The Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse: Causes, Risks, and Impact

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Causes and Consequences

Why is the abuse of prescription drugs so widespread? What types of drugs are typically abused? Are consumers aware of the risks of prescription abuse? These are questions that people need answers to. They need to know the main question first, which is what is prescription drug abuse? A prescription drug is a pharmaceutical drug that legally requires a medical prescription to be dispensed. In contrast, over-the-counter drugs can be obtained without a prescription, such drugs as Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, and Robitussin. OTC drugs are usually located on the shelves in pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gas stations( OTC Medications ). Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription from a doctor or dentist ( NIDA for Teens 1).

When prescription drugs are used for purposes other than prescribed, they can become addictive. Although a person who abuses prescription medications might think that their habits are not dangerous, taking those pills can result in serious negative consequences or harm ( La Hacienda 3). Sometimes, people who abuse these drugs need the help of addiction professionals to recover ( La Hacienda 3). Overall, prescription drug abuse has a negative impact on society because it affects people’s mental health, and physical health and gives them social struggles. This has been a major problem since the early 1990s, and the statistics of people abusing prescription drugs have been rising ever since then.

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Neurological Pathways

Prescription drug abuse is when you take a medication for a reason other than why the doctor prescribed it. Experts estimate that more than 18 million people ages 12 and older have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in the previous year. That’s more than 6% of the U.S. population (WebMD). Teens may take medication from their parent’s medicine cabinets for themselves or their friends to use. Most young people have no idea what medications they’re taking and which ones may cause serious problems in the brain or even cause death–if used with other drugs (WebMD). Abusing drugs–even prescription drugs–can change how the human brain works. In the brain, neurotransmitters such as dopamine send messages by attaching to receptors on nearby cells.

The actions of these neurotransmitters and receptors cause the effects of abuse of prescription drugs. Each class of prescription drug works a bit differently in the brain and can cause actions similar to some illegal drugs (NIH). Most people start by choosing to take these medications. Over time, the changes in the brain affect people’s self-control and their ability to make good decisions. At the same time, they have intense urges to take more drugs (WebMD). When prescription drugs are used for purposes other than prescribed, they can become addictive. The first time a person uses drugs, it’s usually a free choice. However, repeated drug use can change the brain, driving a person to seek out and use drugs over and over (NIH). A person may also use prescription drugs for other reasons than prescribed, for example, recreationally, for the effects the drug causes (La Hacienda).

Consequences & Complications

Prescription drug misuse has become a large public health problem because misuse can lead to addiction and even overdose deaths. Every medication has some risk for harmful effects, sometimes serious ones. Doctors and dentists consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors described below. When prescription drugs are misused, they can be just as dangerous as drugs that are made illegally. Before prescribing a drug, health providers consider a person’s weight, how long they’ve been prescribed the medication, other medical conditions, and what other medications they are taking. Someone misusing prescription drugs may overload their system or put themselves at risk for dangerous drug interactions that can cause seizures, coma, or even death.

Prescription drugs are designed to treat a specific illness or condition, but they often affect the body in other ways, some of which can be uncomfortable and in some cases, dangerous. These are called side effects. Side effects can be worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are used in combination with other substances. Doctors know how long it takes for a pill or capsule to dissolve in the stomach, release drugs into the blood, and reach the brain. When misused, prescription drugs are sometimes taken in larger amounts or in ways that change the way the drug works in the body and brain, putting the person at greater risk for an overdose. For example, when people who misuse OxyContin® crush and inhale the pills, a dose that normally works over the course of 12 hours hits the central nervous system all at once. This effect increases the risk of addiction and overdose (NIH).


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (n.d.). Prescription Drugs. Retrieved from
  2. La Hacienda Treatment Center. (n.d.). Prescription Drug Abuse. Retrieved from
  3. WebMD. (n.d.). Prescription Drug Abuse. Retrieved from
  4. National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Misuse of Prescription Drugs. Retrieved from

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The Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse: Causes, Risks, and Impact. (2023, Aug 15). Retrieved from

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