Prescription Drug Abuse

Last Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2018

What is prescription drug abuse?

Prescription drug abuse is when someone takes a medication prescribed for someone else, takes their own prescription in a way not intended by a doctor or dentist, or takes a medication to get high, according to 

Prescription (RX) drugs are the most commonly abused substances by teens after marijuana, synthetic marijuana (spice), and alcohol.

Where Do Teens Get Their Prescription Drugs?

Many teens obtain prescription drugs from their family or friends. Teens find prescription drugs and OTC drugs in their home medicine cabinet or on the kitchen shelf. For persons aged 12 or older who misused a prescription pain reliever in the past year (i.e., 11.5 million people):

  • 40.4 percent got the pain reliever they used most recently from a friend or relative for free.
  • 35.4 percent received their pain reliever through a prescription from one doctor.
  • 8.9 percent bought the pain reliever from a friend or relative.
  • 6.0 percent bought the last pain reliever they misused from a drug dealer or stranger.

Myth It is safer to use prescription drugs to get high rather than using illegal drugs, because they are prescribed by a doctor or dentist and dispensed by a pharmacist.

Fact Any use of prescription drugs without a doctor’s recommendation can be as dangerous as using illegal drugs. Improper use can have serious health effects-including addiction and overdose.

Most abused prescription drugs fall under three categories:

  • Opioids—Painkillers like Vicodin™, OxyContin™, or codeine
  • Depressants—(Benzodiazepines) used to relieve anxiety or help someone sleep, like Valium™ or Xanax™
  • Stimulants—Used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), like Adderall™ or Ritalin™

What are the health effects?

  • Abusing painkillers can cause severe respiratory depression or death and can be addictive
  • Abusing depressants can cause sleepiness, impair mental functioning, blurred vision, nausea and can be addictive
  • Abusing stimulants can cause irregular heartbeat, paranoia, high body temperatures and can be addictive

Did you know?

Some teens use Adderall™ or Ritalin™ to boost their test performance to improve their grades. Studies show that these stimulants do not help learning when used by persons who do not have ADHD. 

Can you die if you abuse prescription drugs?

Yes, prescription drug abuse causes more than half of the deaths from drug overdose in the US.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics 


Remember: Most teens who abuse prescription drugs get them free from a relative, friend, or the family medicine cabinet.

  • Talk to your teen about the harmful effects of using prescription drugs not prescribed to them
  • Discard safely old and unused prescription drugs
  • Store medications in a locked cabinet


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