Abuse of prescription medications is a growing problem affecting the entire world. It refers to the use of prescription drugs in a dose higher than that prescribed by a doctor, or use of prescription drugs that were particularly prescribed for someone else. Abuse of prescription medications can easily be detected, and getting treated for it is much like getting help for drug and alcohol addiction.

Listed below are 6 of the most commonly abused prescription medications.


Barbiturates are a group of sedatives. Sedatives are prescription medications mainly indicated for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders, as well as sleeping disorders such as insomnia. Because of their action on depressing the central nervous system, sedatives can significantly reduce stress and anxiety in patients. The three major groups of sedatives are benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and barbiturate-like substances.

Barbiturates are highly lethal substances with a small margin of safety. They can lead to coma and death when taken just even ten times the normal dose. Because of their potency, they are considered very effective sedatives and are mostly indicated for the treatment of anxiety and seizure disorders.


Benzodiazepines are a group of sedatives that are responsible for central nervous system depression. Benzodiazepines are not as potent as barbiturates, and as such, are not as unsafe when taken in overdose. Benzodiazepines are used in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders, but they can also be used for other disorders such as epilepsy and insomnia. Even cocaine users who are experiencing withdrawal syndrome can benefit from benzodiazepines to control their symptoms, but opioid abusers can also use them to augment the addictive and euphoric effects of opioids.


Painkillers, as the name suggests, are a group of prescription drugs used to relieve pain. Some painkillers, like NSAIDs and acetaminophen, are available over-the-counter, while the more potent ones or those given to patients who have a predilection to abuse, like opioids, may require a prescription.

Various painkillers exert their actions on the body in different ways, which all work to reduce pain. Opioids, for example, work by blocking calcium channels and inhibiting the release of substance P and glutamate, which are neurotransmitters responsible for the perception of pain, thereby reducing pain sensation. In contrast, NSAIDs work by blocking prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are molecules involved in pro-inflammatory processes, therefore NSAIDs have the ability to reduce inflammation and minimize inflammatory symptoms such as pain and redness.

Many different types of painkillers can be indicated for the treatment of different types of pain. For example, NSAIDs work best in relieving acute pain as they are fast-acting painkillers that reduce inflammation in just a short amount of time. Some examples of NSAIDs are ibuprofen and naproxen, and they are used in treating mild to moderate pain such as headache, menstrual cramps, and toothache. Acetaminophen or paracetamol, on the other hand, can also be used as an antipyretic drug that can lower fever.

Among all prescription painkillers, opioids are regarded as having the highest potency in the treatment of pain. In fact, opioids are the gold standard in treating most severe acute and chronic pain because of their high efficacy. However, extreme caution must be observed when prescribing and using opioids because chronic dependence on opioids can easily lead to abuse and addiction.


Steroids, or anabolic steroids, are a synthetic form of the naturally occurring hormone testosterone. Because of their structure, anabolic steroids have the ability to mimic the actions of testosterone in the body, including its masculinizing and muscle-building effects. Medically, anabolic steroids are mainly indicated in the treatment of testosterone-deficient patients, including in diseases such as primary hypogonadism.

Like other psychoactive drugs such as cocaine and heroin, steroids have euphoric and addictive effects in the brain, which is why they can also be prone to abuse. Another major reason for steroid abuse is the desire of users to enhance their athletic abilities or to improve their physical appearance. Thus, most patients of steroid abuse are athletes and bodybuilders.


Dextromethorphan is among the drug class known as antitussives. It is used in relieving cough and has long been available as an OTC drug and in many cough and cold preparations. Because dextromethorphan has a chemical structure related to phencyclidine and ketamine— drugs that have hallucinogenic effects—chronic use of dextromethorphan can also result in addiction.


Ketamine is an anesthetic medication that can help reduce pain at lower doses. It also enhances the effects of sedatives and reduces the need for high doses of painkillers such as in burns or post-surgical care. Recently, researchers have begun to study the efficacy of ketamine in treating severe depression.

Abuse of ketamine is mainly due to its hallucinogenic effects and its ability to produce dissociative anesthesia, a trance-like state in which the person feels ‘detached’ from their environment and they have distorted perception of sound and sight. Ketamine is more popularly called “Special K,” “Kitkat,” or “vitamin K” when used as a club drug.

While helpful for a lot of different medical conditions, some prescription drugs are more prone to abuse than others. This is why health providers, the individuals’ families, and the patients themselves must work hand-in-hand so that those being prescribed medications will be better able to understand the underappreciated risks of taking them.