From Adderall to Xanax: A guide to the most abused prescription drugs


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When we think of drug abuse, illegal drugs such as cocaine, meth and heroin usually come to mind. But the truth is that the psychotherapeutic drugs handed to us by our friendly pharmacist are used recreationally more often than any other illegal drug (with the exception of marijuana and hashish).

In 2010, about 2.7% of Americans were using psychotherapeutic drugs for reasons that did not involve their doctors telling them to do so. Pain relievers alone were actually abused more than cocaine, hallucinogens, ecstasy, meth, crack or heroin from 2002 to 2004.

These scary statistics indicate our country has a dangerous problem when it comes to prescription medication. So in support of National Medicine Abuse Awareness Month, we thought we’d provide some insight on the four medications most frequently targeted by abusers.



House M.D.’s drug of choice, opioid analgesics like OxyContin and Vicodin are prescribed to treat pain and easily make the No. 1 spot on the list of most frequently abused prescription medications.


  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana ER)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)


Nicknames: Captain Cody, Cody, schoolboy, M, monkey, white stuff, fizzies, MDMA, Oxy, Vike, percs, hillbilly heroin

How they work: Opioid analgesics mess with your pain signals used by the nervous system and brain to communicate with each other. This suppresses people’s perception of pain and almost literally “calms your nerves.”

Effects: Pain relief, euphoria, drowsiness, sedation, weakness, dizziness, nausea, impaired coordination, confusion, dry mouth, itching, sweating, clammy skin, constipation

Potential health consequences:
Here’s why opioid abuse should be taken seriously: In 2008, more than 12,000 people died from an unintentional overdose of an opioid analgesic; this compares with approximately 4,500 deaths from cocaine and about 3,000 deaths from heroin. This shocking mortality rate hasn’t always been so high; it’s quadrupled since 1999.

In addition to death, users could face these possible health consequences: slowed or arrested breathing, lowered pulse and blood pressure, tolerance (i.e., needing an increasingly higher dosage to get the same effect), addiction, unconsciousness and coma.

A shocking 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids, according to the "2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health" — and that’s just the statistic for people who can’t stop taking the drug recreationally. The number jumps to about 5.1 million if you’re wondering how many people abuse it each year.

Adults aren’t the only ones getting high. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 8% of 12th-graders experimented with Vicadin, and 4% took OxyContin recreationally in 2011. Among high school seniors, nearly one in 12 admitted to using Vicodin for nonmedical reasons, and 1 in 20 reported abusing OxyContin.

And it’s no surprise kids are getting their hands on these medicines. Hydrocodone/acetaminophen, the generic name for Vicodin, was the No. 1 most prescribed drug — and we mean out of ALL drugs, not just psychoactive ones — in 2011, with 136 million prescriptions, according to IMS Health.

The second most prescribed medicine, simvastatin — used to treat high cholesterol — didn’t even come close to that number, with only 96.6 million drugs dispensed. Just think of all the Vicodin-stocked medicine cabinets and drawers kids could be reaching into to acquire these drugs.

Sure enough, when the aforementioned 12th-graders were asked how they obtained Vicodin and OxyContin, 70% of them reported that friends or relatives had provided them with the drugs. And if you’re thinking the Internet must be to blame, think again: The study reported a negligible number of adolescents claiming they got the drug online.