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10 Most Abused Prescription Drugs

author image Gail Morris
Gail Morris has been writing extensively since 1997. She completed a master's degree in nursing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and practiced in medicine for more than 20 years. Morris has published medical articles in peer-reviewed journals and now writes for various online publications and freelances for Internet marketers.
10 Most Abused Prescription Drugs
Hispanic man holding up a pill. Photo Credit Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images


An estimated 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for reasons other than those they were originally prescribed for, reports the National Library of Medicine. Any use of a prescription drug beyond the medical intention is considered prescription drug abuse. This is a growing problem throughout the world. Researchers point to the ever-increasing availability of prescription medications as physicians write more prescriptions and as online pharmacies make it easier to order medications, even without a prescription.

According to Prescription Drug Abuse, prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused category of drugs, running a close second behind marijuana and well ahead of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. In 2000, about 43 percent of emergency room visits for drug overdoses occurred because of the misuse of prescription drugs. The top 10 most abused prescription drugs may be listed in differing order depending on the statistical information used.


Hydrocodone belongs to the class of drugs called opioids, which are used for pain control in individuals who have moderate to severe pain. Opioids can be taken by mouth, crushed and snorted or injected. A number of deaths have been reported with injection of drugs intended for slow release in the body such as OxyContin, which is a derivative of hydrocodone. Opioids may cause constipation and drowsiness and can depress the rate of breathing and lead to death.


Codeine is another opioid. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), codeine may cause respiratory depression and arrest, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation and coma. The Drug Enforcement Administration says codeine is the most widely used narcotic in medical treatment and is one of the starting materials used to develop hydrocodone. It is usually taken in pill form and can be found in combination with acetaminophen or aspirin or as a cough suppressant in liquid form.


Fentanyl is a strong narcotic. The only legal prescription use is for pain control in people who have cancer. The danger with fentanyl is there is no margin for error when increasing the dose. The body develops a tolerance to the drug, so more of the medication is needed over time to get the same effect. Because of the low margin for error, increasing the dosage can be deadly. Fentanyl can be used as a skin patch, injected, smoked or snorted. Street names include China white, China girl, dance fever, murder 8 and Tango and Cash.


Morphine is another medication in the opioid family, used to treat moderate to severe pain. Side effects may include shallow breathing, seizure, confusion, dizziness or weakness and fainting. People taking morphine may also experience nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, memory problems, constipation and sleep problems.


Valium is the registered brand name of diazepam. It is an anti-anxiety drug that changes the chemical balance in the brain and is often prescribed for alcohol withdrawal, shakiness, agitation and muscle pain. According to Prescription Drug Abuse, it is very common and easy to obtain. The body builds up a tolerance over just one month. Symptoms of abuse depend upon how long and at what level the person has been using the drug.


Xanax is used for anxiety disorders, panic disorders and anxiety caused by depression. Drinking alcohol with Xanax increases the effects of the alcohol. According to drugs.com, Xanax is habit forming and should never be prescribed for people with a history of abuse or addiction to prescription drugs. Side effects can include risk-taking behavior, depression, hyperactivity, light-headedness, seizures, muscle twitching, jaundice and less frequent urination.


Ambien is a sleep medication used by people who have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Ambien is moderately psychologically and physically addictive. People can also develop a tolerance to this medication and may require help in stopping use.


Lunesta is a relatively new sleep aid that is a central nervous system depressant and a non-benzodiazepine. According to NIDA, it has a lower risk for abuse and addiction because of the method of action. However, any central nervous system depressant should not be mixed with other medications because the cumulative effect can slow the heart and respiration, which can be fatal.


Ritalin is a stimulant designed to increase alertness, attention and energy. It is commonly prescribed to children who have attention deficit disorder but is now a drug of choice among college students who are interested in staying up longer and studying harder. According to NIDA, the medication is usually taken orally, but people also dissolve it and inject the solution. However, it contains insoluble fillers that can block small blood vessels and cause tissue death.


Adderall is another stimulant that gained national attention when the son of former Vice President Al Gore was arrested for possessing Adderall, marijuana, Xanax and Valium. Adderall is used to get a speedy high or "pull an all-nighter" to study.

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