Which Prescription Drugs Do Americans Abuse Most?

According to a 2010 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 7 million people in the United States — or 2.7 percent of the population — annually abuse prescription drugs. This abuse primarily occurs when people take medication not prescribed to them or take their own prescription drugs at a higher dosage than recommended by their doctor.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs fall into three categories: Opioids (pain relievers), depressants and stimulants. Below is a breakdown of each category, compiled using the latest statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse:


Medical use: Prescribed to provide pain relief unattainable through over-the-counter pain killers.

Frequency of Abuse: 5.1 million (out of 7 million Americans who abuse prescription drugs)

Commonly abused drugs in this category:

  • Vicodin/acetaminophen/hydrocodone (generic)

  • OxyContin/oxycodone (generic)

Desired effects: Pain relief, euphoria

Potential negative side effects: drowsiness, sedation, weakness, dizziness, nausea, impaired coordination, confusion, dry mouth, itching, sweating, clammy skin, constipation, lowed or arrested breathing, lowered pulse and blood pressure, tolerance, addiction, unconsciousness, coma, death (risk of death increased)

Also, specifically for oxycodone: muscle relaxation/twice as potent analgesic as morphine; high abuse potential


Medical use: Reduction of anxiety and/or insomnia.

Frequency of Abuse: 2.6 million (out of 7 million Americans who abuse prescription drugs)

Commonly abused drugs in this category:

  • Xanax/alprazolam (generic)

  • Valium/diazepam (generic)

Desired effects: Reduced anxiety, lowered inhibitions, sedation, feelings of well-being

Potential negative side effects: Slurred speech, poor concentration, confusion, dizziness, impaired coordination and memory, fever, irritability, lowered blood pressure, slowed breathing, tolerance, withdrawal, addiction, with an increased risk of respiratory distress and death when combined with alcohol


Medical use: Temporary improvement of alertness, focus, and productivity which may not exist due to disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder. May also be prescribed to relieve anxiety and/or improve patients’ mood.

Frequency of Abuse: 1.1 million (out of 7 million Americans who abuse prescription drugs)

Commonly abused drugs in this category:

  • Adderall/amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (generic)
  • Ritalin/methylphenidate (generic)

Desired effects: Feelings of exhilaration, increased energy, mental alertness

Potential negative side effects: Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism, reduced appetite, weight loss, nervousness, insomnia, seizures, heart attack, stroke

Also, specifically for amphetamines: rapid breathing, tremor, loss of coordination, irritability, anxiousness, restlessness/delirium, panic, paranoia, hallucinations, impulsive behavior, aggressiveness, tolerance, addiction

Also, specifically for methylphenidate: Decrease in blood pressure, digestive problems, loss of appetite

Do you have questions about prescription drugs? Leave them in the comments section below, email them to us onlinehealth@newshour.org or send us a tweet @jasokane. A CDC official will try to answer your questions on the PBS NewsHour website in the days ahead.

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