Prescription Drug Abuse & Treatment

Certain prescription medications, specifically stimulants, sedatives, and opioids, are commonly abused. Misuse or abuse of prescriptions are among the top types of substances abused in the US.

Did you know most health insurance plans cover addiction treatment?

What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse, which may also be referred to as prescription drug misuse or prescription diversion for nonmedical use, can include:1, 2

  • Taking a prescription drug in a way that it was not prescribed, such as injecting or snorting it.
  • Taking a higher dose of a prescription drug than prescribed.
  • Taking someone else’s prescription medication.
  • Using a prescription drug to get high.

Opioids are the most commonly misused prescription drug, with approximately 1.4 million people reporting misuse of opioid painkillers in 2019 in the U.S.3

In 2019, Approximately 681,000 people in the U.S. reported having abused sedatives and tranquilizers, and another 558,000 reported abusing prescription stimulants.3

Which Prescription Drugs Are Commonly Misused?

There are three main categories of prescription drugs that are more commonly abused than others.

Prescription Opioids

Opioids are a class of medication that provides pain relief by activating opioid receptors in the brain to diminish pain signaling sent from the body through the nervous system.1 While opioids are a valuable medication for people with severe pain, these drugs are addictive.1 Prescription opioids include such drugs as:1,4

CNS Depressants

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, as well as non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotic medications used as prescription sleep aids. Over the years, these medications have been widely prescribed as sedatives and tranquilizers to manage conditions such as anxiety, seizures, and sleep disorders.

Like opioids, depressants can also be abused.1 Some examples of common CNS depressant drugs are:1, 4


A third commonly misused class of prescription drugs is stimulants, which are most commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).1 Prescription stimulants include: 4

  • Adderall, an amphetamine.
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin).
Signs of Abuse

What Are the Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse?

Doctors and other treatment professionals assess patterns of problematic substance use (including prescription drug abuse) to diagnose substance use disorders. Below are the set of criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 used to make these diagnoses.5

A person who demonstrates two of the below criteria within a 12-month period may be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.5

  • Taking more of a drug than you originally intended to take.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop using or cut back on use.
  • Giving up previously enjoyed hobbies and leisure pursuits in order to use the substance.
  • Being unable to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home, due to substance use.
  • Spending a substantial amount of time and/or money obtaining drugs, using them, and recovering from using them.
  • Using substances despite knowing that they are making physical or mental health issues worse.
  • Using substances in high-risk situations, such as driving or swimming.
  • Experiencing interpersonal conflict because of substance use.
  • Experiencing cravings, or strong urges, for the substance.
  • Having developed tolerance or needing more of the substance to get the previous effect.
  • Experiencing withdrawal, or uncomfortable physical symptoms, when you stop using the substance.

In addition, when a person has an opioid use disorder, you may also see behaviors such as:6

Health Risks

Long-Term Health Effects & Dangers of Prescription Drug Abuse

The health effects of prescription drug misuse differ according to which medication is being misused.

Prescription Opioid Health Risks

Potential side effects of opioid use include:7

  • Drowsiness or sedation.
  • Dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Nausea, vomiting.
  • Confusion.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Itching and sweating.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Depression.
  • Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy, and strength.
  • Tolerance, meaning you might need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief.
  • Physical dependence, meaning you have symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped.
  • Risk of overdose due to suppression of respiratory function, which can result in coma or death.1

CNS Depressant Health Risks

CNS depressants provide sedating and calming effects that make this group of medications effective for anxiety and sleep disorders. Other effects people can experience while using or misusing a CNS depressant include:8

  • Slurred speech.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Confusion.
  • Headache.
  • Light-headedness.
  • Seizures.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Problems with movement and memory.
  • Lowered blood pressure.
  • Slowed breathing.

Stimulant Health Risks

The risks of misuse of stimulant medication can include:1

  • High blood pressure.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Heart attack.
  • Seizures.
  • Hostility.
  • Paranoia and other psychotic features.

How Can You Treat Prescription Drug Abuse?

Treatment for certain types of prescription drug abuse may include a combination of behavioral therapy and medications to manage withdrawal (for both opioids and sedatives) and for longer term recovery (for opioid use disorders). There are currently no medications specifically approved to manage stimulant addiction, so the treatment approach will be primarily behavioral.9, 10

Behavioral therapy, which may include individual, group, and family therapy sessions, helps change patterns involving drug use and teaches coping skills to help you resist cravings or other triggers for use. Behavioral therapy also helps people learn drug-free ways to cope with stress.9

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is frequently prescribed for people with opioid use disorder. Treatment medications may include buprenorphine and/or methadone, which act on the same brain receptors as opioids to help control cravings and withdrawal symptoms.9

Beyond the opioid detox or withdrawal management period, naltrexone may also be used to treat opioid addiction; it blocks the effects of opioids, should they be used, to deter relapse. Used in conjunction with behavioral therapy, these medications have helped many in recovery from opioid use disorder.1

Addiction Treatment at River Oaks Treatment Center

River Oaks facilityRiver Oaks provides the entire continuum of care, from detox to inpatient or outpatient treatment. With a range of evidence-based approaches to treatment and therapy, River Oaks can help you get on and stay on the path towards recovery and sobriety.

Call us today at to learn more about inpatient treatment near Tampa at River Oaks.

Most insurance plans are required to offer some form of coverage for rehab. Learn how to use health insurance to pay for rehab and what your plan covers by checking your insurance below.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.