Taking prescription drugs that are not prescribed to you — or taking them in any way other than directed by a doctor — is considered non-medical use or abuse and can be as dangerous as taking an illegal drug, such as cocaine or heroin.

“Misuse” of a prescription drug is taking it to treat a medical condition but not as directed by a doctor or packaging; “abuse” is taking prescription drugs with the sole intention of getting high. When misused or abused, many prescription drugs can be as dangerous and addictive as “street” drugs. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of poisonings and even deaths associated with the abuse and misuse of prescription drugs, including prescription painkillers and anti-depressants.

Here are a few facts about prescription drug abuse:

  • In 2008, 1.9 million people aged 12 to 17 abused prescription medication, with 1.6 million abusing a prescription pain medication.
  • An average of 2,000 teens per day used a prescription drug without a doctor’s guidance for the first time in 2008.
  • 35 percent of high-school seniors said opioid drugs such as Vicodin or OxyContin were fairly easy or very easy to obtain.
  • Opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants are the most commonly abused prescription drugs.
  • DXM, the active ingredient found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medications, is widely abused at high doses; in very large quantities, it produces an effect similar to that of ketamine or PCP, “dissociative” drugs that can produce an out-of-body effect. Abusing DXM at high quantities can lead to hypoxic brain damage, where oxygen can’t reach the brain.
  • CNS Depressants such as Xanax, Valium, and Ambien slow down normal brain activity; when abused, especially in combination with alcohol or other over-the-counter medications, they can slow the heart and respiration, which can lead to death.
  • Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin (or other medications usually prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy) can significantly raise the heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, which can lead to heart failure and seizures. Repeated abuse can also lead to feelings of hostility and paranoia.

Read more statistics on prescription drug abuse >>

Test Your Knowledge of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is defined as:

Slowed breathing is a dangerous side effect of:

Which of the following is NOT a potentially addictive drug?

Central nervous system depressants are prescribed to treat:

True or False? An overdose of stimulants can cause dangerously high body temperature.