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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Preventing Drug Abuse and Addiction

Prescription Drug Abuse: A Fast-Growing Problem

The pie graph shows the Number (in Thousands) of Americans Age 12 and Older Dependent on or Abusing Alcohol and Illicit Drugs

Text description of this graph is available on a separate page.
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

In 2009, approximately 7 million persons were current users of prescription pain relievers, stimulants, and antidepressants but not for valid medical reasons (2.8 percent of the U.S. population). This class of drugs is broadly described as those targeting the central nervous system, including drugs used to treat psychiatric disorders.

Prescription drug abuse is the intentional use of a medication without a prescription; in a way other than as prescribed; or for the experience or feeling it causes. It is not a new problem, but one that deserves renewed attention. For although prescription drugs can be powerful allies, they also pose serious health risks related to their abuse.

The medications most commonly abused are:

  • Pain relievers - 5.1 million
  • Tranquilizers - 2.2 million
  • Stimulants - 1.0 million
  • Sedatives - 0.4 million

Among adolescents, prescription and over-the-counter medications account for most of the frequently abused drugs by high school seniors (excluding tobacco and alcohol).

Nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors reported nonmedical use of Vicodin; 1 in 20 reported abuse of OxyContin.

When asked how prescription pain relievers were obtained for nonmedical use, 59 percent of 12th graders said they were given to them by a friend or relative. The number obtaining them over the Internet was negligible.

Among those who abuse prescription drugs, high rates of other risky behaviors, including abuse of other drugs and alcohol, have also been reported.

Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider

  • What is the best way for me to tell if I’m addicted to alcohol and/or drugs?
  • What approach do you suggest I take for my addiction or substance abuse?
  • Do I need to see a mental health specialist?
  • How can I find out if my insurance will cover the costs of my addiction treatment?
  • Can I be treated while still working and caring for my family, or will I have to go into a recovery facility?
  • Are there additional or alternative ways to treat this problem?
  • What Web sites should I visit to find out more about addiction?

Fall 2011 Issue: Volume 6 Number 3 Page 21