Five Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

Doctors are supposed to heal, not harm their patients. But sometimes doctors inadvertently cause harm by prescribing drugs, which can have dangerous side effects, be addictive, or even be lethal. This article details five of the most dangerous prescription drugs, which outrank the death toll of even the most deadly recreational drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

While many of the people who die from these prescription medications are prescribed them, other people die from using medications that have been prescribed to other people.

While taking these medications, in some cases, makes sense, many people are over-prescribed these medications or use them inappropriately. They may take them in dangerous combinations with other drugs or alcohol, use dosages which are higher than prescribed, or use dosages which were OK when they were a higher body weight or had greater tolerance.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If you are prescribed one of these medications, it might make sense to explore other options, such as psychological or behavioral approaches to treating anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, or pain.

You should be particularly careful about starting to take these medications if you or a family member has ever suffered from an addiction or another mental health problem. However, once you are taking them, you should not stop or take a different dosage without consulting your doctor first.



A wooden spoon full of different prescription drugs

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The number of adults in the US who experience pain (not due to cancer) rose from about 32% in 1998 to 41% in 2014 but the number of people taking opioid painkillers to deal with their pain doubled.

In keeping with this increase in painkiller use, the rate of people who have died from overdoses of prescription painkillers, such as Oxycodone (such as OxyContin), Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), and Fentanyl, has increased massively over the past decade. In 2017, over 17,000 Americans died from taking prescription painkillers.



Strictly speaking, methadone is a prescription painkiller, although, in reality, people are usually prescribed methadone to wean them off heroin, or as a heroin substitute. When used to treat heroin addiction, methadone is thought of as the lesser of two evils.

Although it is safer than heroin, it is still possible to overdose on methadone. As with other opioids, methadone is most risky when combined with other drugs, when users take different amounts of the drug, taking less, then going back to a previously safe dose is dangerous because tolerance goes down, or after significant weight loss.



Benzodiazepines are a group of tranquilizer drugs, which have been prescribed for a variety of conditions in particular anxiety and insomnia. These drugs include commonly known medications, such as alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan), as well as clonazepam (Klonopin), oxazepam (Serax), and temazepam (Restoril).

Unfortunately, for those who take them for more than a very short time, dependence can develop, with a potentially nasty withdrawal syndrome that can be life-threatening.

Although the problems with benzodiazepines have been well known for years, prescriptions for these drugs have increased about 67% from 1996 to 2013, and deaths from benzodiazepine overdose increased much more sharply - over 400%.


Stimulants for Attention Deficit Disorder

Many of the 4% to 9% of children and 4% of adults with attention deficit disorder take stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, without problems. However, there are two reasons that stimulants are included on this list: first, because they are often prescribed to children; and second, because they are often used as recreational drugs.

Stimulants are being "diverted" or sold to people for whom they were not prescribed, or taken in larger quantities than prescribed for pleasure or increasing alertness. They are commonly used by college students for these reasons.

Yet there is a risk. In 2010, U.S. poison centers reported 17,000 human exposures to ADHD medications, with 80% occurring in children under 19-years-old and 20% in adults.

And while deaths from overdose can be avoided with appropriate medical care, they can happen, and overdose with ADHD medications can make people very ill, with many cases requiring intensive care medicine and prolonged hospital stays.

An association between the use of stimulants and rare sudden unexplained death among children and adolescents has also been found. There are alternative, non-drug treatments for attention deficit disorder, such as neurofeedback, that might be considered.


Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic androgenic steroids are, strictly speaking, prescription drugs, although they are typically taken for non-medical reasons, particularly by men who want to increase their muscle mass. Bodybuilders and athletes, who are vulnerable to exercise addiction, are among those most likely to use these drugs.

Several studies have indicated dangers associated with the use of steroids. One 2015 study showed that men who test positive for steroids had twice the rates of cardiovascular disease and death as those with negative tests. There is also an association between elevated aggression and violence in steroid users, and higher rates of violent causes of death, such as homicide and suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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