More than 21.5 million people suffer from some sort of substance abuse disorder. And while most of us might immediately think of “drug addiction” as being synonymous with addiction to alcohol or illicit substances like heroin or cocaine, the fact is that millions of people abuse drugs that are legal with a doctor’s prescription.

People can begin using these drugs innocently and for their intended purpose: painkillers after having surgery, anti-anxiety medications for a panic disorder, a stimulant to help with studying, etc. However, these medications with practical purposes can easily be misused and abused to get high.

These can even lead people to use illegal drugs: one study found that 86% of intravenous drug users surveyed had used prescription pain relievers before resorting to heroin use.

But, not all prescription drugs lead to addiction. Which types of prescription drugs, then, are most commonly abused? Which prescriptions should you be wary of if you or a loved one has a history of substance abuse?

Keep reading to learn about five of the most common prescription medications that are misused and abused.

1. Opioid Pain Relievers

Opioid pain relievers are number one on this list for a reason. The opioid addiction epidemic in the United States has reached an all-time high: 115 people die from opioid overdoses every single day.

While these overdoses aren’t necessarily from prescription opiates, many could be. As we said earlier, a majority of intravenous drug users who abuse opioids like heroin began their opioid use with a prescription for opioid pain relievers.

prescription drug abuse

“Opioid pain relievers” refer to a few different types of medications. The most common include:

  • Oxycontin
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • Dilaudid
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Demerol

These are all legally obtainable with a doctor’s prescription.

Common Uses for Opioids

These types of opioids are a type of narcotic pain reliever. They’re often prescribed to patients in intense pain like those who have just had surgery or who suffer from chronic pain conditions.

How Opioids Work

As we just explained, opioids are a type of narcotic. They work by attaching to pain receptors in the brain. This induces your body to send out pain-relieving chemicals, slow down your breathing, and release chemicals that make you feel relaxed and calm.

Specifically, they induce the release of massive amounts of dopamine and other endorphins, which are known as “pleasure” or “feel good” chemicals. They’re naturally released when we do things that feel good: eat cake, complete a hard task, kiss our significant other, etc.

Opioids trigger the unnatural release of dopamine and other endorphins, which makes us feel good while also dulling pain and helping us relax.

Opioid Abuse

There are a few reasons why opioids often lead to addiction, abuse, and misuse.

First of all, opioids make you feel good. If you’re in immense amounts of pain, they can dull that pain and make you feel better. This can lead to overuse and misuse in order to dull any type of pain at any time.

Chronic pain and intense pain are also huge motivators. Imagine being in horrible pain 24/7 and only getting relief from these drugs. Is it a shock that people like that become addicted in order to finally get some relief?

Opioids also trigger the release of dopamine and endorphins that, as we went over earlier, make you feel good. People come to like the “dopamine high” they get when they take opioid pain medications, which can lead to addiction.

Another issue with opioid pain relievers is that over time, you’ll notice a couple long-term effects that can help lead to addiction and overuse:

  1. Increased tolerance
  2. Decreased natural endorphin production

As you take opioids, you will build up a tolerance to them. This means that you will need to take higher and higher doses of the medication in order to feel the effects.

This can lead to overuse of the medication, as well as resorting to crushing, snorting, or injecting it against the directions of the prescription.

This effect is compounded with the fact that as you take opioids, your natural endorphin production and release will decline. This means you’ll feel sad, depressed, and feel more intense pain more easily since your body won’t be producing the chemicals that make you feel good naturally.

This will push users to use more of the opioids in order to get that “high” or even to feel normal.

Opioid Withdrawal

Feeling high, dulling pain, an increased tolerance, and the highly addictive nature of opioid pain medications are some of the main reasons for opioid addiction. However, the intensity of the withdrawal can also be a factor that prevents people from getting clean and stopping opioid abuse.

You’ll experience withdrawal symptoms even after minimal use of opioids. The more frequent or large the doses you take, the more intense the withdrawal will be. If not done properly, opioid withdrawal can be painful, dangerous, and lethal.

2. Xanax

Xanax is a type of medication classified as “benzodiazepines” or “benzos.” Other commonly abused benzodiazepines include:

  • Ativan
  • Valium
  • Klonopin

These are all commonly abused types of prescription drugs, but Xanax is the most common and the most well-known of these medications.

Common Uses for Xanax

Xanax is an oral medication used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, panic disorders, and anxiety disorders. While it is effective in treating anxiety symptoms and these disorders, it’s a highly addictive medication that is usually prescribed for only short periods of time.

How Xanax Works

Xanax and other benzos work by interacting with a neurotransmitter in our brains called “GABA.” GABA is naturally produced by our brain and is responsible for helping us feel calm and relaxed.

However, those with anxiety disorders or panic disorders often have issues regulating GABA, which results in heightened anxiety and issues with calming down during anxiety or panic attacks.

That’s where Xanax and other benzos come in. When you take Xanax, the drug will bind to receptors in the brain that will stimulate an increased release of GABA. This will produce the following effects:

  • Reduction in anxious thoughts/panic attacks
  • Feelings of calmness and relaxation
  • Slowed breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed brain/nervous system

While these effects can be helpful for those suffering from anxiety disorders, it can also be easily abused and become dangerous if not used as directed.

