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Rx Drug Abuse: Common and Dangerous

What are the most abused prescription drugs, and what are the risks?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

In the 1970s, parents worried that their longhaired, bell-bottomed teenagers were getting drunk or smoking marijuana. Today, dangers also come in the form of prescription medicines -- from opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin to ADHD drugs such as Ritalin.

Prescription drug abuse appears to be on the rise in this country. Wilson Compton, MD, director of the division of epidemiology services and prevention research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), says the reasons aren't clear.

But he suspects that increasing numbers of prescriptions written for certain drugs, such as ADHD medications, afford greater opportunity. "A certain portion of those will be diverted for abuse purposes," he says.

Compton also says that in the current environment it seems almost normal to pop pills. "All of the advertising for pills may play a role in our willingness to try them."

Roughly 6.3 million Americans report that they're currently using prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Prescription drug abuse knows no age. The elderly are vulnerable because they're more likely to take many medications, often long term. Also, women may be as much as 55% more likely as men to be prescribed drugs that can be abused, such as narcotics and tranquilizers; therefore, their risk is greater, according to the NIDA.

Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse

Abuse is most common among young people, Compton says. "Prescription drug abuse -- like most drug abuse -- tends to peak in the teens and 20s," he tells WebMD.

Almost one in five teens -- roughly 4.5 million -- has tried getting high with prescription drugs (typically with pain relievers such as Vicodin or OxyContin, or stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall). That's according to a recent national study on teen abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs by the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

The study also found that teens' abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicines is equal to or higher than abuse of drugs such as cocaine and crack, Ecstasy, methamphetamine, and heroin.

Some teens say that prescription medicines are much safer to abuse than illegal drugs. But just because prescription drugs aren't cooked up in someone's garage doesn't mean that they're safe. According to Compton, the main risk for many drugs is addiction.

"As people try these substances, some of them will find that they really like them," he says. "They take more of them and they continue to take them, even when they no longer want to. And that's the hallmark of addiction. It creeps up on people in very subtle and unexpected ways. No one starts out taking a drug, saying, 'I want to be an addict.'"

Besides addiction, prescription drug abuse can bring on a host of health problems, such as irregular heartbeats, seizures, hostility, and paranoia -- even infections with HIV or other agents if someone dissolves and injects pills to get a quick high. Overdoses can be fatal. To combat the potential for abuse, some drug companies have marketed newer, timed-release versions that are harder to misuse.

It's important to remember that most people can reap benefits from prescription drugs without problems. But a minority will run into trouble. "Using these substances outside of a doctor's prescription is already a red flag and a warning," Compton says.

Which drugs are commonly abused? Who's most susceptible? How could they be endangering their health? Here's the rundown.

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