The Most Addictive Prescription Drugs on the Market

Medically reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD on January 5, 2018Written by Brian Krans and Heather Cruickshank on May 16, 2011

Understanding prescription drug addiction

Just because a doctor prescribes a pill doesn’t mean that it’s safe for everyone. As the number of issued prescriptions rises, so do the rates of people misusing prescription drugs.

In a survey conducted in 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 18.9 million Americans aged 12 and older misused prescription drugs in the past year. About 1 percent of Americans aged 12 and older had a prescription drug use disorder.

Drug addiction is a component of drug use disorder. It’s a disease that can affect your brain and behavior, making it difficult to control your use of drugs. Some people become addicted to illicit recreational drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. However, it’s also possible to become addicted to medications that your doctor has prescribed. If you become addicted to a prescription drug, you may compulsively use it, even when it causes you harm.

Some prescription drugs are more addictive than others. Most addictive drugs affect your brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine. This results in a pleasurable “high” that can motivate you to take the drug again. Over time, you might become dependent on the drug to feel “good” or “normal.” You might also develop a tolerance to the drug. This can push you to take larger doses.

Read on to begin learning about prescription drugs that are commonly misused.

Opioids

Opioids produce a euphoric effect. They’re often prescribed for pain. Signs and symptoms of opioid misuse may include:

Oxycodone (OxyContin)

Oxycodone is commonly sold under the brand name OxyContin. It’s also sold in combination with acetaminophen as Percocet. It changes how your central nervous system (CNS) responds to pain.

Like heroin, it creates a euphoric, sedative effect. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 58.8 million prescriptions for oxycodone were dispensed in the United States in 2013.

Codeine

Codeine is typically prescribed to treat mild to moderate pain. It’s also combined with other medications to treat cold and flu symptoms. For example, it’s commonly found in prescription-strength cough syrup.

When consumed in high quantities, codeine-based cough syrup has a sedative effect. It can also cause altered levels of consciousness. It provides the base for an illicit drug concoction known as “purple drank,” “sizzurp,” or “lean.” This concoction also contains soda and sometimes candy.

Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It’s prescribed for acute and chronic pain, typically in people with cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It creates feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

Fentanyl is also illegally manufactured and sold as an illicit recreational drug. In many cases, it’s mixed with heroin, cocaine, or both. In October 2017, the CDC reported that fentanyl is involved in over half of opioid-related overdose deaths across 10 states.

In addition to the common signs and symptoms associated with opioid misuse, fentanyl misuse may also lead to hallucinations and bad dreams.

Meperidine (Demerol)

Meperidine is a synthetic opioid. It’s often sold under the brand name Demerol. It’s typically used to treat moderate to severe pain. Like other opioids, it produces feelings of euphoria.

According to the CDC, 2,666 Americans died in 2011 from drug poisoning that involved opioid painkillers other than methadone, such as meperidine or fentanyl.

Opioid withdrawal

If you’re addicted to opioids, you’ll likely develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants

CNS depressants include barbiturates and benzodiazepines. They’re also called tranquillizers and have a calming effect. Signs and symptoms of misuse include:

Alprazolam (Xanax)

Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine. It’s commonly sold under the brand name Xanax. It’s prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders. It depresses your CNS, which has a calming effect. Some people misuse it for its fast-acting sedating effects.

According to the CDC, more than four times as many Americans died in 2015 than 2002 from overdoses that involved benzodiazepines. In many of those cases, people died after combining benzodiazepines with opioids.

Additional signs and symptoms of alprazolam misuse include trouble sleeping, swelling of the hands or feet, and tremors.

Clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium)

Clonazepam and diazepam are benzodiazepines. They’re used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. They’re also used to treat seizures. Clonazepam is commonly sold under the brand name Klonopin. Diazepam is commonly sold as Valium.

Like Xanax, these drugs are often misused for their sedative effects. They produce “highs” that can feel similar to the effects of alcohol. For example, they can cause feelings of drunkenness, talkativeness, and relaxation.

It’s not uncommon for people to recreationally misuse Xanax, Klonopin, or Valium in combination with other drugs. According to the CDC, the number of overdose deaths that involved both benzodiazepines and opioids more than quadrupled between 2002 and 2015.

Potential signs and symptoms of clonazepam or diazepam misuse may also include:

Withdrawal from CNS depressants

If you’re addicted to CNS depressants, you’ll likely develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

Stimulants

Stimulants increase your brain activity. This helps boost your alertness and energy levels. Signs and symptoms of misuse include:

Amphetamine (Adderall)

Amphetamine is commonly known as “speed.” It’s a CNS stimulant. It’s used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.

Products that contain amphetamine are often misused for their energizing effects. For example, Adderall is a product that combines amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It’s often misused by people are sleep-deprived, such as truck drivers, shift workers, and college students working on deadlines. According to a study from the University of Michigan, 9 percent of college students in 2012 reported misusing Adderall.

In addition to the typical signs of stimulant misuse, amphetamine misuse may also be characterized by:

Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Similar to Adderall, methylphenidate is a stimulant that affects your CNS. It’s commonly sold under the brand name Ritalin. It increases levels of dopamine in the brain, which helps improve attention. It’s used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Like other stimulants, it can be habit-forming.

One reason that Ritalin and other prescription stimulants are commonly misused is their availability. According to the DEA, more than 13 million prescriptions for methylphenidate were filled in 2012.

Methylphenidate misuse may also lead to agitation or trouble sleeping.

Withdrawal from stimulants

If you’re addicted to stimulants, you may develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

Helping loved ones with prescription drug addictions

Prescription drug addiction can negatively affect your health. It can also put you at risk of a fatal overdose. Drug addiction can also put a strain on your finances and relationships.

Do you suspect that someone you love is misusing prescription medications? It’s important for them to get professional help. Their doctor or mental health specialist might recommend counseling. They might also refer your loved one to an intensive rehabilitation program. In some cases, they might prescribe medications to help curb drug cravings or relieve symptoms of withdrawal.

If you suspect that someone you love has a prescription drug addiction, there are ways that you can help.

How to Help

  1. Look for credible information about prescription drug addiction. Learn more about the signs, symptoms, and treatment options.
  2. Tell your loved one that you’re concerned about their drug use. Let them know that you want to help them find professional support.
  3. Encourage your loved one to make an appointment with their doctor, a mental health specialist, or an addiction treatment center.
  4. Consider joining a support group for friends and family members of people with drug addictions. Your fellow group members can offer social support as you strive to cope with your loved one’s addiction.

For more information on drug addiction, including potential treatment options, visit these websites:

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