The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

prescription pills spilling out of bottle

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States is in the middle of a prescription drug abuse and overdose epidemic, and it’s a problem that spans all age groups, nationalities, and socioeconomic groups. Every year, approximately 47,000 people die from a drug overdose, mostly from prescription pain medications. Opiate painkillers aren’t the only prescription drugs subject to abuse, though they are the most common.

Prescription Drug Abuse Facts

Prescription drugs, when taken as intended and prescribed by a doctor, can be incredibly beneficial and help a wide variety of medical issues. However, when taken without a prescription or for an unintended purpose, prescription drugs can become dangerous, addictive, and even deadly.

Not all prescription drugs are addictive. For example, Tylenol and Advil are not physically addictive medications because the base ingredients have no properties that allow for dependency to grow. At the root of addiction is the chemical and physical dependency on a drug, and once this dependency develops, the person feels like he/she cannot function without it.

Prescription drug abuse has risen to unprecedented levels, and the number of people receiving treatment for prescription painkiller addiction has quadrupled from 2004 to 2010. In 2014, the U.S. Attorney General stated that the rising number of deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses is an urgent and growing public health crisis.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, prescription drugs are the third most commonly abused category of drugs behind alcohol and marijuana. It’s estimated that 48 million people have abused prescription drugs at one point, representing nearly 20% of the United States population.

It’s still unclear why prescription drug abuse is on the rise, although it’s likely due to the fact that prescription drugs, unlike heroin or cocaine, are readily available to a large number of people on a daily basis. Doctors are writing more prescriptions than ever before, especially for opioids, CNS depressors, and stimulants. Additionally, the internet makes it easy to get these drugs, even for children, teens, and young adults.

Here are some important facts about prescription drug abuse in the United States:

  • In general, men abuse prescription drugs more than women. The exception is people ages 12 to 17. In this group, females abuse prescription drugs more than their male counterparts.
  • More than 1,600 teens begin abusing prescription drugs every day.
  • Around one-third of college students will abuse prescription drugs during their college career.
  • Approximately 2 out of 3 college students are offered prescription drugs by their senior year.
  • The most common reasons that college students abuse prescription drugs include academic pressure, maintaining focus with late night study sessions, and to improve productivity.
  • Teenagers abuse prescription drugs for a number of reasons including to get high, stop pain or help with school work.
  • Most teenagers get prescription drugs from friends and family, and often, it’s without the person knowing.
  • Many children and young adults believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs.
  • Sixty-eight percent of people who have abused prescription pain relievers said they got it from a friend or relative.
  • The most commonly abused prescription drugs are pain medications, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, and stimulants, such as those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Approximately one in four teens reported abusing or misusing prescription drugs.
  • Every day, approximately 50 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses.
  • Every year, prescription painkillers cause more than 16,000 deaths and 475,000 emergency room visits.

The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

In terms of prescription drug overdoses, more than six out of 10 overdose deaths involved an opioid. However, opioids aren’t the only prescription drugs abused. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, CNS depressants (sedatives) and stimulants are also commonly abused.

Here’s a breakdown of each classification of prescription drug and its intended purpose:

  • Opioids: Prescribed to treat pain.
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants: Used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
  • Stimulants: Most often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Oxymorphone (Darvon)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
  • Morphine Sulfate

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

  • Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Zolpidem Tartrate (Ambien)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)


  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta)
  • Amphetamines (Adderall)

Getting The Help You Need

If you’re struggling with prescription drug abuse or addiction, it’s important to know that it’s not your fault. While it’s easy to feel hopeless or lost, you are not alone. At The Recovery Village Ridgefield, we offer a number of drug treatment programs to help you safely detox and overcome your addiction. To learn more about how we can help you live a happy life in recovery, contact us today.

11 Facts About Prescription Drug Abuse on College Campuses. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2017, from Prescription Drug Abuse Facts & Figures. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2017, from Prescription Drugs. (n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2017, from Prescription Drugs. (2015, June 28). Retrieved January 3, 2017, from

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.