7 Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on December 5, 2020
  • Prescription Drugs
    A Fast-Growing Problem
    Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. Prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drugs after alcohol and marijuana. Taking a medication without a prescription, taking more than prescribed, or using it for a different reason than prescribed are all forms of abuse. And prescription drug abuse doesn’t discriminate. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Here’s a look at the most commonly abused prescription drugs.
  • Shooting of medicine and hand
    1. Amphetamines
    Amphetamines are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. They are stimulants doctors prescribe to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Examples include dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) and combination amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall). Abusing or misusing these drugs can cause high blood pressure, seizures, heart attack, stroke, paranoia, aggressiveness, and hallucinations.
  • Pain Medication
    2. Vicodin
    Hydrocodone is available in combination with other ingredients. Its brand name is Vicodin when it’s combined with acetaminophen. Vicodin is an opioid pain medicine and it’s among the most abused prescription drugs. Misusing this drug can lead to excessive side effects like drowsiness, dizziness and nausea, as well as confusion, low blood pressure, unconsciousness, coma, and even death. Combining it with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants like sedatives is extremely dangerous.
  • Closeup of liquid medicine bottle at a pharmacy
    3. Cough Medicine
    Prescription cough medicines often contain opioids, such as codeine, and powerful antihistamines to help quiet a cough. Like Vicodin, abusing these products affects the central nervous system. Over-the-counter cough medicines can also lead to problems. They often contain the stimulant drug dextromethorphan. Taking too much can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, slurred speech, and paranoia. Remember, over-the-counter does not mean “safe.” It is possible to overdose on these products.
  • Pills
    4. Benzodiazepines
    Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants—they slow down brain and nervous system activity. They fall under the category of sedatives or mild tranquilizers. Doctors prescribe them to treat insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Examples include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), and clonazepam (Klonopin). Abusing them can cause confusion, dizziness, impaired coordination and memory, and low blood pressure. Combining them with alcohol increases the risk of breathing problems and possibly even death.
  • Oxycodone
    5. Barbiturates
    Barbiturates are another type of central nervous system depressant. They are also a type of sedative or tranquilizer. Examples are phenobarbital, pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal). These drugs may be prescribed for seizures, anxiety and insomnia. In addition to having the same risks as benzodiazepines when abused, barbiturates can also cause fever and life-threatening withdrawal.
  • Pink pills
    6. Oxycontin
    Oxycontin is a slow-release form of the narcotic drug oxycodone, which is also an opioid. Doctors commonly prescribe it for chronic pain because it lasts for many hours. But it’s also commonly abused. Oxycontin is highly addictive. It’s also extremely dangerous when abusers crush it. Crushing it destroys the timed-release formulation and releases huge amounts of narcotic—amounts that should have been slowly released over 12 hours. This type of abuse can be lethal.
  • White pills spill from medicine bottle
    7. Ritalin
    Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin) is a commonly abused stimulant. Like amphetamines, doctors prescribe methylphenidate to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. In addition to the risks of abusing other stimulants, methylphenidate can lead to increased or decreased blood pressure, digestive issues, decreased appetite, and weight loss.
  • Close up of a hand pushing the telephone button
    You Can Get Help
    If you or someone you know is abusing prescription drugs, the first step is reaching out for help. Contact your doctor or call the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD) at 800-NCA-CALL to find an affiliate near you. Recovery is possible, and NCAAD programs can help you find the best path there.
7 Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. A Most Important First Step—Find Help Near You. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. http://ncadd.org/index.php/get-help/overview.
  2. Commonly Abused Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/commonly-abused-drugs.
  3. Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. http://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rx_drugs_placemat_508c_10052011.pdf.
  4. Fact Sheet: Prescription Drug Abuse. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. https://ncadd.org/images/stories/PDF/factsheet_ncadd_%20prescriptiondrugs.pdf.
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Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 5
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