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Risky Business: Prescription Drug Misuse

Prescription medications are an important part of treating many health issues and are used effectively by millions of people; however, when misused they become the problem instead of the solution. We’ll look at some of the most commonly misused prescription drugs: opioid pain killers, tranquilizers (used for anxiety and muscle spasms), sedatives (used for sleep disorders), and stimulants (used for ADHD and obesity).

What Do We Mean By "Misuse"?

Misuse is when a person uses a prescription drug that is not intended for them, or uses a prescription in a way that is different than how the doctor indicated (using larger amounts, taking it more often, or using it for longer than prescribed).

Quick facts about prescription drug misuse

What kinds of prescription drugs are people misusing? [2]

  • 12.5 million people misused opioid pain relievers
  • 6.1 million people misused tranquilizers
  • 5.3 million people misused stimulants
  • 1.5 million people misused sedatives

7.1% of people aged 12 and older misused prescription drugs in the past year [1]

People with mental health conditions are three times more likely to misuse prescription drugs. [3]

How does misusing prescription drugs affect mental health?

  • Opioid pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives all have the potential to lead to substance use disorder.
  • Prescription drug misuse may cause people to experience symptoms of mental health conditions. These symptoms generally improve after a person stops using drugs but may take a month or more to go away completely. [4]
  • Drugs that slow down or calm people can cause symptoms of depression when misused. If a person goes into withdrawal from these drugs, they are likely to have anxiety. [5]
  • Drugs that act as stimulants can cause symptoms of psychotic and anxiety disorders when misused. If a person goes into withdrawal, they are likely to have symptoms of major depression. [6]
  • Opioid pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives may all cause sleep and sexual troubles. [7]

16% of parents and 27% of teens believe that using prescription drugs to get high is safer than using street drugs. [8]

People who misuse prescription drugs may be self-medicating to control symptoms of an existing (and possibly undiagnosed) physical or mental health condition, or because they like the way the drugs affect them and think they are safe to use.

Are you experiencing a prescription drug use disorder?

It is always dangerous to use prescription drugs that do not belong to you or in a way that is not prescribed. Use the checklist below to determine if you may have a serious problem with description drugs.

  • Used prescription drugs in large amounts or for longer than intended
  • Wanted to stop misusing prescription drugs but were unsuccessful in your attempts to quit
  • Spent a great deal of time getting, using, or recovering from prescription drugs that you have been misusing
  • Had strong cravings or urges to misuse a prescription drug
  • Failed to perform work, school, or home duties because of misuse
  • Continued to misuse despite it causing problems with relationships
  • Stopped participating in activities you used to enjoy because of prescription drug misuse
  • Misused prescriptions in dangerous situations (driving, etc.)
  • Continued misusing prescription drugs despite physical or mental health problems that it has caused or made worse
  • Developed a tolerance (needed more to get the desired effect) to a prescription you were misusing
  • Felt withdrawal symptoms when you stop misusing prescriptions, possibly using again to relieve your discomfort

If you have experienced two or more of these signs in the past year, you may have a prescription drug use disorder. [9]

Over 3.2 million people met the criteria for a prescription drug use disorder in the past year. [10]That's enough people to hold hands from New York to Los Angeles. [11]

Less than half of these people received treatment. [12]

What can you do about prescription drug misuse?

  • Use medications as directed.
  • Talk to your doctor about non-addictive options for treating the condition that you are being medicated for if you feel at risk for misusing your prescription. Also make sure to consult your healthcare provider before adjusting medication dosage.
  • Store medications in a safe place where they cannot be accessed by others who may want to use them inappropriately. 
  • Call 911 or get immediate help if you or a loved one have a medical emergency related to prescription drugs.
  • Properly dispose of expired or unused medications. Over half of people who misused prescription pain relievers got them from friends or relatives. [13]
    Walgreens has over 600 safe medication disposal kiosks in 45 states. If there is not a kiosk located in your area, you may call the DEA's Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539 to find a collection receptacle for unused or unwanted prescription drugs.

If you’re working on reducing your substance use but still find yourself struggling, you might be showing the early warning signs of a mental health or substance use condition. Visit to take an anonymous, free, and private mental health test. It only takes a few minutes, and after you are finished, you will be given information about the next steps you should take based on the results.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat You can also reach Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.

Did this article help increase your knowledge and understanding of mental health?