Most Addictive Prescription Medications

01/28/20: Drug Addiction
Prescription medications are intended to treat certain diseases and illnesses, and have helped many people take control of their lives again by improving or even completely dissipating uncomfortable and painful symptoms. Some medications are even solely responsible for keeping human beings alive and well, which is an amazing feat of science. However, because of the brain-altering effects of certain types of medications, many people become dependent or addicted in an unhealthy way. Here are some of the most addictive (and most commonly abused) prescription medications.


Opioids primarily affect the central nervous system by altering the user’s physical and emotional response to pain. Neurons are covered in proteins called “opioid receptors”, which slow down the neurons’ ability to send pain signals to the brain. When your body is injured, your brain releases natural painkillers called endorphins which activate these opioid receptors. The chemicals within opioids are almost identical to our natural endorphins, and act in the same way, unlocking the opioid pain receptors to slow pain signals.

Oxycodone (OxyContin)

Oxycodone is found in popular prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet, and is one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the United States. Oxycodone is classified as an opiate (narcotic) analgesic, and is used to relieve moderate to severe pain. It’s a semi-synthetic opiate manufactured by modifying the chemical thebaine, an organic chemical found in opium. Aside from pain relief, the drug can also cause feelings of euphoria and a “high” for the user, which is the reason it ends up getting abused. However, addiction can also occur for individuals who have a prescription, and the longer the drug is used, the more tolerance a person builds. Once tolerance is built up, the pain-relieving effects lessen, and the person may begin to start feeling pain again despite taking the drug as directed.


Codeine is a narcotic pain reliever and cough suppressant, often found in cough syrups. It became approved by the FDA in 1950. It is often combined with acetaminophen or aspirin to relieve pain more effectively. Codeine is most commonly abused as a street drug in the form of a codeine cocktail often referred to as lean, purple drank, sizzurp, and Dirty sprite. These cocktails combine codeine with mixers of Sprite and Jolly Ranchers in double-stacked Styrofoam cups. The purpose of this “double cup” (a term that has become popular in rap music) is to keep the lean cold and prevent the purple coloring from leaking through the pores in the Styrofoam. Drinking lean became popular in the 1990s, in large part due to its presence throughout rap and hip-hop culture. Houston rappers Pimp C and DJ Screw were the originators of “chopped and screwed” music, a technique where hip-hop songs are remixed and the tempo is slowed to around 60 beats per minute. This slower rhythm compliments the mellow, sedative effects of lean. As Houston’s hip-hop scene began to grow, so did the use of the drug. Finally, when nationally recognized rapper and lean enthusiast Lil Wayne rose to fame, so did the popularity of lean.


Dr. Paul Jansen synthesized fentanyl in Belgium in December of 1960. It was developed as an IV analgesic and became available for clinical use in 1963. In 1968, fentanyl was introduced into the United States and is one of the best-known intra-operative analgesics in the country. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid prescribed for acute and chronic pain, particularly for people battling cancer, and provides the user with a deep feeling of euphoria and relaxation. It can be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC, making it an extremely powerful and extremely dangerous drug. Because of its potency, fentanyl is illegally manufactured and sold as a street drug. It is often mixed with heroin, cocaine, or both. Because of this, the CDC reported that fentanyl is involved in over half of opioid-related overdose deaths across ten states.


Depressants (sometimes called “downers”) are tranquilizers and antipsychotics that are often used to treat things like treating anxiety, panic, acute stress reactions, and sleep disorders. Drugs in this category cause drowsiness; sedatives are often prescribed to treat sleep disorders like insomnia and hypnotics can induce sleep, whereas tranquilizers are prescribed to treat anxiety or to relieve muscle spasms.

Alprazolam (Xanax)

Alprazolam is more commonly known as the brand name Xanax. Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine, which means it depresses your Central Nervous System to produce a calming effect, successful in treating anxiety and panic disorders.  It is the single most prescribed psychiatric medication in the U.S. This comes as no surprise, considering the fact that over 40 million Americans (or 18% of the population) are affected by anxiety disorders. Alprazolam decreases the amount of excitement going on in the brain. It boosts the amount of a natural chemical released in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This drug, as we previously mentioned, is used to fight against anxiety disorders. However, it has become a very popular drug for people to abuse in the last few years because of its sedative effects, and more than four times as many Americans died in 2015 than in 2002 from overdoses involving benzodiazepines (CDC).

Clonazepam (Klonopin) and Diazepam (Valium)

These benzodiazepines can be in the form of a tablet, liquid, and concentrated solution. The effects of the drug, when taken by mouth, will start 15 to 60 minutes after drinking it. Clonazepam and diazepam decrease the activity of the brain which controls memory, emotions, logical thoughts, and breathing. They also affect GABA, which strengthens the ability to relax the muscles, lessen anxiety, and drowsiness. These drugs can cause addiction and overdose if a person uses a higher dosage than what is required for him or her to take. Klonopin and Valium addiction have increased in prevalence over the years. Some people get an intense euphoric experience when drinking it, which results in abuse and addiction. People get addicted to the drug because it eases pain, anxiety, and stress. Some may also use it to help themselves sleep better. The chemicals help one become lethargic and relaxed, making sleep much easier. However, when a person abuses the drug often enough, they are sure to develop a dependency.


Stimulants are medicines intended to increase alertness, attention, and energy. Because of this, they are useful in treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (uncontrollable, random bouts of deep sleep). Most prescription stimulants come in tablet, capsule, or liquid form, and are taken orally.

Amphetamine (Adderall)

A combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, Adderall is primarily used to treat the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also used for sleep disorders and certain forms of depression. As a nervous system stimulant, Adderall works by speeding up certain bodily processes. Physicians prescribe it to patients as an oral medication, typically on a low dose to avoid possible side effects. Adderall is addictive when taken on a dose higher than what the doctor has prescribed. By continuing the course of Adderall medication over time, patients may feel that it is not controlling their symptoms as it did when they first started taking it – and hence, they may feel the need to increase the dosage to experience its effects. While this may be one cause of an Adderall addiction, some people intentionally take large doses of this medication for the sake of feeling a euphoric high.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Ritalin is a prescription medication that gained popularity in the 1990s due to the abuse surrounding it. It is a Schedule II drug because it has a high potential for abuse. This drug is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It is what’s known as methylphenidate, which is usually prescribed to people who have ADHD or narcolepsy. It has very similar effects and medical uses to amphetamines, which are usually prescribed to help treat ADD. This drug has legitimate medical uses, but it can easily be abused. The drug’s medical purpose is to assist in calming the central nervous system for people suffering from ADD, ADHD, or narcolepsy. This way, a person can become more alert and focused during their everyday life. It has a calming effect on individuals who use it, allowing them to focus without attention problems. This drug, if taken for intended use, can be extremely helpful for individuals struggling with these disorders. However, the focus that comes along with the drug has become desirable to people who do not have these disorders, resulting in widespread Ritalin abuse.

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