Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs and Side Effects

The 11 Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs in the United States continues to be an ever-present problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, an estimated 52 million individuals aged 12 and older have used prescription drugs non-medically at some point during their lifetimes. The United States currently consumes about 75% of the world’s prescription drugs, with 6.1 million people having abused prescription drugs non-medically in the past month alone. They also note that in 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every adult in America every 4 hours  for at least 1 month.

The reports of overdose death and opioid abuse are startling and reveal that prescription drug abuse is a growing problem. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the rates of prescription drug abuse in the US are now considered at epidemic levels. Among these commonly abused prescription medications, there are 11 variants that are considered to be the most popular. These 11 commonly abused prescription drugs fall into the following categories:


  • Opioids – used for pain.
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants – used for anxiety and sleep disorders.
  • Stimulants – used for ADHD and Narcolepsy.


1. Fentanyl (Opioid)

A popular brand of Fentanyl is called Duragesic. It is a powerful synthetic opiate not unlike morphine – but more powerful. In its proper usage, Fentanyl is often prescribed to treat patients suffering from severe pain, such as those who are recovering from surgery. Fentanyl is also used to treat chronic pain sufferers who may have become physically tolerant to opiates.

Fentanyl binds to the body’s opiate receptors which are highly concentrated in regions of the brain where pain and emotions are controlled. They can increase levels of dopamine in the reward areas of these receptors which ultimately produces a state of euphoria and relaxation.

Abusing Fentanyl and/or combining it with street drugs such as heroin or cocaine can result in the following side-effects:


  • Drowsiness
  • Respiratory Depression/Arrest
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Sedation/Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Addiction

2. Hydrocodone (Opioid)

A popular brand of Hydrocodone is Vicodin. This is another opioid pain medication commonly used for around-the-clock treatment of severe pain. However, use outside of a medical setting is strongly discouraged. Administered incorrectly, whether it be by a larger amount or a longer amount of time than prescribed, can lead to potentially fatal consequences.

Notable side-effects of Hydrocodone include, but are not limited to:


  • Bloating
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Addiction
  • Tightness in Chest
  • Pain
  • Overdose

Further, it is not recommended to crush, break, or open an extended-release pill, as this can be potentially fatal. It is also not recommended to share Hydrocodone with anyone, as misuse of the drug is incredibly dangerous. This drug is known to be addictive as well, making it inappropriate to prescribe, in most cases, to individuals with a history of past addictions.

3. Oxycodone (Opioid)

Perhaps the most well-recognized brand of Oxycodone is OxyContin. Prescribed in medical settings to assist individuals with moderate to severe pain, Oxycodone is extremely dangerous when used outside of these parameters as a recreational drug. The National Institute of Health recommends that Oxycodone not be prescribed for pain that can be easily controlled by other medications. And it’s not hard to see why! Oxycodone can cause serious and even life-threatening problems, especially within the first 72 hours of treatment or any time when the dose is increased. It requires careful monitoring by a doctor to be administered safely.

The NIH also notes that “Drinking alcohol, taking prescription or nonprescription medications that contain alcohol, or using street drugs during your treatment with oxycodone increases the risk that you will experience serious, life-threatening side effects.”

Side effects of Oxycodone misuse include:


  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach Pain
  • Chest Pain
  • Rash/Hives
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Seizures

4. Oxymorphone (Opioid)

The most popular brand name for this opioid is Opana. Like the other opioids on this list, Oxymorphone is commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain, but also can be used for sedation and to treat severe anxiety. It can be used for other conditions, as well, if deemed necessary by a doctor. Oxymorphone is a narcotic pain reliever that works primarily with the brain to reduce pain, but can also affect the circulatory and respiratory systems at higher doses.

Side effects of Opana include:


  • Dizziness
  • Blurred Vision
  • Drowsiness
  • Addiction
  • Headache
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Chest and Abdominal Pain
  • Hallucination
  • Severe Vomiting

5. Propoxyphene (Opioid)

Also commonly known as Darvon. Though it is typically used to treat moderate to severe pain, the FDA has advised against prescribing Propoxyphene due to its effects on the heart. The official report reads: “ new data show that the drug can cause serious toxicity to the heart, even when used at therapeutic doses.” Because of this, the “FDA has requested that companies voluntarily withdraw propoxyphene from the United States market.”

