The dangers of medicine abuse

What exactly is medicine “abuse”?

Drug abuse takes a toll on millions of Americans every day, and medicine abuse is part of this national problem.

Medicine abuse is the use of a medication—prescription (Rx) or OTC—in a way not intended by the prescribing health professional. Medicine abuse includes everything from taking a friend's prescription painkiller for your backache to ingesting pills to get “high.”

Many people, especially teens in high school and college aged students, mistakenly believe that abusing prescription and/or over-the-counter can be a “safe” way to get high, cope with stress or perform better at school or in sports because medicines are FDA-approved and prescribed by healthcare providers.

So, what’s the concern? Is inappropriately taking a medicine the same as drug abuse?

“Misuse” of a prescription drug is taking it to treat a medical condition but not as directed by a healthcare provider or according to the directions on the packaging.

“Abuse” is taking prescription drugs or OTC medicines with the sole intention of getting high. This is “drug abuse,” but using medicines—rather than illegal street drugs—as the substance of choice. Whether misused or abused, many prescription drugs—as well as some OTC medicines—can be as dangerous and addictive as "street" drugs. Taking medicines that have not been uniquely prescribed to you, and/or mixing different prescription drugs or OTCs together or with alcohol or other substances can have grave and possibly deadly consequences.

Why? If you’re taking someone else’s medication, a doctor isn’t able to examine you and select a medicine and dose for your specific needs. And, because medicines affect everyone differently, it’s possible that a medicine that works for your friend can trigger an adverse reaction in you that you weren’t aware you should be on the lookout for. For example, combining some stimulants like ADHD medications with over-the-counter cold medication can cause dangerously high blood pressure or irregular heartbeat. Combining certain medicines with alcohol can also be very dangerous. For example, both prescription pain relievers and alcohol slow breathing. Taking too much of these together at the same time can cause someone to literally stop breathing.

The most commonly abused prescription medications

Although many medications can be abused, the following three classes are most commonly abused:

Some OTC medicines such as cough and cold medicines containing the cough suppressant ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) can also be abused. Today, roughly one out of three teenagers knows someone who has abused OTC cough medicine to get “high.” Read more about recognizing and preventing teen OTC cough medicine abuse at

The dangers are real

Did you know it’s illegal to share your prescription medications with other people?

It is not only dangerous to take a friend or relative’s prescription medicine, it’s illegal. Intentionally sharing a prescription medicine is a felony. Illegal distribution of prescription drugs is a Federal drug violation, punishable by up to five years in prison. So it’s illegal to both give someone your prescription medicine and take a prescription medicine that is not prescribed for you.