The recreational use of prescription drugs is a serious problem in our country. While the majority of people do take their medications responsibly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 52 million people have used prescription drugs nonmedically at least once in their lifetimes.

Since prescription drugs are legal and prescribed by doctors, they tend to have a more “innocent” image. This a problem for two reasons. First, teens and young adults are more willing to experiment with them because they view them as being safer. Second, if friends or family discover their loved one is abusing prescription drugs, they generally don’t take the issue as seriously.

The reality is that prescription drugs are very dangerous when taken recreationally. People run the risk of overdose or fatal drug interactions.

If you know someone who is taking prescription medications for nonmedical purposes, this page is for you. Armed with the right information, you can be instrumental in getting your loved one help.

Which Prescription Drugs are Most Widely Abused?

There are three types of drugs that are most commonly abused.


Opioids are prescription painkillers that are used to treat pain. The most common include Vicodin, OxyContin or codeine. They are typically prescribed after surgery or to help patients with chronic discomfort.

When used under a doctor’s supervision, painkillers are generally safe and effective. When abused, however, the risks increase significantly and can put a person at risk for addiction, overdose or death.


Depressant medications, also known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants or tranquilizers, slow down activity in the brain and spinal cord. Examples include Valium or Xanax.

Doctors prescribe antidepressants for patients who have difficulty sleeping or suffer from extreme anxiety. Like opioids, depressants are typically safe and effective when taken under a doctor’s supervision. The risks increase with recreational use, causing dangerous problems such as addiction, breathing difficulties or death.


Stimulants, or amphetamines, increase activities and processes in the body, such as mental alertness, attention and energy. The most common stimulants include Ritalin and Adderall. They are used to treat conditions like ADHD, narcolepsy, and in some situations, depression.

When used appropriately, stimulants can be safe and effective. However, they can also raise a person’s blood pressure and increase the heart rate.

What are the Risks of Abusing Prescription Drugs?

Anytime a medication is used in a way that is not directed by a doctor, there are short- and long-term health consequences that can occur.

  • Abusing opioids can cause a person to feel sick and sleepy. It can lead to problems with constipation, too. At high doses, opioids can cause breathing problems that lead to death.
  • Abusing depressants may cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, sleepiness and disorientation. Seizures can sometimes occur with regular use. At high doses, depressants can lead to breathing problems and death, particularly when combined with alcohol.
  • Abusing stimulants can make a person feel paranoid. Stimulants may increase the heart rate and body temperature to dangerous levels.

What Makes Them So Addictive?

Aside from the health problems that can occur, prescription drugs also raise the risk of addiction. Dependence usually forms after a person has been using prescription drugs for a while. More of the drug may be needed to achieve the same feeling (tolerance), and if the user stops taking the drug, they can experience withdrawal symptoms.

Repeated use and abuse of prescription drugs can lead to permanent changes in the brain’s functioning. Without the drug, the user no longer feels “good” or “normal,” and this makes it hard to stop.

Can You Die from Prescription Drugs?

More than half of the overdoses deaths in the United States are caused by prescription drugs. The number of deaths from prescription medications has increased significantly over the past decade. In 2014 alone, there were 25,700 deaths. The majority involved either opioids or benzodiazepines.

What Types of Intervention are Available?

Prescription drugs are not any safer than illicit drugs. More people die from overdoses of prescription opioids than from all other drugs combined, including heroin and cocaine. Unless a person receives professional intervention, it’s very difficult to stop abusing prescription drugs on their own.

If your loved one has an addiction to prescription drugs, we encourage you to reach out to The River Source and educate yourself on the available treatment options, such as residential treatment, intensive outpatient (IOP) and our day program. We treat addiction to prescription drugs rigorously because we know how dangerous it can be.

Our program is highly successful because of our focus on the mind, body and spirit. We also have an amazing team of naturopathic doctors and provide each patient with continuing care. Call us today to learn more.