Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics & Why They’re on the Rise

Prescription drug abuse is where an individual intentionally uses a prescription or over-the-counter medication without written consent from a doctor. Although this is not a new problem, it’s one that is growing in intensity and remains a significant issue in the United States. Consider that in 12th graders, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drugs next to marijuana. In fact, prescription and OTC medications account for most cases of drug abuse in teenagers. One in 12 high school students have reported using Vicodin; 1 in 20 have reported using OxyContin. These statistics come from a 2011 study from the University of Michigan.

The most common types of prescription drugs that are abused include the following:


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

Central Nervous System Depressants

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


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

At The River Source, we see firsthand how many of our patients are battling addiction to prescription medications, and we know just how grueling this path can be. With the increasing rates of prescription drug abuse in the U.S., it begs the question: why are so many people turning to prescription medications, especially the young?


The main reason why prescription drug abuse is a significant issue is that these medications are not hard to come by. Consider that 70 percent of 12th graders admitted that they obtained prescription drugs from a friend or relative, according to a 2011 University of Michigan study. For curious teenagers, a readily available supply of prescription medications can start the path to addiction.

Not only are prescription drugs stocked in many homes, but also they are being prescribed more often. Between the years of 1991 and 2010, written prescriptions for stimulants increased from 5 million to 45 million; written prescriptions for opioids went from 75.5 million to a startling 209.5 million.

Misconceptions Regarding Safety

There’s more to the equation than just the availability of prescription medications. Another reason why prescription drug abuse is so prevalent is because of the misconception toward the safety of these substances. Since prescription drugs are often FDA approved and prescribed by doctors, users feel that they are safe to take under any circumstance. This is not true of course, and these medications can be just as dangerous as any other type of illegal substance.

Because of the acceptance of prescription drugs, people are more likely to abuse these drugs in severe ways. They often combine them with other prescription medications to enhance the effects, which can lead to overdose. The potency of these medications also varies. For example, a teenager may find a prescription for OxyContin in the home, take the pills and buy more on the street. However, these two dosages could vary greatly, leading to accidental overdose.

Varied Motivations

Finally, prescription drug abuse is rising because of society’s acceptance toward using prescriptions to ease various symptoms. When we think of drug abusers, we generally think of individuals who want to escape their deeper, darker internal problems. Yet with prescription medications, society believes it’s okay to use medication to assist with sleeping problems, pain, anxiety and depression. This affects teenagers most of all, as they believe that any uncomfortable symptom they experience can be treated with medicine.

The bottom line is this: prescription drug abuse is just as serious as any type of illegal drug abuse. It should not be ignored or downplayed as being less serious than another type of addiction. When the drugs run out – and they will – addicts act the same way, regardless of their drug of choice. They go to the street and buy more of their drug to satisfy their dependency. While not every case of addiction can be prevented, it’s essential that those who are prescribed prescription medication keep their drugs in a locked cabinet and accounted for. It could be the very thing that prevents a curious individual from trying a drug in the first place.

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