Misuse of Prescription Drugs: A Research Study

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From the Website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
Dr. Lora, Volkow, Executive Director
June 2020

Misuse of prescription drugs means taking a medication in a manner or dose other than prescribed; taking someone else’s prescription, even if for a legitimate medical complaint such as pain; or taking a medication to feel euphoria (i.e., to get high). The term non-medical use of prescription drugs also refers to these categories of misuse. The three classes of medication most commonly misused are:

  • opioids—usually prescribed to treat pain
  • central nervous system [CNS] depressants (this category includes tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics)—used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • stimulants—most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Prescription drug misuse can have serious medical consequences. Increases in prescription drug misuse over the last 15 years are reflected in increased emergency room visits, overdose deaths associated with prescription drugs, and treatment admissions for prescription drug use disorders, the most severe form of which is an addiction. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999.

Misuse of prescription opioids, CNS depressants, and stimulants is a serious public health problem in the United States. Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, in 2017, an estimated 18 million people (more than 6 percent of those aged 12 and older) have misused such medications at least once in the past year. According to results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 2 million Americans misused prescription pain relievers for the first time within the past year, which averages to approximately 5,480 initiates per day. Additionally, more than one million misused prescription stimulants, 1.5 million misused tranquilizers, and 271,000 misused sedatives for the first time.

The reasons for the high prevalence of prescription drug misuse vary by age, gender, and other factors, but likely include ease of access. The number of prescriptions for some of these medications has increased dramatically since the early 1990s. Moreover, misinformation about the addictive properties of prescription opioids and the perception that prescription drugs are less harmful than illicit drugs are other possible contributors to the problem. Although misuse of prescription drugs affects many Americans, certain populations such as youth and older adults may be at particular risk.

Adolescents and Young Adults

Misuse of prescription drugs is highest among young adults ages 18 to 25, with 14.4 percent reporting non-medical use in the past year. Among youth ages 12 to 17, 4.9 percent reported past-year non-medical use of prescription medications.

After alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco, prescription drugs (taken non-medically) are among the most commonly used drugs by 12th graders. NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey of substance use and attitudes in teens found that about 6 percent of high school seniors reported past-year non-medical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall® in 2017, and 2 percent reported misusing the opioid pain reliever Vicodin®.

Although past-year non-medical use of CNS depressants has remained fairly stable among 12th graders since 2012, use of prescription opioids has declined sharply. For example, past-year non-medical use of Vicodin among 12th graders was reported by 9.6 percent in 2002 and declined to 2.0 percent in 2017. Non-medical use of Adderall® increased between 2009 and 2013, but has been decreasing through 2017. When asked how they obtained prescription stimulants for non-medical use, around 60 percent of the adolescents and young adults surveyed said they either bought or received the drugs from a friend or relative.

Youth who misuse prescription medications are also more likely to report use of other drugs. Multiple studies have revealed associations between prescription drug misuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking; heavy episodic drinking; and marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drug use among U.S. adolescents, young adults, and college students. In the case of prescription opioids, receiving a legitimate prescription for these drugs during adolescence is also associated with a greater risk of future opioid misuse, particularly in young adults who have little to no history of drug use.

Older Adults

More than 80 percent of older patients (ages 57 to 85 years) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily. This can potentially lead to health issues resulting from unintentionally using a prescription medication in a manner other than how it was prescribed, or from intentional non-medical use. The high rates of multiple (co-morbid) chronic illnesses in older populations, age-related changes in drug metabolism, and the potential for drug interactions make medication (and other substance) misuse more dangerous in older people than in younger populations. Further, a large percentage of older adults also use over-the-counter medicines and dietary and herbal supplements, which could compound any adverse health consequences resulting from non-medical use of prescription drugs.

Find Help Near You

The following can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. A step by step guide on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on the Treatment page.

Narcotics Anonymous National Hotline: 1(877) 276-6883.

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