Prescription painkillers have grown to be the second most popular category of illicit substances second only to marijuana. Abuse rates are highest among teenagers and young adults, although abuse spans every age range. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, seven million Americans reported past-month prescription medication abuse in 2009. About eight percent of high school seniors used prescription painkillers at least once, and over half claimed to have acquired them from a family member or close friend.

There are several reasons that prescription medication abuse has increased in recent years. In a general sense, it is the widespread availability and perceived harmlessness of these substances that has led to the popularity of them. There has been a significant increase in prescriptions written for these medications, and they are becoming more and more popular in common households. Also, because these are prescribed by doctors, people assume they are safe to abuse in comparison to illicit street substances.

Commonly Abused Prescription Medications

The most commonly abused class of prescription medications is opioids. These include oxycodone, oxycontin, hyrdrocodone, and codeine. The name brand for acetaminophen and hydrocodone is Vicodin, and it is the most popular of the prescription painkillers. These medications act as central nervous system depressants, and cause sedation and euphoria if taken in large enough doses. When taken as prescribed, prescription painkillers relieve pain and cause sedation.

Benzodiazepines are another class of prescription medications that may be abused. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for those with anxiety or sleep disorders, seizures, or alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Taken at larger than prescribed doses, benzodiazepines produce sedative, muscle relaxant, and anxiolytic effects. Dependence builds rapidly, and withdrawal effects may be fatal. Overdose is also potentially lethal, especially when benzos are used in combination with alcohol or opioids.

The third category of prescription medications that are abused is amphetamines. Amphetamines are prescribed for those with attention disorders and sleep disorders. They reduce hunger, produce wakefulness, and increase energy. When taken in excess, amphetamine provides an effect that has earned it the nickname “speed”.