Five Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

Rise in Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse Impacting Teens

Five Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

The fastest-growing drug problem in the United States isn’t cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. It is prescription drugs, and it is profoundly affecting the lives of teenagers.

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) DrugFacts, prescription drug misuse and abuse is when someone takes a medication inappropriately (for example, without a prescription).

Sadly, prescription drug misuse and abuse among young people is not an insignificant problem.

According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) data on youth and young adults, more than 5,700 youth in 2014 reported using prescription pain relievers without a doctor’s guidance for the first time.

A common misperception is that prescription drugs are safer or less harmful to one’s body than other kinds of drugs. However, there is a range of short- and long-term health consequences for each type of prescription drug used inappropriately:

  • Stimulants have side effects in common with cocaine, and may include paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and an irregular heartbeat, especially if stimulants are taken in large doses or in ways other than swallowing a pill.
  • Opioids, which act on the same parts of the brain as heroin, can cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending on the amount taken, slowed breathing.
  • Depressants can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, fatigue, disorientation, lack of coordination, and seizures upon withdrawal from chronic use.

These impacts can be particularly harmful to a developing adolescent brain and body. Our brains continue to develop until we reach our early- to mid-twenties.

During adolescence, the pre-frontal cortex further develops to enable us to set priorities, formulate strategies, allocate attention, and control impulses.

The outer mantle of the brain also experiences a burst of development, helping us to become more sophisticated at processing abstract information and understanding rules, laws, and codes of social conduct.

Drug use impacts perception—a skill adolescent brains are actively trying to cultivate—and can fracture developing neural pathways. Additionally, as our brains are becoming hardwired during adolescence, the pathways being reinforced are the ones that stick. If those pathways include addiction, the impact may lead to life-long challenges.

As with any type of mind-altering drug, prescription drug misuse and abuse can affect judgment and inhibition, putting adolescents at heightened risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, misusing other kinds of drugs, and engaging in additional risky behaviors.


Here are several ways to minimize prescription drug misuse and abuse among young people:

  • Education: One in four teenagers believe that prescription drugs can be used as a study aid and nearly one-third of parents say that they believe that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication can improve a child’s academic or testing performance, even if that child does not have ADHD. Parents, children, and prescribers must be educated on the impact of prescription drugs on the developing brain.
  • Safe medication storage and disposal: Two-thirds of teens who misused pain relievers in the past year say that they got them from family and friends, including their home’s medicine cabinets, making it important to safeguard medicine in the home, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Safe storage and disposal of medications diminish opportunities for easy access.
  • Prescription drug monitoring: Many people are calling on doctors and pharmacies to better monitor how (and how often) drugs are prescribed. Doctors more readily hand out prescription painkillers than they did ten years ago, and, according to some sources, pharmacists do not habitually check prescription drug registries, which help to identify potential over-prescribing and misuse.

In addition, educating adolescents and their parents about the risks of drug misuse and abuse can play a role in combating the problem.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), created the website NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse to educate teens, their parents, and teachers on the science behind prescription drug misuse and abuse.

Developed with the help of teens to ensure relevance, NIDA scientists created a site that delivers science-based facts about how drugs affect the brain and body so that young people will be armed with better information to make healthy decisions.

Publications and Resources

Access the following for more information on misuse and abuse of prescription drugs among teens:

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.


The Most Dangerous Drugs — The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab

Five Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

  • Many drugs can be dangerous, even if they are over-the-counter remedies or available by prescription.
  • Acetaminophen was found to be the most dangerous drug available in a recent report.
  • Controlled substances opioids and cocaine also top the list of dangerous drugs.

Any drug that creates a chemical imbalance in a person’s body or causes euphoric effects can be dangerous. Many drugs will interact with the brain and body to release certain feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.

Releasing these chemicals creates a pleasurable feeling that can result in the body needing the drug to maintain a necessary chemical balance.

This forms a physical dependence on the substance in addition to the psychological one created when the brain associates the euphoric high and positive feeling to drug use. Most dangerous drugs can affect the body and mind in this way.

