Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics & Facts

Discover eye-opening prescription drug abuse statistics & facts, revealing the impact on health, mental well-being, and society.


July 4, 2024

Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is a growing concern in society. It is important to understand the definition and scope of prescription drug abuse, as well as its prevalence.

Definition and Scope of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse refers to the misuse or excessive use of prescription medications, either with or without a prescription, in a manner that is not medically intended. This includes taking higher doses than prescribed, using someone else's prescription, or using the medication for non-medical purposes.

Prescription drug abuse encompasses various types of medications, including opioids/narcotics, depressants, and stimulants. These medications are typically prescribed to treat medical conditions such as pain, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, when used improperly, they can lead to serious health consequences.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics & Facts

The prevalence of prescription drug abuse is a significant concern. In 2019, approximately 10% of individuals aged 12 or older in the United States consumed illicit drugs, and among these individuals, an estimated 6.5 million misused prescription drugs (WebMD). The non-medical use of prescription drugs among individuals aged 12 or older was higher in 2019 than in 2002, with an estimated 9.4 million people misusing these medications.

When looking at specific age groups, young adults, especially those aged 18 to 25, have a higher rate of abusing prescription drugs compared to other age groups. In 2019, nearly 3.8 million individuals in this age group engaged in prescription drug abuse. However, it's important to note that prescription drug abuse is not limited to young adults. In 2019, individuals aged 26 or older had a higher misuse rate of prescription drugs compared to those aged 12 to 17, with approximately 5.6 million participants misusing these medications.

To address the prevalence of prescription drug abuse, it is crucial to raise awareness, provide education, and implement prevention strategies. By understanding the scope of the issue, we can work towards reducing prescription drug abuse and promoting safer medication use.

Demographics of Prescription Drug Abuse

Understanding the demographics of prescription drug abuse is crucial for addressing this widespread issue. By examining the age groups at risk and gender differences in prescription drug abuse, we can gain valuable insights into the prevalence and patterns of this problem.

Age Groups at Risk

Prescription drug abuse affects individuals across various age groups, but certain age ranges are particularly vulnerable. In 2019, approximately 10% of individuals aged 12 or older consumed illicit drugs, with 6.5 million misusing prescription drugs in the United States alone (WebMD).

Among these age groups, young adults, especially those aged 18 to 25, have a higher rate of abusing prescription drugs compared to other age groups. In 2019, nearly 3.8 million young adults engaged in this behavior, highlighting the significance of this issue among the younger population. However, it is important to note that individuals aged 26 or older also had a higher misuse rate of prescription drugs, reaching around 5.6 million participants in 2019.

In 2017, over 18 million Americans misused prescription drugs, with the greatest increase in use seen in those aged 12-25. This age group accounted for approximately 2 million new opioid misusers (Midwest Detox Center). These statistics emphasize the importance of focusing prevention and intervention efforts on younger individuals to address the rising trend of prescription drug abuse.

Gender Differences in Prescription Drug Abuse

Gender also plays a role in prescription drug abuse patterns. While both males and females are susceptible to this issue, there are some notable differences.

In terms of overall numbers, more males tend to misuse prescription drugs compared to females. However, the gap between the two genders has been narrowing in recent years, indicating a growing concern among females as well.

It is important to note that gender differences may exist in terms of the types of prescription drugs abused. For example, opioids/narcotics are commonly misused by both genders, but females tend to have higher rates of abuse when it comes to depressants and stimulants.

By understanding the age groups at risk and the gender differences in prescription drug abuse, we can tailor prevention and intervention strategies to address the specific needs of these populations. It is crucial to focus on education, awareness, and providing support services to combat this widespread issue and promote healthier choices among individuals of all demographics.

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse is a significant issue, with certain types of drugs being more commonly abused than others. Understanding the specific drugs that are frequently misused can help in addressing the problem effectively. Three primary categories of prescription drugs that are commonly abused include opioids/narcotics, depressants, and stimulants.


Opioids are the most abused type of prescription drug, with addiction and overdose rates climbing annually (Drug Abuse Statistics). These drugs are typically prescribed to manage moderate to severe pain. Commonly abused opioids include oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin), hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), morphine, and fentanyl.

