4 Types of Commonly Abused Medications

Older woman holding a prescription bottle

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When prescription or over-the-counter medications are taken for non-medical purposes, they can produce serious adverse health effects, including addiction, dependence, overdose, and death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people who have become addicted to prescription drugs in the United States has risen to epidemic levels. Annual deaths from accidental overdose have increased at an alarming rate, rising from 4,000 to 14,800 per year over a 10-year period.

A person can become dependent on medication even when taken as prescribed.

The Most Commonly Abused Drugs

Which medications are causing an increase in addiction and overdose deaths? Many medications carry the potential for abuse, but the most commonly abused drugs in the United States include opioids, stimulants, depressants (sedatives), dextromethorphan.


Opioids are natural and synthetic compounds that are prescribed mostly for the relief of pain. If taken exactly as prescribed, they can be safe and effective for managing pain in patients with injuries, those who are recovering from surgery, or people with chronic pain.

Painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet), morphine, fentanyl, and codeine are the most abused prescription drugs in the U.S.

Opioids are usually taken by mouth (orally). Many opioid painkillers, such as a certain formulation of oxycodone (oxycontin), are intended to be time-released drugs. However, if the pills are crushed, the resulting powder can be snorted or injected, causing a rapid release of the drug and a subsequent "high."

When higher doses of opioid medications than intended are released into the bloodstream, it produces a quicker dependence on the drug. Opioid abuse is extremely dangerous and can lead to overdose or death.

The life-threatening consequences of opioids may be increased when they are mixed with other substances. For example, opiates should never be taken with alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines.


Stimulants, such as Adderall, Dexedrine, and Ritalin, are usually prescribed to increase alertness, attention, and energy. Stimulants are mainly prescribed for treating ADHD and sleep disorders, and to augment antidepressants.

Originally, physicians prescribed stimulants to treat a variety of medical conditions, but their use was greatly curtailed as the potential for abuse and addiction became better known.

When abused, stimulants are usually taken orally. However, some users will dissolve the pills in water and attempt to inject the mixture. This can potentially cause vascular problems.

There are several medical dangers associated with stimulant abuse, which are primarily related to the cardiovascular system. Rapid or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and heart damage or failure are just a few examples. There can also be serious psychiatric reactions to stimulant abuse.

Stimulants are more dangerous when combined with other prescriptions, such as certain antidepressants.

Over-the-counter medications also pose a risk if mixed with stimulants—especially cold medicines containing decongestants. The mix can cause dangerously high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat.


Another group of drugs adding to the increase of overdose deaths in the United States is sedative-hypnotics; primarily barbiturates and benzodiazepines.

  • Barbiturates, such as Mebaral and Nembutal. This category of medications is used as anesthetics, anti-seizure medications, and was previously used for anxiety and sleep. Given the potential risks of dependency and overdose associated with these drugs, however, their use in sleep and anxiety has generally been supplanted by the benzodiazepines.
  • Benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin, which are used to treat anxiety, seizures, and sleep. A particular danger of the benzodiazepines is when they are taken along with other drugs that can cause drowsiness, including alcohol, prescription pain medications, or some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications.

An overdose of these sedatives can cause unconsciousness, respiratory failure, and death.

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

One of the most commonly abused over-the-counter drugs is cough syrup and caplets that contain dextromethorphan (DXM). Used as directed, these cough remedies are safe and effective, but their potential for abuse is great.

Adolescents are especially at risk for abusing OTC cough medicines that contain DXM.

DXM can produce mind-altering effects similar to those produced by ketamine and PCP because it affects similar regions of the brain. However, excessive amounts of cough medication must be consumed to achieve these effects. Sometimes, the drug is mixed into a concoction called purple drank.

In large doses, DXM can cause nausea and vomiting; increased heart rate and blood pressure, and impaired motor function. In excessive amounts, the drug can produce severe respiratory depression and a lack of oxygen to the brain.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers -- United States, 1999--2008.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Research Report Series: Prescription Drug Abuse.

  4. Lakhan SE, Kirchgessner A. Prescription stimulants in individuals with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: misuse, cognitive impact, and adverse effectsBrain Behav. 2012;2(5):661-677. doi:10.1002/brb3.78

  5. Kang M, Galuska MA, Ghassemzadeh S. Benzodiazepine Toxicity. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.