The majority of people are aware of the dangers of illegal drugs. However, many people assume prescription drugs are safe because they are prescribed by a doctor and dispensed at a pharmacy. The government regulates them, so, according to many, they must be safe. This assumption is wrong.

While prescription drugs have protections in place and are generally safe to use if you follow the directions, they are one of the most commonly abused drug categories. Surprisingly, they are misused more than cocaine or heroin. In fact, prescription drugs rank third as the most abused drugs, after alcohol and marijuana. 

Statistics on Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is when an individual misuses a prescription drug, like taking a medication prescribed for somebody else or using it in a way other than prescribed. It is also considered prescription abuse if you take a medication to get high or feel euphoric.

The misuse of prescription drugs is a nationwide problem. In one year, about 16 million Americans over 12 abused different types of prescription medications. It is especially an issue in Orlando, FL. In 2020, 635 deaths in Orlando involved prescription drugs, 16.1% more than the previous year. To put that number into perspective, consider that 37 deaths involved heroin use in Orlando in 2020.

Why Is Prescription Drug Abuse on the Rise?

One of the main reasons the U.S. is facing a rise in prescription drug abuse is the misconception that these drugs are completely safe or at least less dangerous than street drugs. 

These drugs are also more accessible. Throughout the years, drug prescriptions have increased dramatically. For example, from 1991–2010, opioid prescriptions rose from 76–210 million, and stimulant prescriptions rose from 4–45 million. This trend continues to move upward. 

Many prescription drugs that are abused can lead to addiction. Therefore, people should learn the dangers of misusing these medications. This is particularly important for adolescents and teenagers. 

What Makes Prescription Drugs Addictive?

Prescription drugs can be just as addicting and, in some cases, more addicting than illegal drugs. Many abused prescription drugs, such as opioids and anxiety medications, affect parts of the brain that can produce feelings of pleasure or calm. However, eventually, tolerance will develop, which means larger doses are required to create the same effect. 

As an individual continues abusing these drugs, dependence occurs. This is when stopping the medication leads to uncomfortable and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. To avoid these effects, a person will continue to use and abuse the drug, which can lead to addiction.

Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Several categories of prescription medications are frequently misused because they can make a person feel good differently. The most commonly abused drugs include:

  • Opioids
  • Barbiturates
  • Anxiety medicines and sedatives
  • Antidepressants
  • Stimulants


Prescription opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain. They bind to brain receptors and other body parts and can produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria. These drugs have a high risk for abuse, addiction, overdose and death. In 1999, 3,442 people died from an overdose involving prescription opioids. That rose to 16,416 deaths in 2020. Prescription opioids most commonly abused include

  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Oxycodone (Roxicodone)
  • Oxycodone ER (Oxycontin)
  • Oxycodone/acetaminophen (Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Vicodin)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic, Actiq)


Barbiturates are drugs that suppress the central nervous system and may be prescribed for anxiety, headaches, insomnia and seizures. They can give the user similar effects to alcohol, including feelings of relaxation and euphoria, slurred speech and lowered inhibition. Barbiturates are not prescribed as much today and have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines. The most commonly abused barbiturates include:

  • Phenobarbital (Solfoton, Luminal) 
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)

Anxiety Medications and Sedatives

Benzodiazepines are a group of medications used to treat anxiety. Some, such as clonazepam, may also be prescribed for seizures. Other sedatives, often called z-drugs, like zolpidem (Ambien) and zaleplon (Sonata), are used for insomnia. Benzodiazepines and z- drugs work by inhibiting the neurotransmitter GABA, producing a calming effect. The most abused drugs in these categories are: 

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)


Antidepressants encompass many different medications. Because of the way they work, some antidepressants have the potential to be abused. For example, bupropion is an antidepressant that increases the availability of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is known for supplying feelings of pleasure, so the risk of abusing this drug is apparent. Users describe feelings of euphoria and stimulation similar to that of cocaine when taking high doses of bupropion. 

