How to Identify Pills

Teenage girl (13-15) pouring out pills into hand, rear view

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There are a number of different reasons why you might need help with pill identification. Maybe you misplaced a drug label or forgot what the pills in your weekly pillbox are. Perhaps you found some pills in your loved one’s pocket while doing the laundry, and you’re worried they might be misusing them.

Considering the epidemic of prescription drug misuse and addiction and an uptick in deaths due to overdoses around the United States, you may be right to be concerned. What's more, older and younger age groups could be the most at risk of misusing prescription drugs.

Whatever your reason, knowing what some common substances look like can help you determine what the pills in question might be. However, even if you think you’ve successfully identified them, never take pills without being absolutely certain of what they are.

Commonly Misused Pills

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), commonly misused classes of prescription drugs include:

More specifically, the most commonly misused prescription drugs by brand and generic name include:

  • Adderall, Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
  • Darvon (propoxyphene)
  • Demerol (meperidine)
  • Dilaudid (hydromorphone)
  • Lomotil (diphenoxylate)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium)
  • OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet, Endocet (oxycodone)
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet (hydrocodone)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers an informative guide called Drugs of Abuse that can tell you more about some of these drugs. In it, the DEA covers the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. It includes images that could help you identify the pill, common street names, and information on how the drug affects the body.

How to Identify Common Pills

By law, every pill, tablet, or capsule approved by the FDA must be unique to make identifying each pill easier. Here are the different characteristics to look for:

  • Shape
  • Pattern (two-toned, lined, speckled, etc.)
  • Color
  • Imprint (a combination of numbers or a logo)

To identify a pill, you can go online and look for pill identification tools. For example, Poison Control Centers have a pill identifier that may help. The DEA also has images of drugs available on their website.

If an online pill identification tool does not produce any results, double-check the imprint. You might need to use a magnifying glass on very small pills to distinguish the letters and numbers.

If you're having trouble identifying the pills, you can always take them to your local pharmacist, who may be able to help you.

Finally, you can even try reaching out directly to the FDA's Division of Drug Information with a description of your pill and ask them to help you identify it. If you can't identify the pill by any of these means, it may not be FDA-approved and could be an illegal or counterfeit drug or alternative remedy.

Pill Identification

The below information can help you identify just some of the most commonly misused pills.

Adderall

One small, round, blue pill that you might find is Adderall. It has the marking "AD" on one side and the number "10" on the other.

Some people might take Adderall without a prescription to help them concentrate and to do better at school or work. Others take it to get high. Adderall pills can either be swallowed or ground up and snorted for a quicker effect.

Dilaudid

Dilaudid is an opioid that is often mixed with alcohol and/or benzodiazepines, a type of CNS depressant, to get a "better high." The small tablets can be orange (for the 2-milligram dosage), yellow (4 milligrams), or white (8 milligrams), and imprinted with the manufacturer's name. Pills can be round or triangular in shape. Dilaudid also comes in liquid form. 

DXM

A round, red pill with the markings "C C + C" (for Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold Tablets) might be a pill you come across. There are many similar pills, but only one has those markings.

Although it is just a cold and cough medication, teenagers and young adults in particular misuse the dextromethorphan (also called DXM) contained in these little red pills. Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold is also known as "triple C" in the illicit drug market.

In addition to dextromethorphan, this cold medication also contains an antihistamine. Taken in higher-than-recommended doses, it can produce a quick high, hallucinations, and/or dissociation. Deaths from kids misusing DXM and Coricidin have been reported.

Ritalin

Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, is a stimulant drug that is about the size and shape of aspirin. The small pills can be pale yellow (5 milligrams), pale green (10 milligrams), or both white and yellow (20 milligrams), and are stamped with the manufacturer's name, Ciba. Like Adderall, Ritalin is often misused to improve productivity and performance at work or school.

Xanax

Xanax is one of a group of addictive prescription medications known as benzodiazepines. It comes in a variety of shapes and colors and is imprinted with the manufacturer's name and strength including:

  • White, oval, scored tablet with "XANAX 0.25"
  • Peach, oval, scored tablets with "XANAX 0.5"
  • Blue, oval, scored tablets with "XANAX 0.25"
  • White, oblong, scored with three lines with “XANAX” on one side and "2" on the other side

People often think prescription drugs like Xanax are safer than illicit street drugs, but these medications can be very dangerous—especially when mixed with painkillers or alcohol. In fact, 16% of overdoses involving opioids also involved benzodiazepines in 2019, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. 

Vicodin

These white, oblong pills imprinted with the manufacturer name on one side and strength on the other side are one of the most commonly misused prescription painkillers. Vicodin can suppress a person's breathing, which can be life-threatening.

OxyContin

Like Vicodin, OxyContin is another opioid that can produce similar effects as heroin. They can come in round tablets and a few different colors, depending on the strength: white (10 milligrams), gray (15 milligrams), pink (20 milligrams), brown (30 milligrams), yellow (40 milligrams), red (60 milligrams), and green (80 milligrams).

Signs of Drug Abuse

In addition to finding unknown pills, there are also some signs to watch out for that may indicate someone you know may be abusing prescription or illegal drugs. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), here are some signs and symptoms that a person is misusing various prescription drugs:

  • Stimulants: Paranoia, high body temperature, irregular heartbeat
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: Slurred speech, shallow breathing, tiredness, confusion, problems with coordination
  • Opioids: Drowsiness, nausea and constipation, slowed breathing, loss of consciousness

Safety

To help prevent prescription drug abuse, there are some things you should and shouldn't do according to NIDA:

  • Always take the correct dosage and don't change it without talking to your doctor.
  • Understand how mixing other drugs or alcohol with the prescription might affect it.
  • Never share your prescription or take someone else's.
  • Store medications safely and throw out any that are no longer needed or are expired (and be sure to discard them properly).

Also, remember to discuss any past substance misuse with your doctor before taking a new medication.

What to Do Next

If you're concerned a friend or loved one might be misusing pills, sharing what you found and conveying your concerns in a non-judgmental way could be a good place to start. You can also offer to help them schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.

If the loved one in question is your teenager and you're worried approaching them won't go well, you can always ask someone else they trust and respect to step in. You could also raise your concerns with your pediatrician or a child psychologist, and they can bring up the subject during the appointment.

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.

A Word From Verywell

While there are pill identification resources online, remember to never take a pill without knowing what it is. While the list here might help you get started, there are many more pills out there that you may need help identifying. In the case that you are still stuck, your local pharmacist might be able to help you.

If you're concerned about a friend or loved one's possible prescription or illicit drug use, go ahead and talk to them, but be prepared for resistance.

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Article 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. Increase in fatal drug overdoses across the United States driven by synthetic opioids before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. December 17, 2020.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is the scope of prescription drug misuse? Updated June 2020.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Misuse of prescription drugs research report: Overview. Published June 2020.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Updated November 10, 2020.

  5. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug facts: Amphetamines.

  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Highlights of prescribing information: Dialudid. Revised December 2016.

  7. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Dextromethorphan. Published December 2019.

  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Misuse of prescription drugs research report. Updated June 2020.

  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Benzodiazepines and opioids. Updated February 3, 2021.

  10. MedlinePlus. Hydrocodone combination products. Revised January 15, 2021.

  11. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drugs of abuse: A DEA resource guide. 2020.

  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Highlights of prescribing information: OxyContin. Revised December 2016.

  13. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rise in prescription drug misuse and abuse impacting teens. Updated December 17, 2020.

  14. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Misuse of prescription drugs research report: How can prescription drug misuse be prevented? Updated June 2020.

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