What are they prescribed for?

Painkillers are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. They are, by far, the most abused prescription drugs. Commonly prescribed painkillers include Oxycodone (prescribed on its own, and as a key ingredient in OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet and Combunox), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), and Morphine. Codeine, Darvon, and Darvocet are also prescribed to treat pain.

What can happen to my adolescent/young adult if he/she misuses painkillers?

Prescription painkillers can cause dangerously low breathing, overdose, and even death. Other serious consequences include:

  • Decrease in energy and ability to concentrate
  • Physical weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tolerance - This means, over time, the user needs higher doses of the drug in order to obtain the same effects.
  • Addiction can develop quickly. When the person stops using the drug, they experience withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, and/or involuntary leg movements.
  • Heroin Addiction - The street cost of painkillers, in particular, OxyContin, is very high. Young people who start out abusing OxyContin often turn to heroin as an alternative. Heroin addiction increases the risk of overdose, AIDS, hepatitis, and other diseases associated with street drugs.

Detecting the misuse of painkillers

Except in extreme cases, painkiller abuse is not signaled by a loss of coordination or slurred speech. Signs of abuse include empty bottles or pills, as well as some of these symptoms:

  • Flushing of the face and neck
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating or cold, clammy skin
  • Drowsiness
  • Physical weakness
  • Euphoria
  • Confusion


(1) National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2006, July 18). NIDA InfoFacts: Prescription pain and other medications. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from www.nida.nih.gov/infofacts/PainMed.html
(2) National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011, March). Commonly Abused Drug Chart. Retrieved September 10, 2012 from www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs/commonly-abused-drugs-chart
(3) National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007, February 28). Prescription drug abuse chart. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs/commonly-abused-prescription-drugs-chart

This information is provided by the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services within the Department of Public Health.