Learn about prescription drug abuse in teenagers, including commonly abused drugs, how teens acquire drugs and the symptoms of prescription drug abuse.

Article at a Glance:

  • Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem, even among teenagers
  • Prescription drug abuse can occur with several types of drugs, including opioid painkillers, sedatives and stimulants
  • Prescription drug abuse may occur for many different reasons, including for relaxation, staying awake, falling asleep, pain relief, emotional reasons or weight loss
  • Over 1 million teenagers reported misuse of prescription drugs in 2016 and 2017
  • Teenagers may obtain prescription medications from their medical prescriptions, family members, friends, online and from stealing
  • Signs that a teenager may be abusing prescription drugs include changes in behavior or attitude, changes in sleeping or eating habits and various physical signs depending on the drug being misused

Prescription drug abuse occurs when medications are taken in ways other than prescribed by a medical provider. Examples of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Taking another person’s prescription medication
  • Taking a larger prescription drug dose than is prescribed
  • Taking the medication in a way other than as prescribed
  • Taking the medication to achieve a high

Prescription drugs may be misused for any number of reasons. Teenagers may misuse medications in similar ways adults do to achieve certain effects, including:

  • Pain relief
  • Relaxation
  • To fall or stay asleep
  • To help with emotions or feelings
  • Weight loss
  • To aid in studying or concentration
  • To stay alert or awake
  • Experimentation

Teen Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics

Based on data from 2016, over 1.3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 years of age (about 5.3%)  reported misuse of prescription medications including sedatives, stimulants and pain relievers over the previous year. In 2017, the number was similar at just over 1.2 million, or about 4.9%. Pain relievers (mostly opioids) were the most commonly misused drugs in this age group, with about 881,000 (3.5%) teenagers reporting misuse in 2016 and 767,000 (3.1%) reporting misuse in 2017. For 2017, tranquilizer misuse was reported by 458,000 teens, stimulant misuse by 452,000, and sedative misuse by 74,000. 

Types of Prescription Drugs Commonly Abused by Teens

Teenagers who abuse or misuse prescription drugs often use the same ones that are abused or misused by adults. The most common types of prescription drug abuse in teens occur with stimulants, pain relievers (mostly opioids), sedatives, and tranquilizers.

  • Painkillers: Opioid pain relievers were the most commonly reported drugs misused by teenagers in 2016 to 2017 with an estimated 767,000 to 881,000 teens reporting misuse over the previous year. Among opioid products, hydrocodone, oxycodone (including OxyContin), codeine, tramadol and morphine products were the most commonly misused.
  • Stimulants: In 2016 and 2017, nearly 430,000 to 450,000 teenagers were reported to have misused prescription stimulants in the previous year. The most commonly misused stimulants were amphetamine products (including Adderall, Dexedrine and Vyvanse), methylphenidate products (including Ritalin and Concerta) and weight-loss stimulants (including Didrex and phentermine).
  • Sedatives: In 2016 and 2017, 74,000 to 100,000 teenagers reportedly misused prescription sedatives or sleep aid medications. Some of the most commonly misused sedative medications were zolpidem (including Ambien), benzodiazepine sleep aids (including Dalmane and Restoril) and barbiturates.
  • Tranquilizers (including certain benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants): Tranquilizers, including benzodiazepines and certain muscle relaxants, were reportedly misused by approximately 450,000 teenagers in 2016 and 2017. The most commonly abused tranquilizers in 2017 were alprazolam (including Xanax), lorazepam (including Ativan), clonazepam (including Klonopin), diazepam (including Valium) and carisoprodol (Soma).

Where Are Teens Getting Prescription Pills From?

Teenagers may obtain prescription medications from several sources, including:

  • Via prescription after surgery/illness: Legitimate prescriptions for opioids, muscle relaxants and sedatives are sometimes prescribed after injuries, accidents, surgeries or other illnesses. Although these prescriptions are legal, the medications may start to be misused once the teen no longer needs the medication for pain relief or to aid in sleep. Misuse may begin when the person starts taking the medication for reasons other than for what it’s prescribed.
  • Stealing from family members: Sometimes, people may take prescription medications from their family members at home or from relative’s homes. It’s important for everyone to keep track of their medications, even when they are not actively in use for medical purposes. Once you no longer need a medication, it can be taken to a police department for proper disposal or it can be handed over during drug “take-back” events. This carefulness can prevent medications from being stolen.
  • Purchasing online: It is becoming increasingly common for people to purchase medications online. Many online “prescription” websites sell medications for much cheaper than can be found legally. It is important to know that most online medication websites are run by offshore companies and are technically illegal, as prescription drugs are only to be used with a legal prescription from a licensed health care provider.
  • From friends: Teenagers sometimes seek prescription medications from friends. Sometimes money will be exchanged for prescription pills. 

How Teens Become Addicted to Prescription Pills

It can be easy for some people to become addicted to certain prescription medications, especially if the medication causes the user to feel high, relaxed or another desirable effect. For teenagers, common reasons for the development of prescription drug addiction include:

  • Experimentation: Curiosity is sometimes a reason to take prescription medications, whether they are found within the home or received outside of the home. Teenagers can start experimenting with various substances because they hear about friends’ experiences and want to try them out for themselves.
  • Peer pressure: Friends and classmates can sometimes use peer pressure to convince a teenager to try a drug. This can be associated with a sense of belonging if the drug is taken, but if the drug is not taken, it can be associated with being uncool.
  • Excessive use following injury or illness: If a prescription drug is necessary after an injury or illness, there is the possibility of misuse after the initial need is met. Most prescribers are aware that prescription drug misuse is a problem and will prescribe the minimum amount they deem necessary, but not always.

Signs of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

There are several signs that a teenager is abusing prescription drugs. These signs can include:

  • Being secretive about drug use or hiding the amount of use
  • Changes in behavior or attitude
  • Changes in social circle or friend group
  • Personality changes (becoming more outgoing or possibly more withdrawn, depending on the drug being used)
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Physical signs (depends on the type of drug being misused)

If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, contact The Recovery Village today. Call to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can help people achieve the sober lifestyle they deserve. Take the first step toward a healthier future, call now.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Christina Caplinger
Medically Reviewed By – Christina Caplinger, RPh
Christina Caplinger is a licensed pharmacist in both Colorado and Idaho and is also a board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist. Read more

MedLinePlus. “Prescription Drug Abuse.” December 28, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “2016-2017 National Survey on Drug Use an[…]strict of Columbia).” 2017. Accessed July 28, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.