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Prescription Drugs & Cold Medicines

What is Prescription Drug Abuse:

Some medications have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties and, because of that, are sometimes abused—that is, taken for reasons or in ways or amounts not intended by a doctor, or taken by someone other than the person for whom they are prescribed. In fact, prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are, after marijuana (and alcohol), the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older. Learn more

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Commonly Abused Drugs:

Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include opioids (for pain), central nervous system (CNS) depressants (for anxiety and sleep disorders), and stimulants (for ADHD and narcolepsy).

Opioids include:

  • Fentanyl (Duragesic®)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana®)
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon®)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
  • Meperidine (Demerol®)
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil®)

Central nervous system depressants include:

  • Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®)
  • Diazepam (Valium®)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax®)

Stimulants include:

  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®)
  • Amphetamines (Adderall®)

Statistics and Trends

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Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2013 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Any Prescription Drug Past Year - - 15.00
Amphetamine Past Year 2.60 5.90 8.70
Adderall Past Year 1.80 4.40 7.40
Ritalin Past Year 1.10 1.80 2.30
Cough Medicine (non-prescription) Past Year 2.90 4.30 5.00
Narcotics other than Heroin Past Year - - 7.10
Vicodin Past Year 1.40 4.60 [5.30]
OxyContin Past Year 2.00 3.40 3.60
Tranquilizers Past Year 1.80 3.70 4.60
*Additional data (Past Month, Lifetime) available.

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National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Trends in Prevalence of Psychotherapeutics (Nonmedical Use) for Ages 12 or Older, Ages 12 to 17, Ages 18 to 25, and Ages 26 or Older; 2012 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period Ages 12 or Older Ages 12 to 17 Ages 18 to 25 Ages 26 or Older
Psychotherapeutics (Nonmedical Use) Lifetime [20.90] 10.00 28.10 [21.00]
Past Year [6.40] 6.60 [13.70] [5.10]
Past Month 2.60 2.80 5.30 2.10

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Featured Publications

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Opiates (Mind Over Matter)

Published January 1997. Revised September 2014. Describes how opiates, such as Vicodin, morphine, heroin, and codeine, affect the brain, the nervous system, and the limbic system, which controls emotions. En Español

Cough and Cold Medicine Abuse (DrugFacts)

Revised May 2014. Provides facts about the abuse of cough syrups and other cold medicines, including their effects on the brain and dangers of using these products to get high.

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Heroin (Research Reports)

Published October 1997. Revised February 2014. Offers the latest scientific information on heroin use and its consequences as well as treatment options available for those struggling with heroin addiction.  En Español

Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications (DrugFacts)

Published June 2009. Revised May 2013. Provides an overview of commonly abused prescription drugs—opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants—and explains how they affect the brain, treatments available, and reported use. En Español

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Medications Development at NIDA (Topics in Brief)

Revised November 2011. Offers an update on the research strategy underway in the push to develop effective addiction medications, including currently approved drugs, new compounds, and vaccines.

Related Resources

Other Resources

Past information on many drugs of abuse is available on our Archives site.

This page was last updated July 2014

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Research Report

Research Report Cover

Prescription Drug Abuse

Examines the non-medical use of prescription drugs-opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants-describing adverse health effects of their use and the prevention and treatment of addiction.

Safe Disposal of Medicines

Opioid and Pain Management CME courses link
eNIDA. eTool Innovations for Provider Education. Drug Screening Tool

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Easy-to-read Drug Facts

Prescription Drug Abuse

Medicine Abuse Project - Drugfee.org
Learn what you can do to
prevent medicine abuse at
medicineabuseproject.org

Prescription Drug Abuse and Seniors