Xanax Abuse

We mentioned earlier that Xanax and other benzos are usually prescribed as a short-term solution. That’s because this medication is extremely addictive, meaning users quickly develop a dependency.

So while many are directed to take low doses for a short amount of time, the relaxing effects and the benefits of the drug often lead to them taking higher doses for longer periods of time against prescription directions (or without a prescription altogether).

This can be dangerous: it can lead to a benzodiazepine addiction and even an overdose. Benzos cause your brain and nervous system to slow down. If you overdose, you could stop breathing or experience organ failure.

Many also abuse Xanax recreationally without ever getting a prescription to feel the calming and relaxing effects similar to drinking alcohol.

Xanax Withdrawal

Like opioid medications, benzodiazepine withdrawal can be intense, which is why many find detoxing and getting clean to be so difficult.

You can experience:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Delerium
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

 In fact, benzodiazepine withdrawal is more dangerous than opioid withdrawal.

3. Adderall

Adderall is a type of stimulant. Stimulants encompass a wide range of drugs including caffeine and cocaine. However, Adderall is a commonly prescribed stimulant that is, unfortunately, commonly misused.

Common Uses for Adderall

Adderall is a prescription medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It can also be used to treat narcolepsy.

How Adderall Works

As aforementioned, Adderall is a type of stimulant. It works to stimulate the brain, specifically by increasing the amount of two neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine, in the brain. This leads to the following effects:

  • Increased attention span
  • Alertness
  • Improved focus
  • Improved control of behavioral issues

It can also have certain side effects. These include:

  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Feeling “awake” and lively
  • Inability to sleep/become tired

This medication is an excellent treatment method for ADHD and narcolepsy, but it can be misused by those with and without a prescription.

Adderall Abuse

Perhaps the most common misuse and abuse of this drug is in high schools and on college campuses. Students will take Adderall without a prescription in order to enhance their ability to study for longer periods of time and focus on schoolwork with a higher intensity than they normally would.

Others use Adderall as a party drug: a stimulant that can keep them up all night, give them a “hyper high”. Common signs of those abusing Adderall are:

  • Behaving more excitably than usual
  • Talkative/talking quickly
  • Never tired/not sleeping
  • Loss of appetite

Because Adderall affects neurotransmitters in the brain, abuse and misuse can lead to permanent changes in brain chemistry. It can also lead to heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.

In order to get a stronger high, some people inject or snort the medication, or even just take more than directed by their doctor. This can lead to a potentially lethal overdose.

4. Ambien

Ambien is a brand name sleeping medication classified as a “sedative-hypnotic” medication.

Other sedative-hypnotics drugs similar to Ambien include:

  • Methaqualone
  • Placidyl
  • Noctec
  • Lunesta

Sedative-hypnotics are often types of benzodiazepines (like Xanax we discussed earlier) or barbiturates (the next drug on this list). Ambien, however, is neither a benzodiazepine or a barbiturate drug.

Common Uses for Ambien

As we stated earlier, the main reason for an Ambien prescription is as a sleep aid for those suffering from sleep disorders like insomnia.

How Ambien Works

Ambien works by affecting your brain function. Essentially, it slows down your brain, which helps you relax and fall asleep.

Ambien, when used as directed, will help insomniacs sleep better and through the night. However, there are side effects that you should be aware of. These include:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Bizarre and vivid dreams

There are also reports of people doing things while on Ambien that they have no memory of later. People have reported having sex, cooking, driving, online shopping, having conversations/making phone calls, sleepwalking, and sleep driving.

Ambien Abuse

Ambien isn’t as addictive as the other prescription medications on this list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t abused. People will take Ambien in order to hallucinate, have strange dreams, and feel the “trip” of being on Ambien.

However, this can be dangerous. People who misuse Ambien can seriously injure themselves and others without even realizing it when they “wake up” the next day.

5. Barbiturates

Lastly, we have a class of drugs called barbiturates that include Nembutal, Phenobarbital, and Seconal. These drugs work in a very similar way to both benzodiazepines and sedative-hypnotics: they’re all depressants that having calming effects on the brain.

Common Uses for Barbiturates

Barbituates can be used to treat a number of disorders, including:

  • Stress/anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Seizure disorders

Barbituates can also treat headaches and other pain conditions.

How Barbiturates Work

Like we said earlier, barbiturates work in a very similar way to benzodiazepines. It’s a type of depressant that slows the brain and the nervous system, producing a calming and relaxing effect.

Barbiturate Abuse

The same reasons why people abuse benzos applies here: the calming and relaxing effect of the medication feels nice and produces a sort of calming high. Tolerance and dependency can develop, which can lead to addiction, overuse, and overdose.

Barbiturate Withdrawal

Barbiturate withdrawal is as dangerous as benzodiazepine withdrawal. It can be lethal if done incorrectly, which is why it’s often safest to detox at an addiction treatment facility instead of on your own.

Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Muscle tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • High fever

You can die from withdrawal, so please do it safely and with medical supervision.

Types of Prescription Drugs Commonly Abused: Wrapping Up

These are just 5 of the hundreds of types of prescription drugs that can be misused and abused to the point of addiction. If you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of addiction to any of these or other prescription drugs, you should get help right away to avoid permanent and dangerous damage.

Contact us for more information. You can also look over our various levels of care to find a treatment program that will work best for your situation.