Did you know this version of Internet Explorer is out of date?

To get the latest experience from our website, please upgrade your browser.

Have a drug or medical device concern?

call 888-646-1884

Prescription Drug Abuse: Understanding the Epidemic

Debra Gordon

Last updated: November 22, 2016 3:35 pm

On This Page

When you think of drug abuse, you probably think of illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine. But did you know that the most commonly abused drugs are prescription drugs like opioids, stimulants, and anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs?

Statistics on Prescription-Related Overdoses

Yet prescription-related overdoses – the majority of which are the result of misusing pain killers—are now responsible for more drug-related overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined, as well as half a million emergency room visits a year. 1 2

The numbers are shocking: 3

  • Nearly 15,000 people die every year of overdoses involving prescription painkillers.
  • One in 20 people ages 12 and older used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons in the past year.
  • Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month.

What does Prescription Drug Abuse Look Like?

Prescription drug abuse means using prescribed drugs in ways they weren’t prescribed. For instance, taking higher doses or taking them more often than prescribed; taking them for things they weren’t prescribed for; or taking someone else’s drugs.

The most commonly abused drugs are painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (Kadian, Avinza), and codeine. Misusing them can lead to a physical dependence on the drug, in which you experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking them, and/or addiction, in which you literally can’t stop taking them and will do anything – including stealing, lying, and hurting the people you love – to get them.

Warning Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

The first sign that you may have a problem is if you keep using the medication after your pain is gone. Other warning signs include:

  • Increasing the amount of medication you need. This occurs because you build up a tolerance to the drug and need higher doses to get the same effect.
  • Changes in energy, mood, concentration, and appearance.
  • An increasing focus on getting the drug, often to the point that it interferes with your normal activities, including school, your job and household activities.
  • Visiting numerous doctors to get prescriptions.
  • Withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Taking medication prescribed for someone else.
  • Hiding your drug use and becoming defensive if anyone asks about it.

If you think you or someone you know might be misusing prescription drugs, it’s time to ask for help. Treatment for prescription drug addiction usually starts with weaning you off the drug to end your physical dependence. This is typically followed with counseling (sometimes in an inpatient setting), and may also include the use of certain medications designed to treat addiction, such as naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine.

Remember: prescription drug abuse is just as serious as abusing any other drug. And, like those other drugs, it can devastate your life, the lives of your loved ones, and, in an increasing number of instances, end your life.


  1. CDC. Vital Signs: Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers—United States, 1999-2008. MMWR 2011; 60: 1-6 

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Drug Abuse Warning Network: selected tables of national estimates of drug-related emergency department visits. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, SAMHSA; 2010. 

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/rxbrief/.