Misuse of Prescription Drugs Research Report

A doctor's hand holding a pen to a prescription order form.©iStock.com/ognianm

Misuse of prescription drugs means taking a medication in a manner or dose other than prescribed; taking someone else’s prescription, even if for a legitimate medical complaint such as pain; or taking a medication to feel euphoria (i.e., to get high). The term nonmedical use of prescription drugs also refers to these categories of misuse. The three classes of medication most commonly misused are:

  • opioids—usually prescribed to treat pain
  • central nervous system [CNS] depressants (this category includes tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics)—used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • stimulants—most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Prescription drug misuse can have serious medical consequences. Increases in prescription drug misuse1 over the last 15 years are reflected in increased emergency room visits, overdose deaths associated with prescription drugs2–5, and treatment admissions for prescription drug use disorders, the most severe form of which is an addiction. Drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017. From 2017 to 2019, however, the number of deaths dropped to 14,139. From 2019 to 2020, the number increased to 16,416.6