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Misuse of Prescription Drugs

A doctor's hand holding a pen to a prescription order form.©iStock.com/ognianm

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 nonmedical use of prescription drugs also refers to these categories of misuse. The three classes of medication most commonly misused are1:

  • 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 misuse2 over the last 15 years are reflected in increased emergency room visits, overdose deaths associated with prescription drugs3–6, and treatment admissions for prescription drug use disorders, the most severe form of which is addiction. Among those who reported past-year nonmedical use of a prescription drug, nearly 12 percent met criteria for prescription drug use disorder.1 Unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have more than quadrupled since 1999 and have outnumbered those involving heroin and cocaine since 2002.7

* Taking prescription drugs to get high is sometimes called "prescription drug abuse."

This page was last updated August 2016

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NIDA (2016). Misuse of Prescription Drugs. Retrieved , from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs

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​Research Reports

This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.