In addition to this dangerous discovery regarding this drug, other side effects of Propoxyphene include:


  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Constipation
  • Trouble Breathing
  • Urethra Spasms
  • Bloody Stool or Urine
  • Sudden Heart Stopping

6. Hydromorphone (Opioid)

Also known as Dilaudid. Hydromorphone runs a high particularly high risk for addiction. It is used primarily to treat pain but may also be administered for other uses based on doctor discretion. Hydromorphone can potentially slow or stop breathing when not carefully monitored. Additionally, it can cause potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms in newborns, which is why it is important that patients who are pregnant inform their doctors before receiving any medicated treatment.

Potential side effects of Hydromorphone use or misuse include:


  • Convulsions
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Mood/Mental Changes
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Headaches
  • Unconsciousness
  • Shallow Breathing

7. Pentobarbital Sodium (CNS)

Also known as Nembutal. Pentobarbital Sodium is part of a group of drugs known as barbiturates, and it effectively slows the activity of the brain and nervous system. Frequently used as a short-term treatment for insomnia, Pentobarbital is also used as an emergency treatment for seizures and to induce sleep for surgery. Individuals with a genetic enzyme disease called porphyria are discouraged from using Pentobarbital as it can cause an activation of symptoms affecting the skin and nervous system.

Other potential negative side effects include, but are not limited to:


  • Residual Sedation
  • Nausea
  • Vertigo
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Lethargy

8. Diazepam (CNS)

More commonly known by the brand name Valium. Diazepam is frequently used to relieve anxiety, muscle spasms, and seizures, in addition to reducing agitation caused by alcohol withdrawal. Diazepam can also be used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and panic attacks, at the doctor’s discretion. But using the drug outside of a medically-controlled setting can lead to addiction as well as building a tolerance for drug, which becomes less effective at with excessive use.

Potential side effects of Diazepam abuse include:


  • Blurred Vision
  • Difficulty Urinating
  • Constipation
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Severe Skin Rash
  • Difficulty Walking
  • Irregular Heartbeat

9. Alprazolam (CNS)

Better known as Xanax, Alprazolam is frequently prescribed to treat generalized anxiety disorder, symptoms of anxiety and anxiety-induced depression, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. It is a benzodiazepine, which means that targets certain chemicals within the brain that are often unbalanced in those struggling with anxiety, resulting in anxiety symptoms.

Side effects which can result from improper use of Xanax include:


  • Memory Problems
  • Loss of Self Control
  • Hyperventilation
  • Difficulty Moving
  • Trouble Breathing
  • Chest Tightness
  • Vomiting Blood
  • Sudden Uncontrollable Actions

10. Methylphenidate (Stimulant)

This medication is also known as either Ritalin or Concerta. Methylphenidate is frequently used as part of a treatment program to control the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. However, Methylphenidate is also used to treat narcolepsy, which can otherwise cause excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks. Methylphenidate consumption should be carefully regulated as it can be habit forming. Moreover, taking too much Methylphenidate can result in the medication ultimately not working.

Other potential side effects or Ritalin include:


  • Numbness
  • Seizures
  • Hallucination
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Blistering or Peeling Skin
  • Unexplained Wounds
  • Muscle Tightness

11. Amphetamines (Stimulant)

More commonly known as Adderall, Amphetamine is a stimulant as well as an appetite suppressant. By increasing certain chemicals in the body, it stimulates the central nervous system. This can result in increased heart rate and blood pressure. Like Methylphenidate, Amphetamines are also used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

Some of the potential side effects of Amphetamine abuse include:


  • Abdominal Cramps
  • Uncontrolled Repetitive Movements
  • Pounding in the Ears
  • False Sense of Well-Being
  • Fever
  • Fainting
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Vomiting

Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem. That being said, there are a number of treatment options available for those struggling with an addiction to prescription medications. With proper treatment, recovery is possible. Otherwise, the risks of prescription drug abuse are, at best, dangerous, and at worse, may prove fatal.

If you or a loved one is abusing prescription medication, call 844-299-0618 for immediate help.

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