Rx Drug Abuse: Common and Dangerous
What are the most abused prescription drugs, and what are the risks?
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
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
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
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.