Prescription Drug Misuse: Results from a National Survey


Close to 19 million individuals 12 years and older misused prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives in the past year

Close to 19 million individuals 12 years and older misused prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives—collectively referred to as psychotherapeutic drugs—in the past year, according to the results of the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the NSDUH is an annual face-to-face household interview survey of US individuals 12 years or older.

The survey was redesigned in 2015 to include the following changes:

  • Study participants were asked to report any past year use of prescription drugs.
  • Misuse was redefined as any use not directed by a physician, including use without a prescription, use in larger amounts, and use more often or longer than prescribed.

The following data shows overall drug misuse among those 12 years and older by drug category in the past year:

  • 12.5 million misused pain relievers
  • 6.1 million misused tranquilizers
  • 5.3 million misused stimulants
  • 1.5 million misused sedatives

It’s promising that most individuals (84.1%) who used prescription drugs in the past year didn’t misuse them. Other noteworthy results include that past year users of other substances were more likely to have misused prescription drugs. Additionally, the most common source for the last misused pain reliever was a friend or relative (53.7%).

The following data shows first-time drug misuse among those 12 years and older in the past year:

  • 2.1 million misused pain relievers
  • 1.4 million misused tranquilizers
  • 1.3 million misused stimulants
  • 425,000 misused sedatives

Because the survey was redesigned this time, it’s difficult to compare these results to previous ones. Also, with any survey, there can always be underreporting of misuse.

Pharmacists can play an important role in educating patients about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. This can be accomplished at the pharmacy setting and through community outreach programs at local schools. Pharmacists and physicians should consult their state prescription drug monitoring programs to help identify individuals abusing prescription drugs.

Since most individuals are obtaining prescription pain medications from friends or relatives, it’s extremely important to educate patients on appropriate drug storage and disposal. Parents should store their medications out of reach of children, preferably in a locked area. Patients should dispose of medications at pharmacies or community settings that have drug disposal programs.

The next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day will take place October 22, 2016. This is a great opportunity for individuals to dispose of expired, unwanted, or unused prescription medications to help prevent misuse.


Hughes A, et al. Prescription drug use and misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Published 2015.

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