The misuse of prescription opioids can lead to a range of negative consequences, including addiction, physical dependence, and the risk of overdose. In fact, prescription opioids are driving the opioid overdose epidemic in the United States, with 65% of drug overdoses linked to opioids, as compared to 14% in 2000 (Delamere). It's important to note that individuals who misuse prescription opioids are also 19 times more likely to transition to heroin use.


Depressants are another category of prescription drugs commonly abused. These drugs, also known as central nervous system depressants, are prescribed to treat conditions such as anxiety, panic disorders, and sleep disorders. Some commonly abused depressants include benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium.

While depressants can be beneficial when used as directed by a healthcare professional, their misuse can lead to various health risks. Taking higher doses than prescribed or using them without a prescription can result in sedation, drowsiness, impaired coordination, and even respiratory depression. Prolonged abuse of depressants can lead to addiction and other long-term consequences.


Stimulant medications are commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders. These medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin, work by increasing alertness, attention, and energy levels. However, stimulants are also frequently abused for their potential to enhance focus and productivity.

Misuse of stimulants can have serious health consequences. It can result in increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, anxiety, insomnia, and even psychosis. Prolonged abuse of stimulants can lead to addiction and other adverse effects on mental health.

Understanding the commonly abused prescription drugs is essential for addressing the issue of prescription drug abuse effectively. By raising awareness about the risks and consequences associated with opioids/narcotics, depressants, and stimulants, we can work towards prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies to combat prescription drug abuse. 

Consequences of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse can have severe consequences on individuals and society as a whole. Understanding the health risks, impact on mental health, and economic and social consequences is crucial in addressing this growing concern.

Health Risks and Complications

Prescription drug abuse often leads to addiction and other health complications, emphasizing the critical need for preventive measures and treatment options. Some commonly abused prescription drugs, such as opioids/narcotics, depressants, and stimulants, carry specific risks:

  • Opioids/narcotics, including drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, can cause respiratory depression, overdose, and even death if misused. In 2018, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., with opioids being involved in 70% of cases (Midwest Detox Center).
  • Depressants, such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates, can lead to slowed breathing, sedation, and memory problems. Misuse of these drugs can result in addiction and overdose.
  • Stimulants like amphetamines and methylphenidate can cause increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and anxiety. Prolonged abuse can lead to cardiovascular complications and psychosis.

It is critical to recognize the potential dangers associated with prescription drug abuse and seek help if addiction or misuse is suspected. Professional guidance and treatment can significantly improve outcomes and prevent further health complications.

Impact on Mental Health

Prescription drug abuse can have a profound impact on mental health. Individuals who abuse prescription drugs may experience:

  • Increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
  • Worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.
  • Cognitive impairments, including memory problems and difficulty concentrating.

The underlying reasons for prescription drug abuse often relate to self-medication and attempts to cope with emotional or psychological distress. Treating co-occurring mental health disorders alongside substance abuse is crucial for comprehensive recovery.

Economic and Social Consequences

The economic and social consequences of prescription drug abuse extend beyond individual health. Some notable statistics include:

  • In 2017, over 18 million Americans misused prescription drugs, with 2 million being new opioid misusers. The greatest increase in use was seen among those aged 12-25 (Midwest Detox Center).
  • Prescription opioid misuse alone costs the U.S. approximately $78.5 billion annually in healthcare costs, addiction treatment, loss of productivity, and criminal justice involvement.

The impact on individuals, families, and communities can be far-reaching, affecting relationships, employment, and overall quality of life. Addressing prescription drug abuse requires comprehensive strategies that incorporate prevention, treatment, and support services.

By understanding the consequences of prescription drug abuse, individuals and society can work together to combat this issue. Education, awareness programs, and prescription drug monitoring programs play a crucial role in prevention. Treatment options and support services are vital for those seeking recovery and reclaiming their lives from the grip of prescription drug abuse.

Factors Influencing Prescription Drug Abuse

When examining the issue of prescription drug abuse, it is essential to understand the various factors that influence its occurrence. Factors such as availability and access to prescription medications, peer pressure, and mental health conditions play significant roles in the prevalence of prescription drug abuse.

