Medicine Abuse: What’s Happening & Why

Medicine abuse is a national epidemic. More Americans are abusing prescription medicine than ever, and like other types of drug use, problematic behavior often begins during the teen and young adult years. In addition to the well-known opioid epidemic, the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs like benzodiazepines, stimulants, barbiturates and DXM are having an adverse effect in communities across the nation.

What is Going On?

Used as prescribed or directed, medicines improve our lives. When misused and abused, the consequences can be devastating, particularly among teens.

1 in 4 teens reports having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime. 1

Our society has become familiar — and comfortable — with the common use of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. As new medicines for alleviating symptoms come to market, they are heavily promoted with their images advertised in newspapers, magazines, on television and the internet, raising our understanding of the conditions they treat. As a result, our young people have grown up associating medicine with solving problems — and have a heightened awareness of the positive effects of Rx and OTC medicines.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family and acquaintances. 2

While some teens abuse medicine to party and get high, many are using medicine to manage stress or regulate their lives. Some are abusing prescription stimulants to provide additional energy and increase their ability to focus when they’re studying or taking tests. Others are abusing pain relievers, tranquilizers and over-the-counter cough medicine to cope with academic, social or emotional stress.

Teens and other young adults don’t necessarily see this behavior as risky. Many believe that since medicine is created and tested in a scientific environment it is therefore safer to use than street drugs.

How Is This Affecting Teens and Young Adults?

Nearly 80 percent of people who inject heroin start by abusing Rx drugs. 3

There are real dangers to medicine abuse, just as there are with illicit drugs. Young adults who abuse prescription medicines can experience dramatic increases in blood pressure and heart rate, organ damage, difficulty breathing, seizures, addiction and even death.

Watch Real Stories of Families’ First-hand Experience with Medicine Abuse >>

The abuse of prescription opioid pain medicine (like OxyContin, Percocet, fentanyl and others) is also linked to increases in the use of illicit heroin, helping to support the opioid epidemic.

How does prescription medicine abuse lead to heroin use?

Follow Katie’s journey and hear stories from families who have been down the road from prescription drug use to heroin.

Rx to Heroin

What Can We Do?

We know that young people who learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol early and often are much less likely to develop addiction than those who do not receive these critical messages at home. Unfortunately, our research shows that parents are not communicating the risks of prescription medicine abuse to their children as often as they talk about other drugs. This is partly because some parents are unaware of the behavior (which wasn’t as prevalent when they were teenagers), and partly because those who are aware of medicine abuse tend to underestimate the risks — just as teens and young people themselves do.

Together, parents and other caregivers, healthcare providers, community leaders and educators can all make a difference and end medicine abuse.

1 PATS 2013
2 SAMHSA 2014
3 NIDA 2017