In addition to stimulant and euphoric properties, other antidepressants have been reported to increase sociability, elevate mood and create feelings of empathy. Antidepressants that produce these types of effects and are, therefore, more likely to be abused include

  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants 
    • Clomipramine (Anafranil)
    • Amitriptyline (Elavil)
    • Nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)


Stimulants are primarily prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. They elevate an individual’s energy, increase focus and heighten alertness. Stimulants also improve memory and cognition, increase motivation and help people stay awake and, therefore, have a high risk for abuse, particularly among younger individuals in high school or college. The most commonly abused prescription stimulants are: 

  • Amphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • Methylphenidate ER (Concerta)

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse 

If someone abuses prescription drugs, physical, psychological and behavioral changes will be evident. It is important to recognize these signs and symptoms to get a person abusing prescription drugs the proper treatment. 

Physical signs and symptoms include: 

  • Change in pupil size
    • Stimulants cause dilated pupils
    • Opioids cause constricted pupils
  • Appetite changes
  • Uncoordinated movement
  • Not caring about appearance or lack of hygiene

Psychological signs and symptoms include: 

  • Severe and sudden mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Personality changes
  • Easily losing temper
  • Anxiousness 
  • Paranoia

Behavioral signs and symptoms include: 

  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Difficulty sleeping or change in sleep patterns
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • Being secretive or exhibiting suspicious behaviors

Dangers of Prescription Drug Abuse

Abusing prescription drugs has many dangerous consequences. Misusing these drugs can lower a person’s inhibitions and affect their judgment. This may cause the person to engage in risky behaviors that include: 

  • Having unprotected sex which can lead to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases
  • Driving while under the influence 
  • Getting in trouble with the law

There are also long-term health risks associated with prescription drug abuse. They include

  • High blood pressure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Organ damage
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Overdose
  • Addiction
  • Death

Prescription Drug Overdose

Prescription drug overdose signs and symptoms may differ depending on which drug an individual is abusing. For example, someone overdosing on a stimulant drug will experience fast breathing and a rapid increase in body temperature. However, an opioid overdose will produce slow or shallow breathing and decreased body temperature. 

Some more general signs and symptoms may be apparent if an individual is experiencing a prescription drug overdose. These signs and symptoms include

Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect an overdose. Call 911 and wait with the person until help arrives. If vomiting is involved, help the person avoid choking by keeping them on their side rather than lying flat. If the individual is overdosing on an opioid, administer Narcan if available. 

How To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse

A patient can take steps to prevent abusing prescription drugs.

  • Always discuss your prescribed medications with your doctor and pharmacist. Ask if the medicine is a controlled substance and has the potential for abuse and addiction. 
  • Learn the drug’s side effects and if there are foods or other substances that can interact with the prescribed medicine that you should avoid.
  • Follow the directions for the medication exactly as prescribed. 
  • Do not adjust the dose without speaking with your doctor. 
  • Avoiding alcohol while taking certain prescription medications is important, as it can increase the risk for misuse and dangerous side effects.
  • Never take a drug not prescribed specifically for you or share your medicine with others. 
  • Store medicines in a secure area away from children, adolescents and teenagers. 

How To Find a Rehab for Prescription Drugs

It may be difficult to admit you have a problem with prescription drug abuse. Know you are not alone, and millions of Americans deal with the same problem you are facing. Proper treatment can improve your quality of life and restore your physical and psychological well-being. 

A drug rehabilitation center is appropriate for receiving care if you struggle with prescription drug abuse. It is important that the facility is accredited and staffed with licensed and experienced professionals. A rehab should offer services for co-occurring mental disorders and have programs to meet the full spectrum of a patient’s needs. Orlando Recovery Center meets these requirements and offers compassionate care tailored to each patient. 

Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction in Orlando, FL

Orlando Recovery Center has many treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient and outpatient rehab. If you or someone you know is struggling with prescription drug abuse or addiction, Orlando Recovery Center can help. 

Contact us, and a knowledgeable representative can help you learn more about our treatment programs and what you can expect.  

Editor – Theresa Valenzky
Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology. She is passionate about providing genuine information to encourage and guide healing in all aspects of life. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Michelle Giordano
Michelle Giordano has been a licensed pharmacist in New York State for nearly two decades. She received her doctorate in pharmacology from St. John’s University, where she earned an academic merit scholarship throughout the course of her studies. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.