America is in the midst of a prescription drug epidemic. For many years, the average life expectancy in the United States has increased, due in large part to advances in medical technology. While in some ways medicine is more capable of saving a human life than ever, the abuse of prescription drugs has directly contributed to a recent shortening of average life expectancy, because of overdoses.
The demographics associated with drug misuse, and the medications involved, have also changed over recent years, with signs that it may continue to do so. Here are some of the key statistics and the vital information on prescription drug misuse in the United States.
Definition of Misuse
Drug abuse, misuse, dependency, and tolerance are terms that often get used interchangeably, but they are not identical. Here are some of the definitions, which will better assist with an understanding of the statistics.
- Misuse – Prescription drug misuse is the off-label, unprescribed, or inappropriate use of a prescription. For example, someone could be prescribed an opioid after oral surgery, which would be prescription drug use. Then, if that individual takes the remaining pills at another time, such as after spraining an ankle, that would be prescription drug misuse.
- Abuse – Prescription drug abuse is to habitually take a medication, beyond what is prescribed, or to take more than prescribed. For example, if a doctor prescribes a daily single dose of an opioid, but someone “doubles up” on the dose, that would be prescription drug abuse.
- Tolerance – Tolerance is requiring more of the same drug to create an effect. Some people naturally have a higher tolerance for some types of medication, and so will need to medically take a larger dose of a medication for its pharmaceutical purpose. However, tolerance can also build up with use, such as when someone uses more and more of a substance to experience the same “high.”
- Dependency – Dependency simply means that if you miss a dose or do not take a substance, you may experience withdrawal. It is not the same as addiction, in that a physical dependency upon a prescription medication does not necessarily include habitually taking the drug despite negative life consequences (as it does in the case of addiction).
The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
Nearly 19 million Americans misuse prescription drugs, according to federal survey data. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “An estimated 2.1 million Americans used prescription drugs non-medically for the first time within the past year, which averages to approximately 5,750 initiates per day.” Three primary classes of prescription medications are the most commonly abused: stimulants, CNS depressants, and opioids.
Stimulants – Stimulants increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, but also energy, alertness, and attention. Cocaine is a well-known illicit stimulant. Prescription stimulants include dextroamphetamine (like Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (like Ritalin and Concerta). They have been used by militaries since before World War I to push soldiers to extremes under conditions of fatigue and distress.
Stimulants often get prescribed for an inability to focus, and yet the use of stimulants has been connected to an increased likelihood of developing an attention disorder and drug addiction. The other concern with stimulant use is the number of young people involved, 1 in 8 teens report having abused or misused a stimulant at least once.
Many people falsely believe that prescription drug use is safer, or that stimulants themselves are relatively safe (after all, the caffeine in coffee is a stimulant).
CNS (central nervous system) Depressants – Drugs which slow brain activity, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics, are a class of drug known as CNS depressants. They include benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, and Prosom), as well as non-benzodiazepine sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata), and barbiturates (like Luminal).
Sleep medications like Ambien have particularly made headlines because of bizarre or binge eating, “sleep driving,” and other strange or dangerous behaviors while taking these medications. In all, emergency room visits related to these “insomnia drugs” are up 220%.
Withdrawal from CNS depressants can be difficult, but barbiturates are the most dangerous, which is why their prescription use has seen a rapid decline. Even a slight overdose of barbiturates can cause coma or death. Withdrawal is also potentially fatal. For this reason, no one desiring to get off of barbiturates should do so without supervision.
Opioids – The biggest contributor to the current prescription drug epidemic is opioid abuse. Opioids are painkillers in the same category as opium (ones like morphine and heroin are often still plant-derived), but they can also be entirely synthetic (lab-created). Opioid abuse has become a public health crisis of epic proportions.
- Roughly 21-29% of all opioid users, taking them for chronic pain, will misuse them.
- 4 out of 5 new heroin users started out abusing prescription opioids.
- Approximately 90 people per day die from an opioid overdose.
While, overall, more men than women abuse prescription drugs, the fastest growing group of addicts is white, middle-aged women, who are much more likely to be prescribed an opioid painkiller. Student athletes, prescribed opioids after injury in their sport, have also become addicted at alarming rates. This makes the demographics of the opioid crisis starkly different than the heroin epidemic of the 1980’s.
What Can You Do?
In response to growing concern over prescription drug abuse, various solutions have emerged. A locked, timed pill dispenser can prevent multiple doses. Overdose-reversal medication, if used quickly enough, can stop an overdose, and in many states is now carried by emergency personnel, police officers, and even in schools. Prescription drug monitoring services are on the rise–programs which track over-prescribers (“pill mill” doctors), as well as patients who doctor shop to get prescriptions.
Concerned citizen groups and armed forces alike have been advocating for these sorts of tracking methods, as well as requiring ID to verify identity and track abuse. Many practitioners have banned together for tougher prescription regulation, and are choosing to not prescribe the most seriously potentially addictive prescription drugs.
You also can self-advocate, for yourself and your loved ones, for alternatives to these potentially addictive drugs. You can teach young people the truth about these drugs before they get a sports-related injury and wind up an addict. You can learn to identify how prescription drug misuse often starts, to help stop misuse before it leads to addiction. You can volunteer or help a loved one, in need of treatment.
You can also learn to spot the signs of prescription drug misuse, including:
- Pills disappearing
- Using more than the recommended/prescribed dosage
- Developing tolerance (requiring more of the drug to create the same effect)
- Using a prescription drug that was prescribed for another person
- Using a prescription drug that was prescribed for another condition, such as continuing to take the medication after the prescribed period of time
- Seeing multiple doctors for additional medication
- Withdrawal symptoms if missing a dose
- Taking pills “whenever” or “as needed” instead of on the prescribed schedule
- Financial problems that seem to stem from the cost of medications
- Lying or deceitful behavior or “not wanting to talk about” the use of medications
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Changes in mood, such as grief, anger, hostility or increased criticism
- Any observed dangerous side effects, such as periods of blackout or memory gaps
Don’t become a statistic, get help for prescription drugs abuse, addiction and misuse.