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US Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 20, 2019

Prescription drug abuse is no small matter. Just because these drugs are legally prescribed does not mean that they are safe or less dangerous than other drugs of abuse. On the contrary, certain prescription drugs are some of the most addictive substances which Americans face today.

Opioid pain relievers, sedatives, stimulants, and tranquilizers are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. They are sometimes referred to as psychotherapeutic drugs. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that “in 2015, an estimated 6.4 million Americans aged 12 or older were current misusers of psychotherapeutic drugs, which represent 2.4 percent of the population aged 12 or older.”

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse results when a person misuses their personal prescription or someone else’s (including drugs bought off the street). While some people abuse these drugs because of the way they make their body feel, most people do so because of the psychoactive, or mind-altering, properties. Recreational users seek to create a:

  • Performance enhancing effect
  • Sedated or calm state
  • Euphoric or pleasurable effect
  • Rush or high

You’re still at risk even if you’re misusing your prescription in an attempt to self-medicate the condition the drug was prescribed for. Any time you alter the dosage (changing the dose or frequency by which you take your medication) you are increasing your potential for harm and addiction.

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Who Abuses Prescription Drugs?

The earlier abuse begins, the higher the risks. Prescription drug misuse can cause a variety of health problems at any age. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “among those who reported past-year nonmedical use of a prescription drug, nearly 12 percent met criteria for prescription drug use disorder.” Here’s a breakdown of how certain ages abuse these drugs:


The NSDUH estimates that within the past 30 days, roughly 2.0 percent of individuals aged 12 to 17 abused a psychotherapeutic drug. Abuse at a young age carries great risk. As cautioned by NIDA, “25% of those who begin abusing prescription drugs at age 13 or younger met clinical criteria for addiction sometime in their life.”
Fortunately, there is positive news. The 2016 Monitoring the Future survey found that in the past five years pain reliever abuse dropped 45 percent in high school seniors.

Young Adults

In 2014, ADHD stimulants, anti-anxiety medications, and opioid pain relievers were most heavily abused by individuals aged 18 to 25, as detailed by NIDA. From 1999 to 2014, prescription drug overdoses quadrupled. In 2014, there were 1,700 fatalities (most due to opioids). This outnumbered the combined total of heroin and cocaine overdoses and equated to almost five deaths per day.


The NSDUH determined that 2.0 percent of adults aged 26 and over currently abused some form of a psychotherapeutic drug. This totals 4.1 million American adults.

What Types Of Prescription Drugs Are Abused?

Certain prescription drugs are abused even more frequently than their illegal counterparts, including heroin. Specifically, the NSDUH reported that misuse of prescription:

  • Pain relievers ranked second highest
  • Tranquilizers ranked fourth
  • Stimulants ranked fifth
  • Sedatives ranked ninth

All of these drugs can cause addiction, overdose, and death. It’s important to note that sedatives and tranquilizers are most commonly categorized together as sedatives. The NSDUH lists them separately.

How Common Is Prescription Pain Reliever Abuse?

Opioid pain reliever abuse is largely responsible for our nation’s opioid epidemic. When abused, these drugs create a euphoric state similar to that which is induced by heroin. Examples of abused painkillers include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Morphine (Roxanol)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)

Out of the total number of individuals aged 12 or older who reported psychotherapeutic drug misuse to the NSDUH, three fifths claimed to abuse pain relievers within the past thirty days. This equates to 3.8 million Americans or 1.4 percent of the population, or, more specifically:

  • 276,000 (1.1 percent) adolescents
  • 829,000 (2.4 percent) young adults
  • 2.7 million (1.3 percent) adults

“Unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have more than quadrupled since 1999 and have outnumbered those involving heroin and cocaine since 2002,” as outlined by NIDA. Prescription pain reliever abuse is believed to lead to heroin use for some individuals.

How Frequently Are Tranquilizers Abused?

Tranquilizers slow (depress) your central nervous system (CNS). This means that your heart, blood pressure, and breathing rates decline. Used properly, they induce sleep, create a sedated state, and/or reduce seizures.

Most common benzodiazepines:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

As reported by the NSDUH, 0.7 percent, or 1.9 million Americans aged 12 and older abuse a tranquilizer drug, totaling:

  • 162,000 (0.7 percent) adolescents
  • 582,000 (1.7 percent) young adults
  • 1.1 (0.5 percent) million adults

Abusing these drugs can create intense drowsiness, dizziness, impaired coordination and memory, and even induce a coma.

What Are The Rates Of Prescription Stimulant Abuse?

As explained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “stimulants make people more alert, increase their attention, and raise their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.” The majority of ADHD medications are stimulants, including:

  • Amphetamines (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta)

People abuse stimulants to lose weight or to increase their academic and/or professional performance. Stimulant abuse is especially prevalent within college-aged individuals. Some experts believe that certain individuals pretend to have ADHD in order to obtain a stimulant drug for the purpose of illicit abuse.

As found by the NSDUH, 0.6 percent, or 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and up abused stimulant drugs. This breaks down to:

  • 117,000 (0.5 percent) adolescents
  • 757,000 (2.2 percent) young adults
  • 779,000 (0.4 percent) adults

Stimulant abuse can damage your heart and create an imbalanced mental state, causing anger, paranoia, or even psychosis.

What Is The Scope of Prescription Sedative Abuse?

Sedatives alter the way your brain works by decreasing certain types of brain activity. These changes reduce anxiety and/or induce sleep. They also decrease the functioning of your CNS. People abuse sedatives to obtain an intense calm or sense of euphoria.

Frequently abused sedatives include:


  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal)


  • Zolpidem (Ambien)

According to the NSDUH, roughly 0.2 percent, or 446,000 Americans aged 12 and up abused a sedative drug. This equates to:

  • 21,000 (0.1 percent) adolescents
  • 86,000 (0.2 percent) young adults
  • 340,000 (0.2 percent) adults

The adverse effects of sedative misuse is similar to that of tranquilizers, as explained by NIDA. Frighteningly, some people abuse certain types of sleep aids as date rate drugs. CNN reported that in 2013, benzodiazepine overdoses were second only to opioid painkillers in terms of prescription drug overdoses. Benzodiazepines are very dangerous, and even deadly, when combined with opioid medications.

What Other Types Of Prescription Drugs Abused?

Additionally, people abuse other prescription drugs, such as:

If you’ve begun abusing someone else’s medication, or if you’re taking your medication in a way other than prescribed, you are endangering your health and putting yourself at risk for addiction.

Begin Creating A Drug-Free Life Today

Prescription drug abuse is dangerous and needs to be taken seriously. Do you take your medication in a way other than prescribed? Or do you know someone else who is abusing prescription drugs? If so, let us help you. We have more information on prescription drug abuse and addiction. can help you find a treatment program that can get you back on your feet. Contact us today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Commonly Abused Drugs Charts

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

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