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How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?

How are prescription drugs abused? Prescription drugs are abused in a variety of ways. Many of the prescription drugs that are commonly abused are available as tablets. Typically abusers either consume the tablets orally or crush them into a powder, which they then snort. In some instances, abusers dissolve crushed tablets in water and then inject the solution while others will smoke the drug. The prescription drugs that are most commonly abused by young people fall into three categories: opioids/pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants.

Opioids/Pain Relievers
How are prescription drugs abused? Opioids such as OxyContin tablets have a controlled-release feature and are designed to be swallowed whole. In order to bypass the controlled-release feature, abusers either chew or crush the tablets. Crushed tablets can be snorted or dissolved in water and injected.

The abuse of opioids/pain relievers by young people is a particular concern. According to the 2000 NHSDA, 8.4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported having abused pain relievers at least once in their lifetime. NHSDA data also indicate that 12- to 17-year-olds represented approximately one-half of the 1.4 million individuals who abused opioids/pain relievers for the first time in 1999. The number of new abusers aged 12 to 17 who reported nonmedical use of opioids/pain relievers increased nearly tenfold, from 78,000 in 1985 to 722,000 in 1999. Data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) Study indicate that in 2001, 9.9 percent of twelfth graders surveyed in the United States reported having abused other narcotics--a category that includes opioids and pain relievers and excludes heroin--at least once in their lifetime.

Depressants
How are prescription drugs abused? Depressants such as Valium are normally taken orally in a tablet form. However, they can be crushed and snorted or given intravenously. One of the biggest problems with this type of medication use, abuse, and addiction is the availability of the drugs themselves. The medical community has become aware of this problem, and has increased measures to limit the amount of prescriptions given out to patients.

According to 2000 NHSDA data, 2.5 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported abusing tranquilizers at least once in their lifetime. The data also indicate that 0.8 percent of young people in this age group abused sedatives at least once in their lifetime. MTF data indicate that in 2001, 9.2 percent of twelfth graders reported having abused tranquilizers at least once in their lifetime, and 8.7 percent reported having abused barbiturates at least once in their lifetime.

Substance abuse treatment data indicate that abuse of tranquilizers by adolescents is an increasing concern. Data provided by TEDS indicate that admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities involving 12- to 17-year-olds seeking treatment for tranquilizer abuse increased from 97 in 1995 to 211 in 1999. Among the same age group, admissions for sedative/hypnotic abuse increased from 95 in 1995 to 118 in 1997, then decreased slightly to 113 in 1999. 

Middle school students in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were treated at local hospitals in January 2002 after ingesting Xanax, a benzodiazepine. Twenty-eight students at a Philadelphia middle school ingested the drug after a 13-year-old stole a bottle of 100 Xanax tablets from a relative and distributed the tablets during school hours.

Stimulants
How are prescription drugs abused? Prescription drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall are some of the most commonly abused stimulants by young people. They are amphetamine-like central nervous system stimulants with properties that are similar to cocaine. Individuals abuse Ritalin and Adderall to increase alertness, lose weight, and experience the euphoric effects resulting from high doses. Under the Controlled Substances Act, Ritalin is a Schedule II drug. It is produced commercially in 5-, 10-, and 20-milligram tablets. These drugs are usually is ingested orally; however, when used nonmedically, they can be ground into a powder and snorted like cocaine or dissolved in water and injected like heroin.

Data from NHSDA indicate that the percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported having abused stimulants at least once in their lifetime in 1999 (3.9%) was comparable to the percentage in 2000 (4.0%). In 1999 approximately 50 percent of the 646,000 new stimulant abusers were aged 12 to 17, according to NHSDA. TEDS data indicate that the number of admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities that involved 12- to 17-year-olds seeking treatment for stimulant abuse fluctuated from 182 in 1995 to 135 in 1999.

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