal drugs, outnumbered deaths due to motor vehicle accidents. Morbidity rates are climbing due to prescription drug abuse. Between 2004 and 2011, emergency department visits involving prescription medication abuse or misuse rose 114 percent. In 2011, over 14 million people reported nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

Symptoms of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Forging prescriptions
  • Doctor shopping to get multiple prescriptions
  • Seeming high, tired, excited, or out of it most of the time
  • Anxiety over when the next dose can happen
  • Continually “losing” prescriptions, or mysteriously running out fast and needing a refill
  • Excessive hostility or aggression when questioned about the drug use
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion or disorientation, including memory lapses

Which Prescription Drugs Are Abused Most Often?

Although many kinds of medication can become addictive or lead to abuse, there are a few that people tend to abuse more than others. Here is a list of some of the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

1. Opioid painkillers (oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, etc.)

Opioid painkillers

Prescription opioid painkillers are among the most addictive and abused substances. In fact, the CDC has officially declared narcotic abuse to be an epidemic, because of how rapidly the problem has grown in the last two decades.

Prescription painkillers are, as their name implies, prescribed to treat pain that over-the-counter medicines cannot address. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl are all in this category, and they are prescribed in slightly different ways. Vicodin, a hydrocodone and acetaminophen mix, is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, typically after an injury or surgery. The intention with Vicodin is for this medication to be taken as needed or tapered over time as the injury gets better. Fentanyl, on the other hand, is a slow-release patch that was developed for patients who have chronic pain from cancer and need extended pain relief all day.

People who abuse opioid painkillers get a high that is similar to heroin, since both drugs are synthesized from the opium poppy. Narcotic painkillers relieve pain, and offer the individual a relaxed, drowsy high. For the most part, these medications are taken orally, although morphine can be injected, and fentanyl can be both given both via an injection and a patch, in addition to its pill form.

OxyContin and Vicodin are the most abused of the prescription opioid painkillers, and both of these medications come as pills. Although some people abuse these medications by orally ingesting a large dose to get high, others will crush and then snort or intravenously inject them.

There are many dangers associated with abusing opioid drugs, with depressed breathing and falling into coma being the biggest risks. Other side effects include severe constipation, seizure, confusion, nausea, or vomiting. Tolerance and addiction often lead to overdose. In 2010, there were 16,651 deaths from overdoses that involved opioid analgesics.

2. Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, etc.)

 benzodiazepine deaths 2010

Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders, as well as alcohol withdrawal symptoms and sleep disorders. These medications are CNS (central nervous system) depressants, which bind to receptors in the brain to calm people down and give them a sense of overall wellbeing. When used as prescribed by people who need the assistance with a mental health disorder or withdrawal, these medications are incredibly effective. However, they are also among the most widely abused prescription medications, in large part because they enhance the effects of other drugs.Valium and Xanax are two of the most prescribed benzodiazepine medications, and they are two of the most abused. The body builds up a tolerance to Valium in just one month, meaning that abuse can quickly escalate. These drugs create a sense of euphoria and wellbeing when taken in large doses, but they can also
lower inhibitions, lead to memory problems, cause lowered blood pressure, and, most
frighteningly, lead to depressed or slowed breathing.

Many people who abuse benzodiazepines mix these medications with alcohol or opioid painkillers; when combined, benzodiazepines will enhance the effects of these other substances. Although benzodiazepines enhance the intoxicating high of alcohol and opioids, these drugs also enhance the dangerous effects, and this can more rapidly lead to overdose or death. The CDC notes that, in 2010, benzodiazepines were involved in 6,497 overdose deaths.

3. Amphetamines (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.)

Stimulants make up a group of prescription amphetamines that are designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, some types of depression that can benefit from mood elevation, and narcolepsy. While these medications help people taking them to temporarily achieve focus, alertness, and improved mood, they are also highly addictive and susceptible to abuse. College students are most notorious for abusing these medications in order to stay awake all night to study or write papers. Those who abuse prescription amphetamines may achieve an intense, focused state of euphoria.Although prescription stimulants are typically taken orally, these medications can be abused by crushing and snorting the powder, or injecting it after dissolving it into water. Between 1993 and 2005, according to a report published by the Clinton Foundation, college students’ abuse of stimulants increased 93 percent.

Amphetamine use

Stimulant abuse can be dangerous and deadly. Increased heart rate and blood pressure are the two most dangerous side effects, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Aggression and paranoia are also side effects that can put the individual and those around them in danger; malnutrition, cognitive problems, and lack of sleep are additional side effects.


Prescription drugs are now the third most abused class of drugs for Americans ages 14 and older, with alcohol and marijuana being the first and second classes. Although the medications listed above are generally safe when taken as prescribed and with a doctor’s oversight, they can also be abused to achieve a high and can become addictive. This is a growing national problem, with nearly 14 percent of individuals who took opioids, stimulants, or benzodiazepines for nonmedical reasons in 2010 meeting the criteria for dependence or abuse. Comprehensive addiction treatment can help to end this epidemic and get people the help they need before they suffer serious physical and mental side effects.