Drug Abuse vs. Misuse: What’s the Difference?

Prescription drugs are intended to help us, but can end up hurting us when misused or abused. But what truly is the difference between drug abuse vs. misuse?

When a person misuses or abuses a prescription drug, there is no medical oversight of the risks. For example: a person who misuses or abuses opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin can die from respiratory failure. Prescription sedatives like benzodiazepines such as Xanax can cause withdrawal seizures. Prescription stimulants such as medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can lead to dangerous increases in blood pressure. The risks from these drugs are worse when they are combined with other drugs or alcohol.

Additionally, when a person misuses a prescription drug, even on a single occasion, that individual might enjoy the experience so much that they begin to seek out the drug more often. Thus, drug abuse and drug dependence are serious risks of misusing prescription drugs.

What is Drug Misuse?

To misuse a drug is to use a drug for purposes it is not intended for. Using Vicodin for a headache, Xanax for nausea, or any other example of people believing a drug can make them ‘feel better.’ Misuse involves not following medical instructions, but the person may not necessarily be looking to ‘get high’ from their use. For example, if a person isn’t able to fall asleep after taking a single sleeping pill, he or she may take another pill an hour later, thinking, “That will do the job.”

Though many drugs claim to cover a wide variety of symptoms, there is no panacea out there that can cure everything. It’s important to note that all drugs can produce adverse events (side effects), but the risks associated with prescription drugs are managed by a health care professional. Thus, the benefits outweigh the risks when the drug is taken as directed.

“Signs of Drug Misuse”

  • Taking a dose at the wrong time
  • Forgetting to take a dose
  • Stopping a medication too soon
  • Accepting prescription medication from a friend
  • Taking drugs for reasons other than what they were prescribed for

What is Drug Abuse?

People who abuse drugs typically do not have a prescription for what they are taking. Not only do they use it in a way other than it is prescribed, but they also use it to experience the feelings associated with the drug. Euphoria, relaxation, the general feeling of ‘getting high’ is always associated with drug abuse. The abuse of drugs in the opiate and benzodiazepine families frequently leads to unavoidable side effects, including dependency and addiction. For example, someone taking Vicodin frequently with no prescription, no symptoms and believing they ‘need’ it in order to feel better is an example of drug abuse.

“Signs of Drug Abuse”

  • Using a drug to ‘get high’
  • Using without a prescription
  • Exceeding a recommended dose
  • Chronic or repeated abuse
  • Developed tolerance


According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the key difference between drug abuse and drug misuse is the individual’s intentions when taking the drug. FDA stresses that both misuse and abuse of prescription drugs can be harmful and even life threatening to the individual. This is because taking a drug other than the way it is prescribed can lead to dangerous outcomes that the person may not anticipate.

Especially when revolving around prescription drugs, these terms are often used interchangeably and mislead people who have a potential for addictive behavior. It is important not only to recognize the difference, but to also be aware of the consequences of each. Though many people may chop up the difference to be semantics — that using any prescription drug outside of its intended use and dose should be prohibited — there is indeed a difference…and a significant one at that.

Last Updated on February 21, 2024


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