However, some drugs are more addictive — and thus, more dangerous — than others.

Each person is unique, and their bodies might respond to varying drugs and doses differently than other people’s bodies. However, certain substances have a high rate of addiction overall and regularly result in overdose deaths.

What Are the Worst Drugs?

Many of the most dangerous drugs in the world are also illegal, but some prescription medications can be extremely harmful when misused as well. These drugs range from stimulants that cause a spike in energy to depressants that bring the body into a tranquil state. Many drugs classified as opioids, both illegal ones and prescription medications, are included in this list.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases the number of overdose deaths caused in the United States by each drug class.

As of July 2020, the top 3 worst drugs classes in terms of overdose deaths were:

  • Opioids have caused more than 61,000 deaths. Of these, more than 14,000 deaths were due to heroin.
  • Non-cocaine psychostimulants methamphetamine, responsible for more than 20,000 deaths
  • Stimulants, including cocaine, were responsible for more than 18,000 deaths.

These are not the only dangerous drug classes, though. Many prescription and illicit drugs are easily accessible and dangerous. Everyone should be aware of them for their own safety and that of their loved ones.

Some of the Most Dangerous Drugs May Not Be What You Think

Some of the most dangerous drugs may be sitting in your medicine cabinet. A 2019 report analyzed the rates of death and risks for drugs and drug combinations to determine the 25 most dangerous drugs. Many well-known and frequently used drugs appear on the list, including:

Although the drugs may be safe when used correctly, they can be fatal when improperly combined or abused.

The Most Dangerous Drugs Were Not Opioids

Although opioid addiction is frequently in the headlines, the most dangerous drugs in the world are not always opioids or narcotics. The most dangerous drug was determined by a few factors, including mortality rates associated with that drug’s use or abuse. These deaths are frequently accidental.

Acetaminophen Was the Most Dangerous Drug

In a list of the top 10 most dangerous drugs, most people may not think of a drug as common as acetaminophen. However, acetaminophen, sold under brand names Tylenol, was found to be the world’s most dangerous drug in the report.

Acetaminophen is responsible for many dangerous drug interactions. Further, there is a high potential for liver damage from an acetaminophen overdose.

Most people view the drug as innocuous, and that perception may contribute to its unintentional abuse.

Alcohol Was the Second Most Dangerous Drug

Among the top 10 most dangerous drugs comes another unly contender: alcohol. We don’t often perceive alcohol as a drug, but it is.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2019, 25.8% of people in the United States reported binge drinking within the past month. The same report states that of the more than 85,000 cases of death as a result of liver disease in 2015, 43.1% of those cases were the result of alcohol abuse.

The risks of heavy and continued alcohol use are degenerative and can have long-term consequences on a person’s health. In a recent study of people who tried to stop their alcohol use, 47.1% of them qualified as heavy alcohol users.

Benzodiazepines Were the Third Most Dangerous Kind of Drug

Another common type of drug in the list of the top 10 most dangerous drugs is benzodiazepines. This includes popular brand names Valium, Restoril, Klonopin, Ativan or Xanax.

This class includes some of the most dangerous prescription drugs because they are strong sedatives. When prescribed for sleep, anxiety or seizures, these drugs can offer relief, but they are also abused and sold illegally as downers. They can be lethal, especially when combined with opioids.

Hardest Drugs To Quit

Controlled substances are often very hard to quit. This is because people who become dependent on them will suffer from withdrawal symptoms. These uncomfortable effects can deter people from entering recovery, and many will continue to use a substance just to avoid the withdrawal symptoms. Further, controlled substances can cause dependence and lead to addiction.

Controlled substances include common street drugs cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. They also include prescription medications such as Codeine, OxyContin, Valium and Xanax.

