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5 Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

By Stefanie Sandler Billette, MS, ACE-CHC
Some prescription drugs are more likely to be abused than others. Drugs for pain, anxiety, sleep, and attention disorders are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

An increase in commonly abused prescription drugs has led to historically high emergency room visits and overdose deaths over the last 15 years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids (Oxycontin) and benzodiazepines (Xanax) are the most addictive prescription drugs, and their combined use can be deadly.

“Other prescription drugs that we most commonly see abused are sedatives, barbiturates, and stimulants,” Lin Sternlicht, LMHC, MA, EdM, a New York City addiction specialist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

The following are five of the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

OxyContin (Opioid)

The generic version of Oxycontin is oxycodone. OxyContin is prescribed for pain management. “Many people intensely dislike the negative side effects and want to get off the drug as soon as possible. Others experience the rush of the dopamine release from opiates and will seek out that same feeling by taking more of the drug or more powerful drugs in an attempt to replicate that initial feeling,” Randall Dwenger, MD, the Chief Medical Officer at Mountainside Treatment Center in Connecticut, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

Xanax (Benzodiazepine)

The generic version of Xanax is alprazolam which is used to treat anxiety

Exposure to benzodiazepines for more than one week is associated with significant risk of developing a substance use disorder,” Bankole Johnson, DSc, MD, Board-Certified Psychiatrist in Miami, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Ambien (Sedative-Hypnotic)

The generic version of Ambien is zolpidem which is used as a sleeping aid

“In my experience, some patients with a painful condition request prescription pain pills to help them sleep,” Barbara Bergin, MD, Board-Certified Orthopedic Surgeon in Austin, Texas, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

In a 2018 study published by Current Opinion in Anaesthesiology, patients undergoing hip or knee replacement were given zolpidem one night before and on the first night after surgery. Patients reported improved feelings of sleep quality and fatigue but not sleep architecture, which is the pattern of sleep that includes different stages, such as REM sleep. Since the stages of sleep may not improve with Ambien, patients may feel the need to up their dose. This can lead to abuse.

Nembutal (Barbiturate)

The generic version of Nembutal is pentobarbital which is a type of barbiturate and acts as a sedative. According to the Federal Drug Administration, Nembutal loses its effectiveness after two weeks ofe. Patients develop a fast tolerance for this medication, which can lead to overuse in order to achieve the desired sleep-inducing effects. 

Adderall (Central Nervous System Stimulant)

The generic version of Adderall is amphetamine/dextroamphetamine. Adderall is primarily used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Adderall has a high potential for abuse because it raises dopamine levels and creates a feeling of euphoria, says the National Library of Medicine

According to Mayo Clinic, routine prescription drug use can escalate to abuse when it becomes ongoing and compulsive, despite the negative consequences. The following are some of the signs of prescription drug addiction:

  • Stealing, forging, or selling prescriptions
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Mood swings 
  • Poor decision-making
  • Requesting early refills 
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor

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