The Most Abused Prescription Drugs: Household Medicine Cabinets can be a Gateway to Addiction

Written By Detoxes - March 5th, 2017
The Most Abused Prescription Drugs: Household Medicine Cabinets can be a Gateway to Addiction

In recent years, prescription drugs have brought the dangers of addiction and overdose closer to home than most Americans probably realize. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most commonly abused drugs in the United States after marijuana are doctor prescribed medicines. An estimated 48 million Americans (aged 12 and older) have reported taking prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.

Whether it was to get high, lose weight, or improve focus, whenever prescription drugs are taken for reasons other than its doctor-intended purpose, users face the same risks associated with illegal “street” drugs, notably addiction and overdose. Yet those who admit to taking medicine either prescribed for someone else or misusing their own prescription for nonmedical reasons has grown to 1 in every 5 Americans.

There’s an alarming corollary to this increase in prescription drug abuse: an increase in accidental overdoses. Likewise, cases that involve addiction to prescription drugs are on the rise in treatment clinics nationwide. Most responsible for this recent epidemic are three types of prescription drugs: opioids, depressants, and stimulants.


Prescribed to treat chronic pain, opioids are often given to patients after surgery or a serious injury as well as those diagnosed with certain forms of cancer. When used as directed, opioids are extremely effective painkillers and rarely have addictive side effects. Indeed, opioid prescriptions have been on the rise since the 1990s as doctors confront the aging population of Baby Boomers.

When abused, however, recreational and long-term use of opioids poses several risks. First, chance of repeated use, dependence, and—ultimately—addiction is extremely high, akin to illegal opiates like heroin. Second, when combined with depressants, including alcohol, the consequences can be fatal.

In fact, opiates have such a depressing effect on the central nervous system that any exposure—even when taken on their own—carries a risk of death from overdose.

Most abused examples:

  • OxyContin
  • Percocet
  • Suboxone
  • Vicodin
  • Codeine


Depressants (also called sedatives) can help treat patients who suffer from insomnia or anxiety. Specifically, Valium and Xanax are two examples of a class of depressants known as benzodiazepines. Considered safer than barbiturates, benzodiazepines carry less risk of overdose but are still addictive when taken improperly.

Exactly how benzodiazepines work on the brain isn’t entirely known. However this class of drugs is thought to depress the central nervous system by enhancing the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid—or GABA for short. When present in the brain or spinal cord, GABA suppresses the activity of nerve cells. An over-active nervous system is thought to cause anxiety and restlessness and so enhancing GABA provides a relieving, calming effect to those who need it.

When this prescription drug is abused—especially in combination with alcohol—depressants can cause severe black outs, leaving users no recollection of what happened while high on the drug. And once dependent on a drug like Xanax, users often keep using to avoid withdrawal symptoms that include increased anxiety, insomnia, as well as physical symptoms similar to withdrawing from sedative-hypnotics and alcohol.

Most abused examples:

  • Valium
  • Xanax


Stimulants, such as amphetamines like Adderall and Dexedrine, are used to treat Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The increase in alertness and attention helps those diagnosed with ADHD to focus on singular tasks, which leads to an increase in productivity.

Stimulants work by increasing heart rate and blood sugar and opening the pathways of the respiratory system. As such, stimulants are often misused as a way to get high, boost energy, or lose weight. Not only are users at risk of addiction, high doses can pose danger to vital organs like the heart, causing irregular heartbeat and potentially even cardiac arrest.

Most abused examples:


  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Ritalin