What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

The simplest definition of prescription drug abuse is when a person uses their prescribed medication in a manner it was not intended by the prescribing physician. Although abuse does not always begin with an urge to “get high,” the after effect of the drug is usually what drives the addiction.

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people generally abuse three classes of prescription medications:

  • Opiods: The most common form of abused pills, Opiods are used to treat pain and are often referred to as “painkillers.”
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
  • Stimulants: Used to treat conditions like ADD and narcolepsy, addictions to these can often lead to abuse of cocaine and other “uppers.”

How is it Consumed?

The most common form of prescription medication abuse is through ingestion. This way of consuming the drug is what “normalizes” it for many people—just as if they were taking an aspirin.

As addiction progresses, however, many people switch to smoking their prescription drug of choice. Eventually, as a person seeks a greater high (sometimes called “chasing the dragon”) they will seek out more desperate ways of consuming prescription medication, like cooking and injecting it.

Who Does it Afflict?

The short answer to this question is: everyone. There is no demographic safe. No age group, sex, or social status. Prescription drug abuse has affected almost every American in this country in one way or another. The following are some groups of people that are particularly susceptible to abuse:


The class of Americans that take the most amount of prescription medications are the elderly. Many older adults suffer from more chronic conditions. Unfortunately, many of them are not aware of the addictive side effects of some prescription medication, and find themselves addicts at a much later stage in their lives.

Only 13% of the American population is over the age of 65, but they take more than one-third of all prescription medications.

Because they may usually take several different medications daily, it is easier for older adults to “accidentally” abuse their prescription drugs. More medications, taken on a frequent basis, can result in more mistakes.


Prescription medications are by far the easiest drug for adolescents to get. In most cases, they simply need to look in their own medicine cabinets. Because of this, youths are at the highest risk for addiction and overdose. Here are some current staggering facts about adolescents and prescription drug abuse:

  • In 2015, 276,000 adolescents were current nonmedical users of pain relievers, with 122,000 having an addiction to their drug of choice.
  • Among younger teenagers– 12-to-13-year olds, prescription medicines are the most typically abused drug.
  • 30% of teenagers do not think that prescription painkillers are addictive. The same percentage of teens believe that there is “nothing wrong” with the non-medical use of prescription medicines.
  • The prescribing rates for prescription opioids among adolescents and young adults nearly doubledfrom 1994 to 2007.
  • 5 out of the top 6 drugs abused by high school seniors are prescription drugs or over-the-counter (OTC) cold & cough medicines.

It should also be noted that most adolescents who abuse prescription medication are getting it from their family or friends.


A less discussed demographic in the epidemic of prescription drug abuse— is women. Since women are more likely to experience chronic pain, they are usually prescribed the strongest forms of prescription drugs, at higher doses, for longer periods of time. Therefore, women generally become addicted more quickly than men, and at a higher rate. Some haunting statistics about how prescription drug abuse affects women, include:

  • 48,000 women died of prescription pain reliever overdoses between 1999 and 2010.
  • Prescription pain reliever overdose deaths among women increased more than 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared to 237% among men.
  • Heroin overdose deaths (many a result of prior prescription drug abuse) among women have tripledin the last few years. From 2010 through 2013, female heroin overdoses increased from 0.4 to 1.2 per 100,000 people.
  • Every hour, a baby in this country is born suffering opiate withdrawal symptoms.