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Prescription Medicine Abuse

Prescription medicines can be helpful in treating many illnesses when used as directed. But when these medicines are used by the wrong person or in the wrong way, they can have serious consequences.

Prescription drug abuse is a major public health concern. There is a common misperception that prescription drugs are safer or less harmful than illicit drugs. However, when taken inappropriately, prescription medicines can cause serious harm.

Commonly misused prescription medicines

The 3 classes of medications most misused are: 

  • Opioids, which are usually prescribed to treat pain. Examples include medicines containing oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet) and those containing hydrocodone (Norco). 
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and zolpidem (Ambien). 
  • Stimulants, which are most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders. Examples include medicines containing methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (Adderall XR, Mydayis), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine).

Common signs and symptoms of an overdose

    • Pinpoint pupils
    • Shallow, slowed or stopped breathing
    • Drowsiness or confusion
    • Unconsciousness or unresponsiveness
    • Slurred speech 
    • Unsteady walking 
    • Drowsiness or confusion 
    • Unresponsiveness or unconsciousness 
    • Shallow or slowed breathing (increased if using alcohol or other CNS depressants)
    • Agitation
    • Irregular or increased heartbeat
    • High blood pressure
    • High body temperature
    • Paranoia or anxiety

Call the 24-Hour Poison Help Line for Additional Support:


Possible signs of prescription drug misuse

  • Missing pills or medicine bottles from home medicine cabinets 
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed 
  • Requesting early refills or continually “losing” prescriptions, so more prescriptions must be written 
  • Making poor decisions 
  • Changes in mood, physical appearance, sleeping or eating pattens 
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities and declining grades


Talk with your healthcare provider if you think you or someone you know may have a problem with prescription drug use. A person who has overdosed needs immediate medical attention. Call 911 if the person has stopped breathing, collapses or has a seizure. Opioid overdoses can be treated with naloxone. Learn more about Naloxone on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.

Prevention tips

  • Teach medicine safety. Medicines should only be used as directed and should never be shared with others. Always read and follow instructions. 
  • Safeguard your medicine cabinets. Keep all medicines locked away. Know what medicines you have and how much, so you will know if anything is missing. 
  • Properly dispose of medications if they are no longer needed. Learn where to safely dispose of medications.
  • Educate yourself. Learn the risk factors and warning signs of medicine misuse and abuse. Talk about the risks associated with intentional misuse. Seek help if concerned.

If you suspect medicine misuse, an overdose or have questions, call 1-800-222-1222.