Pills being poured from a pill bottle into someone's hand

Generation Rx

Millions of Americans abuse prescription drugs. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 11.5 million Americans over the age of 12 misused prescription pain medication in 2016. Prescription pain pills can be easy to get, and many people, including teens and tweens, see them as safer than street drugs.

The usual suspects

Addiction, overuse, mixing prescriptions and taking drugs without a prescription are the most common forms of abuse. Most people know that sleeping aids and painkillers can be addictive. However, they often don't know the dangers of mixing or taking more than what's prescribed of antianxiety medications, sleeping aids, sedatives, stimulants and even cold medications without talking to a doctor.

Here are just a few of the most commonly misused prescription drug medications:

  • Painkillers: It's easy to get addicted to or abuse many drugs prescribed for pain, including opioids like oxycodone (common brand names: Percocet, OxyContin) and meperidine (brand name: Demerol). If you're prescribed an opioid for pain, talk to your doctor about your risk of addiction and to determine whether opioids are the right treatment for you. Learn more about opioids.
  • If you misuse sleep aids, you can become clumsy, have trouble breathing, get dizzy because you have low blood pressure, slur your speech or get confused. In extreme cases, they can put you in a coma or cause death.
  • Sleeping aids: You can only get most sleeping pills and other sedatives with a prescription because you can easily become dependent on them. Examples of such sleep aids include zolpidem (Ambien), alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium).
  • Stimulants: Doctors commonly prescribe stimulants for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Stimulants can also be used to treat respiratory problems, obesity and sleep disorders.

If you take more of them than prescribed, you can get overly excited or giddy. If you abuse them, your heart can race or you can hyperventilate (reducing blood flow to your brain). You can shake uncontrollably or get anxious, hostile or aggressive. Severe abuse puts you at risk for suicide, seizures or heart attack. Common stimulants include methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine).

A dangerous combination

In addition to using too much of a prescribed drug, you can damage your health by mixing a drug with other drugs, herbal supplements or alcohol. For example, if you take the prescription medication sumatriptan (Imitrex) for migraine headaches with some medicines for treating depression, you can get a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome causes agitation, sweating, shivering, a racing heart, jerking and twitching, nausea, and sometimes shock and delirium.

It's important to keep track of the possible drug interactions of the drugs you take. That includes interactions with alcohol, caffeine, herbs, supplements and over-the-counter medications.

Prescription for safety

  • Don't take more or less, or stop taking, a medicine you are prescribed without talking to your doctor.
  • Know how drugs you are taking might affect driving, using machinery and so on.
  • Learn about potential drug interactions with alcohol, other prescription medicines and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Tell your doctor if you have had problems with substance addictions in the past.
  • Make sure your primary care doctor knows about every medication you are taking, including supplements.
  • Don't use other people's prescription medications. Don't share yours.
  • Always follow medication directions carefully. Talk to your pharmacist if you have questions.