The government tracks how many people use illicit controlled substances. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among U.S. Americans:

  • About 46.2% of people have used cannabis
  • Around 16.0% of people have used hallucinogens
  • More than 15% of people have used cocaine, including 3.4% of people who have used crack cocaine
  • More than 9% of people have used inhalants
  • Approximately 5.8% of people have used methamphetamine
  • About 2.1% of people have used heroin

Other Dangerous Drugs

Although some dangerous drugs are illicit street drugs, others are common prescription medications. The most dangerous drugs side effects, death rates and drug interactions include the following:

  • Anticoagulants (Warfarin): Blood thinners warfarin can cause interactions with alcohol, leading to unpredictable levels of blood thinner in your body. If you drink while taking warfarin, you should tell your anticoagulation provider because they will need to monitor you carefully.
  • Antidepressants (SSRIs): One of the five most dangerous drugs that may be susceptible to abuse and addiction are SSRIs, or antidepressants. Certain antidepressants can be dangerous when taken with alcohol (such as Celexa and Effexor). SSRI antidepressants include Lexapro, Celexa, Zoloft, Effexor, Paxil and Prozac.
  • Clozapine: The drug clozapine (Clozaril, Versacloz) is FDA-approved to treat schizophrenia. Serious side effects can include abnormalities in your blood cells.
  • Cough medicine: The active ingredients in cough medicine may include guaifenesin, phenylephrine and dextromethorphan. Some cough medicines also contain alcohol. Cough medicine can be abused and may cause psychosis. Brands of cough medicine include Robitussin and Delsym.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine is a stimulant that can cause a stroke or heart attack. It is very addictive and susceptible to abuse.
  • Heroin and other Opioids: Heroin is made from poppies and influences the opioid receptors in the brain. It is highly addictive and susceptible to abuse.
  • MDMA: MDMA is an amphetamine analogue and may be referred to as ecstasy. This is an illegal stimulant and hallucinogenic drug that is often available in rave or club cultures around the world. MDMA can cause behavioral changes, memory loss and psychosis.
  • Methamphetamine: Meth or crystal meth is a stimulant that causes euphoria and is highly addictive. It is known as an upper and can be subject to overdose because it is unregulated and sold in multiple forms.
  • NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, or NSAIDs, can be used to treat pain from arthritis or ulcers. Stomach bleeding and kidney problems are some of the possible negative side effects. Mixing NSAIDs aspirin with alcohol can cause harmful side effects stomach bleeding. NSAIDs include over-the-counter remedies naproxen, ibuprofen and aspirin.
  • Tobacco: Tobacco is often consumed as nicotine in cigarettes, chew or e-cigarettes. Tobacco has no approved medical use and can lead to addiction as well as cancer, strokes and macular degeneration.

Find the Help You or a Loved One Needs

If you or someone you know struggles with an addiction to an illicit or prescription drug, help is available. Rehabilitation centers, such as The Recovery Village, have the staff and resources available to help people who are struggling with a substance use disorder.

Many people die each year from illicit and prescription drug use, but many others have also successfully removed drug use from their lives. Call The Recovery Village to speak with a knowledgeable representative on which treatment plan is the best fit for you or your loved one.

  • SourcesCenters for Disease Control and Prevention. “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.” Accessed February 21, “Clozapine.” September 5, 2020. Accessed February 21, 2021.Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. “Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.” August 2020. Accessed February 21, 2021.National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” February 2021. Accessed February 21, 2021.Bloom, Josh. “Is Tylenol ‘By Far The Most Dangerous Drug Ever Made?‘” American Council on Science and Health, September 11, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2021.Sauter, Michael B. “The 25 Most Dangerous Drugs.” USA Today, July 31, 2019. Accessed February 21, 2021.National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Benzodiazepines and Opioids.” February 3, 2021. Accessed February 21, “Warfarin.” July 18, 2020. Accessed February 21, 2021.Martinak, Bridgette; Bolis, Ramy A.; Black, Jeffrey Ryne; et al. “Dextromethorphan in Cough Syrup: The Poor Man’s Psychosis.” Psychopharmacology Bulletin, September 15, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2021.U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. “Drugs of Abuse.” 2020. Accessed February 21, 2021.
  • Medical DisclaimerThe Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.View our editorial policy or view our research.

