Prescription drugs are among the most commonly abused controlled substances in the U.S. among people 14 and above, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, with only marijuana use more commonplace. The main categories of prescribed medications that people most often abuse are opioids, depressants and stimulants. Symptoms differ, depending on the type of drug a person is abusing.

Opioids: Intended Uses and Signs of Abuse

Fentanyl, meperidine, morphine, methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone are some of the prescription drugs in the opioid opiodscategory. Brand names include Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin. Doctors prescribe these medications primarily as pain relievers after oral surgery, injury or major surgery.

People taking an opioid drug develop a tolerance to it over time. When this occurs, they have to take more medication to get the same relief. Approximately one out of four become physically dependent on the drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control. When people take opioids without a doctor’s prescription or ingest more than prescribed, they become abusers.

The physical symptoms of prescription opioid abuse include:

  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Losing consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Slower respiration
  • Pupil constriction
  • Decrease in coordination
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Mood swings

The effects of long-term prescription opioid abuse can be life threatening. These include:

  • Weakening of the immune system, leading to chronic illness
  • Severe digestive problems
  • Respiratory distress
  • Cumulative organ damage

The behavioral symptoms of opioid abuse are similar to the symptoms of other drug abuse behaviors. They often consist of:

  • Doctor shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions
  • Sudden shortage of cash
  • Social withdrawal

Depressants: Indications and Abuse Symptoms

whitepillsCentral nervous system depressants are also called tranquilizers and sedatives. They slow down brain activity, producing a calming effect. CNS depressants include benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax, which physicians prescribe for short-term treatment of anxiety and panic attacks. Some benzodiazepines, such as ProSom or Halcion, are prescribed for sleep disorders.

Ambien or zolpidem, Lunesta or eszopiclone, and Sonata or zalepon are sleep enhancers that are not benzodiazepines but within the same CNS depressant category. When compared to drugs such as Xanax, these prescription medications do not pose as much of a risk for addiction.

Barbiturates such as Amytal and Seconal comprise a third group of CNS drugs. Doctors use them primarily in surgery and to treat seizures. They prescribe them less often than other depressants due to the significant risk of overdose.

Some of the symptoms of CNS depressant abuse are:

  • Sleepiness
  • Reduced coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncontrolled eye movements
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Euphoria
  • Minimal inhibition
  • Dizziness
  • Depression
  • Reduction in blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing

Stimulants: Uses and Abuses

drugssyringeStimulant drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta, both methylphenidates, and amphetamines such as Adderal help children and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. They have a calming effect and help those with ADHD obtain better focus.

College students who need to stay alert to study all night before an important exam may take stimulants without a prescription. Others may abuse the prescription drug just to enjoy the euphoric effect. It ramps up the brain’s production of dopamine.

People who abuse stimulants may present the following symptoms:

  • Exhilaration
  • False confidence
  • Heightened alertness
  • Surges of energy
  • Restlessness
  • Heightened aggression
  • Irritability
  • Speaking quickly with a tendency to ramble
  • Hallucinations
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia

As the stimulant wears off and the extra dopamine in the brain diminishes, stimulant abusers tend to become depressed, which makes them more likely to abuse again.


Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the U.S., and it causes tens of thousands of deaths each year. Patients becoming dependent upon a prescribed substance represent only one example of abuse. People taking a prescription belonging to someone else and those who shop for prescriptions from several doctors to obtain medication illicitly are also abusers. The symptoms of such abuse are serious and can become life-threatening.