What are the Most Abused Prescription Drugs?

Some of the most commonly abused and misused drugs in the country are prescription medications legally prescribed by doctors.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that around 18 million people misused prescription drugs in 2017.

In some cases, patients develop an addiction to their medications, but in other situations, an unprotected family medicine cabinet can be easy access for a person looking to get “high.”

Unfortunately, the second category comprises teenagers and young adults, the two demographics most at risk for prescription drug abuse.


Understanding which medications are the most likely to be abused can help people secure their prescriptions and keep them out of sight and out of mind.

Most Abused Prescription Drugs

Various prescription medications are commonly misused, including opioids, antidepressants, and stimulants.

When used as directed, they can work wonders, but they can lead to addiction and other adverse health issues when misused.

In no particular order, these are eight of the most frequently abused prescription drugs:

  1. Ambien (Zolpidem)

Prescribed for the short-term treatment of insomnia, Ambien is a sedative that helps people get or maintain sleep.

Long-term use of zolpidem can lead to addiction because users develop a tolerance and will need higher doses of the drug to achieve the same results.

Ambien is often abused in conjunction with other drugs, such as alcohol, or for “coming down” off stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine.

  1. Oxycontin (Oxycodone)

According to one study, a narcotic pain reliever, Oxycontin, or oxycodone, is an opioid prescribed for moderate to severe pain. According to one study, it accounts for 80 percent of prescriptions to treat post-surgery pain.

It is highly addictive, despite pharmaceutical company claims in the mid-1990s when Oxycontin came to market. The marketing communication at the time said its time-release formula made dependency and abuse unlikely.

Oxycodone is widely abused and is the prescription painkiller most blamed for the start of the opioid epidemic.

  1. Vicodin (Hydrocodone)

Generally prescribed to manage coughing and moderate pain, Vicodin (Hydrocodone) is an opioid that is the most frequently prescribed painkiller at around 84 million prescriptions in 2017, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Regular users quickly develop a tolerance to the medication and unwittingly develop an addiction to the drug in weeks.

  1. Ritalin (Methylphenidate)

A central nervous system stimulant, Ritalin, is a medication usually prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, in some cases, narcolepsy.

Because it increases energy and alertness, Ritalin is often abused on college campuses and sometimes connected with alcohol.

The adverse side effects are most pronounced in people without ADHD, while those who have the disorder don’t notice them and positively react to the medication.

  1. Adderall (Amphetamine and Dextroamphetamine)

A psychostimulant pharmaceutical, Adderall is a medication prescribed in cases similar to Ritalin and most often to teenagers.

It has gained popularity among users who work intense and long hours and on college campuses where students need to pull “all-nighter” sessions to study for exams.

Adderall does provide a boost for those when they need it most, although it causes a dependence that can quickly lead to addiction.

  1. Valium (Diazepam)

Categorized as a benzodiazepine, Valium treats anxiety disorders and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Users can quickly develop a tolerance with regular use, giving the drug a high likelihood of being habit-forming.

People will often abuse or misuse Valium with alcohol, which can dangerously suppress the central nervous system and lead to overdose.

  1. Xanax (Alprazolam)

Like diazepam, Xanax is a benzodiazepine prescribed for people struggling with anxiety or panic disorders.

In some cases, alcohol and Xanax will cause users to “blackout” and be unable to remember what happened to them.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal is a severe condition and can lead to death if not treated and monitored by a physician during a proper detox.

  1. Fentanyl (Duragesic)

Most commonly prescribed for cancer patients with chronic pain, Fentanyl is an opioid, administered by patch or orally, and is 100 times more potent than morphine.

Not only is Fentanyl incredibly addictive it is deadly. Of the 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017, NIDA reports that Fentanyl was responsible for the most significant spike in fatalities.

Fentanyl is now being added to illegal drugs sold on the street, such as heroin, opioids, Xanax, and even cocaine and meth, to intensify those drugs’ strength and high. Most users and many drug dealers are unaware it has been mixed in with their supply and overdose and die.

Properly Dispose of Prescription Medications

Prescription medications have helped millions of people manage pain after surgery, overcome mental health issues, and be productive when dealing with disorders like ADHD.

When taken in a manner not prescribed by a doctor, they can cause dependence, addiction, or even be fatal when abused.

It’s possible to stop taking any medications when not needed without any adverse effects. Others, like benzodiazepines, need to be accepted until told by a doctor to discontinue or taper off.

Whatever the case, it’s necessary to dispose of any unneeded prescription medications correctly so they don’t fall into the wrong hands and become drugs of abuse.

Many pharmacies now have drop-off locations for disposal, and twice a year, in April and October, the DEA promotes National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day to dispose of them safely.


What are the Most Abused Prescription Drugs?