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Prescription Drug Abuse

Five Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

Taking prescription drugs in a way that hasn't been recommended by a doctor can be more dangerous than people think. In fact, it's drug abuse. And it's illegal, just taking street drugs.

Why Do People Abuse Prescription Drugs?

Some people abuse prescription drugs because they think they will help them have more fun, lose weight, fit in, and even study more effectively.

Prescription drugs can be easier to get than street drugs: Family members or friends may have them. But prescription drugs are also sometimes sold on the street other illegal drugs.

In 2017, 1 in 7 teens surveyed said they have taken a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription.

But prescription drugs are only safe for the people who have prescriptions for them.

That's because a doctor has examined these people and prescribed the right dose of medicine for their medical condition.

The doctor has also told them exactly how they should take the medicine, including things to avoid while taking the drug. They also are aware of side effects and can watch patients closely for these.

Which Drugs Are Abused?

The most commonly used prescription drugs fall into three classes:

1. Opioids

  • Examples: oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol)
  • Medical uses: Opioids are used to treat pain or relieve coughs or diarrhea.
  • How they work: Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), preventing the brain from receiving pain messages.

2. Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

  • Examples: phenobarbital (Luminal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Medical uses: CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.
  • How they work: CNS depressants slow down brain activity by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA. The result is a drowsy or calming effect.

3. Stimulants

  • Examples: methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Medical uses: Stimulants can be used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD.
  • How they work: Stimulants increase brain activity, resulting in greater alertness, attention, and energy.

What Are the Dangers of Abusing Medicines?

The lihood that someone will commit a crime, be a victim of a crime, or have an accident is higher when that person is abusing drugs — no matter whether those drugs are medicines or street drugs.

all drug abuse, using prescription drugs for the wrong reasons has serious risks for a person's health.

Opioid abuse can lead to vomiting, mood changes, decrease in ability to think (cognitive function), and even decreased respiratory function, coma, or death. This risk is higher when prescription drugs opioids are taken with other substances alcohol, antihistamines, and CNS depressants.

CNS depressant abuse is risky too. Abruptly stopping or reducing them too quickly can lead to seizures. Taking CNS depressants with other medicines, such as prescription painkillers, some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, or alcohol can slow a person's heartbeat and breathing — and even kill.

Stimulant abuse ( with some ADHD drugs) may cause heart failure or seizures. These risks are increased when stimulants are mixed with other medicines — even OTC ones cold medicines.

Taking too much of a stimulant can lead to a dangerously high body temperature or an irregular heartbeat. High doses over a short period may make someone aggressive or paranoid.

Stimulant abuse might not lead to physical dependence and withdrawal, but users might take the drugs so often that they become a hard habit to break.

The dangers of prescription drug abuse can be made even worse if people take drugs in a way they weren't intended to be used. Ritalin may seem harmless because it's prescribed even for little kids with ADHD. But when a person takes it either unnecessarily or in a way it wasn’t intended (such as snorting or injection), Ritalin toxicity can be serious.

Probably the most common risk of prescription drug abuse is addiction. People who abuse medicines can become addicted as easily as if they were taking street drugs. That's one reason most doctors won't renew a prescription unless they see the patient — they want to examine the patient to make sure he or she isn't getting addicted.

Tips for Taking Prescription Medicine

If a doctor prescribes a pain medicine, stimulant, or CNS depressant, follow the directions exactly. Also be sure to:

  • Keep all doctor's appointments. Your doctor will want you to visit often so he or she can see how well the medicine is working for you and adjust the dose or change the medication as needed.
  • Make a note of the effects the drug has on your body and emotions, especially in the first few days as your body gets used to it. Tell your doctor about these.
  • Keep any information your pharmacist gives you about any drugs or activities you should steer clear of while taking your prescription.
  • Never increase or decrease the dose of your medicine without checking with your doctor's office first.

Finally, never use someone else's prescription. And don't allow anyone to use yours.

Not only are you putting others at risk, but you could suffer too: Pharmacists may be stopped from refilling a prescription if a medicine has been used up before it should be.

And if you're found giving medicine to someone else, it's considered a crime and you could find yourself in court.


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