Most Abused Prescription Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse identifies three classes of prescription drugs that are most often abused. You may know them best as “uppers and downers,” but the drugs are classified as opiates, depressants and stimulants.


Opiates are powerful drugs that have been used for centuries to relieve pain. These narcotic pain killers go by such names as OxyContin, Darvon, Vicodin, Dilaudid, Demerol and Lomotil, and are often prescribed for post-operative pain. When used as directed by a physician, opiates are safe and generally do not produce addiction. But opiates also possess very strong reinforcing properties and can quickly trigger addiction when used improperly.

Opiates act directly on the respiratory center in the brainstem, slowing down a person’s breathing. Excessive amounts of an opiate can cause the respiratory centers to shut down breathing altogether, causing death. Using needles to inject the opiates can also increase the risk of transmitting infectious diseases like HIV when abusers use unsterile or shared needles.

There is a high risk of overdose with non-medically supervised use of opiates. Most recently, emergency room physicians discovered that new “slow release” versions of the drug have led abusers to crush the pills and inject or inhale the powder, creating a much higher risk of overdose.


Central nervous system (CNS) depressants have such trade names as Nembutal, Valium and Xanax. These drugs are used to treat anxiety, panic and sleep disorders.

These drugs are also highly addictive, and those who have taken them for long periods of time should only try to stop using them with the support of trained medical professionals because they have serious physical withdrawal symptoms.


Finally, there are stimulants and amphetamines like Dexedrine, Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs are used in weight loss treatment programs, to treat sleep disorders and to aid those, particularly children, with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The health risks of abuse of stimulants include dangerously high body temperature, seizures and cardiovascular complications.

In addition to the risks that all of these drugs pose when used on their own, greater risks result when they are combined with other drugs or with alcohol. Self-medicators often “try out” various combinations of “uppers” and “downers” to enhance or manage their effects, but this can cause severe physical and mental problems, and even death.