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Prescription Drug Use in the United States: Trends in Consumption

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Prescription drug use in the United States is on the rise, with nearly half of all Americans currently taking prescription medication. This lesson will take a closer look at the most prescribed types of medication and will end with a short quiz to see what you have learned.

Prescription Drugs

When you get a headache and reach for an aspirin, you are using an over-the-counter medication, or OTC. OTC medications do not require a prescription. If you have a history of severe migraines that aspirin doesn't help and you visit your doctor to ask for something stronger, chances are good that your doctor will give you orders for a special medication called prescription medication. Prescription medicines require a doctor's order, or prescription.

Prescription medications require an order from your doctor.
prescription medication

It is illegal to use a prescription medication in any way other than the way the doctor prescribed it, so you shouldn't take that migraine medicine mentioned earlier to treat a sore throat, and you shouldn't double the dosage to make the headache go away more quickly. It's also against the law to buy prescription drugs from someone, to share your prescription medication with someone else, and to take medication that was not prescribed for you. These are all examples of prescription drug abuse, a growing problem in America.

It is estimated that more than 50 million people ages 12 and over have abused prescription drugs in some way. Pain relievers and stimulants top the list of commonly abused prescription medications. These types of prescription drugs are often sold on the street for hefty prices to individuals who do not have a prescription but are seeking the desirable effects produced by the drug.

Trends in Prescription Drug Use

In the United States alone, doctors handed out more than 4 billion prescriptions in 2011, and Americans spent more than $300 billion on medication in the same year. Almost half of all Americans report taking at least one prescription drug regularly. These numbers have more than doubled in 10 years, putting prescription drug use at its highest rate ever, and it is still rising.

There are many reasons for the increase in prescription drugs use. With the tremendous advancements in technology and research, drugs are more effective than ever at treating conditions and diseases. They are also more readily available through both legal and illegal channels. And, last, we are a nation of informed consumers, who know more about prescription drugs than ever before.

If you have watched television recently, chances are excellent that you have probably seen at least one commercial advertising prescription medication. These commercials usually list various symptoms and potential side effects along with the benefits of taking the given medication. Let's take a closer look at which drugs are going the distance right now.

Rates of prescription drug use are on the rise.
prescription medicines

Commonly Prescribed Medications

Now that we know more about trends in prescription drug use, how many prescriptions are being written by doctors, as well as the price tag for all of these medications, let's explore what people are spending so much money on. Here are the most commonly used prescription medications in America:

  • Cancer medications

Cancer is consistently one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Early detection rates paired with more effective treatment methods have improved outcomes for those fighting cancer. Medications to treat cancer have made amazing strides in recent years and they are more widely available and more effective than ever, which means doctors are using them more. Cancer drugs were the most prescribed group of drugs in 2011.

  • Antidepressants

Public awareness of mental disorders like depression has increased. Pair this with an increase in advertising for antidepressants and you have a recipe for increased usage--in fact, antidepressants were one of the most commonly prescribed medications in 2011. More specifically, of the 400 billion prescriptions written, 264 million (or well over half) were for antidepressants. These medications are helpful for mood and depressive disorders and they tend to work pretty well for most people without a lot of bad side effects.

  • Statins

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