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When looking at the numbers, you could be forgiven if you thought the name of this country was the Medicated States of America. Nearly 48 percent of Americans will use at least one prescription drug each month, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of that number, approximately 21 percent will take three or more prescription drugs in a month, and over 10 percent will use five or more.

As a society, Americans seem almost conditioned to take prescription drugs as part of their medical care. Of the total number of doctor’s office visits each year in the U.S., over 74 percent involve drug therapy. And over 75 percent of all outpatient hospital visits also involve drug therapy. The total number of drugs either prescribed or taken each year in the U.S. now exceeds three billion.

Considering the shear volume of pills out there, it comes as little surprise that over 15 million people abuse prescription drugs each year in the U.S., according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Prescription drug overdose ranks as the leading cause of death among all drug related overdoses in the U.S. each year at 45 percent; more than the number of overdoses related to the use of methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin combined.

A 2007 survey found that over nine percent of kids age 12 to 25 had abused a prescription drug in the last 30 days, and the average age for first time users is now 13. For parents, safeguarding their prescription drugs must now be considered a bigger concern in the home than keeping either alcohol or tobacco away from their kids. Here are the most common types of abused prescription drugs of which parents should be wary.


Generally prescribed to treat anxiety or to help patients sleep, barbiturates work as a depressant that slows brain function. While helpful for patients when used correctly, barbiturates are extremely addictive when abused. If taken along with alcohol, barbiturates can cause a person’s heart rate and breathing to slow, which can cause death. Commonly prescribed types of barbiturates include: Mebral, Nembutal, Phenobarbital, and Seconal.


Another type of depressant, benzodiazepines are generally prescribed to treat acute stress, panic attacks, anxiety, sleep disorders, and convulsions. Like other forms of depressants, benzodiazepines are easy to abuse and may cause serious withdraw symptoms for those addicted. Commonly prescribed types of benzodiazepines include Xanax and Valium.

Pain Relievers

Nearly every type of pain reliever has the potential to be abused, whether prescribed for extreme pain, such as morphine, or just mild discomfort, such as Tylenol 3 with codeine. OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet, and Roxicodone are other types of pain killers that all share the active ingredient, oxycodone, a highly addictive opioid pain reliever. Although they share a common ingredient, these drugs do vary. Percodan, for example, contains aspirin, while Percocet has acetaminophen. Due to the highly addictive nature of these types of pain relievers, they should only be taken when under a doctor’s supervision.

Other types of highly addictive pain relievers include, Lortab, Vicodin, and Lorcet. Each of these types of pain relievers contains hydrocodone, another type of opioid, and acetaminophen. All types of opioids can cause constipation, drowsiness, and slowed breathing depending on the amount taken.


Stimulants used to increase energy, attention, and alertness, amphetamines are generally prescribed to treat narcolepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and forms of depression that don’t respond to other types of treatment. Amphetamine abuse can cause irregular heartbeats, loss of appetite, nervousness, heart failure, and insomnia.

Timothy Lemke is a freelance health writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Mick Brooks, a Tumwater dentist.


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