Availability and Access

The accessibility of prescription drugs contributes significantly to their misuse. Prescription medications are often obtained legally through healthcare providers. However, they can also be acquired illicitly through various means, such as sharing medications or obtaining them without a prescription. The ease of accessing prescription drugs, combined with inadequate monitoring systems, can contribute to their misuse and abuse.

Efforts to address this issue include the implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs. These programs aim to track and regulate the dispensing of prescription medications, helping to identify patterns of abuse and prevent the diversion of drugs for non-medical use.

Influence of Peer Pressure

Peer pressure and social influences can play a significant role in prescription drug abuse, particularly among adolescents. Adolescents may feel compelled to conform to their peer group and gain acceptance by experimenting with drugs. The desire to fit in and be part of a social circle can lead to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications.

It is crucial to educate adolescents about the risks associated with prescription drugs and empower them to make informed decisions. Promoting healthy coping mechanisms and building resilience can help mitigate the influence of peer pressure on prescription drug abuse.

Mental Health and Co-occurring Disorders

Mental health conditions often underlie substance abuse, including prescription drug misuse. Individuals may turn to prescription medications as a means to self-medicate or cope with symptoms associated with conditions such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.

Addressing mental health concerns is essential in preventing and treating prescription drug abuse. Integrated treatment approaches that address both substance use disorders and mental health conditions have shown positive outcomes. By providing comprehensive care and support, individuals with co-occurring disorders can receive the necessary treatment to address the underlying causes of their prescription drug abuse.

Understanding the factors that contribute to prescription drug abuse is crucial for effective prevention and intervention strategies. By addressing issues such as availability and access, peer pressure, and mental health conditions, we can work towards reducing the prevalence of prescription drug abuse and promoting healthier choices and behaviors.

Prevention and Treatment of Prescription Drug Abuse

Addressing the issue of prescription drug abuse requires a comprehensive approach that focuses on both prevention and treatment. By implementing education and awareness programs, utilizing prescription drug monitoring programs, and providing various treatment options and support services, it is possible to combat prescription drug abuse effectively.

Education and Awareness Programs

Education and awareness programs play a vital role in preventing prescription drug abuse. These programs aim to educate individuals about the risks associated with prescription drug misuse and provide information on proper medication use, storage, and disposal. By increasing awareness among the general population, healthcare professionals, and patients, these programs help promote responsible medication practices.

Schools represent one of the most effective channels for influencing youth substance use, including prescription drug abuse. Prevention programs for adolescents should target improving academic as well as social and emotional learning to address risk factors for substance misuse (NCBI Bookshelf). By incorporating substance abuse prevention education into the curriculum, schools can empower students with the knowledge and skills necessary to make informed decisions about prescription drug use.

Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs

Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) are state-run databases that track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled substances, including prescription drugs. These programs help healthcare providers identify potential cases of prescription drug abuse by monitoring the prescribing patterns and identifying individuals who may be obtaining excessive amounts of medication from multiple sources.

By providing healthcare professionals with access to patient prescription history, PDMPs enable them to make more informed decisions when prescribing medications. This helps to identify individuals who may be at risk of prescription drug abuse and allows for early intervention and appropriate follow-up.

Treatment Options and Support Services

Treatment for prescription drug abuse typically involves a combination of medical, psychological, and social interventions. It is crucial to address the underlying causes and co-occurring disorders that contribute to substance abuse.

Integrated treatment approaches, which combine medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with behavioral therapies, have been effective in managing prescription drug abuse. MAT involves the use of medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, to help individuals reduce cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms. Coupled with behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management, these treatment options can significantly improve patient health and quality of life.

Support services, such as counseling, support groups, and peer recovery programs, also play a crucial role in the recovery process. These services provide individuals with the necessary emotional support, coping strategies, and tools to maintain long-term sobriety.

By combining education, prevention, monitoring, and comprehensive treatment, it is possible to address the issue of prescription drug abuse effectively. These efforts not only help individuals struggling with prescription drug abuse but also have broader societal benefits, including reducing healthcare costs, improving productivity, and addressing health disparities (NCBI Bookshelf).


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