Is Covid 19 Pandemic Causing My Addiction

two men discussing addiction

Is Covid 19 Pandemic Causing My Addiction

Prescription drug abuse during Covid 19 pandemic is on the rise and becoming a major public health problem.  According to national surveys, approximately 52 million people have engaged in non-medical use of prescription drugs at some point in their lifetimes.  In fact, certain prescription drugs (e.g., painkillers, stimulants) are so commonly abused that they are among the most abused drugs overall, second only to marijuana.  

Prescription drug abuse has been defined as “the use of a medication without a prescription, in a way other than as prescribed, or for the experience or feelings elicited.”  The term “prescription drug abuse” is synonymous with the term “nonmedical use” (of prescription drugs).  By this definition, those engaging in prescription drug abuse may or may not be dependent or addicted to the medication which they are abusing.  However, this definition recognizes that abuse in and of itself is a serious issue which may lead to later addiction.  Abuse is distinct from addiction, which is defined as “a chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite serious adverse consequences, and by long-lasting changes in the brain.”  

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the behaviors involved in prescription drug abuse occur on a spectrum ranging from improper use or misuse to abuse (see below figure).  There are several ways along this spectrum that prescription drugs may be abused:   

  • Taking the prescription medication of another person.
  • Taking a prescription drug in a higher amount that it was prescribed. 
  • Taking a prescription drug in another way than how it was prescribed (e.g., crushing tablets to snort or inject the powder form of a drug and amplify or rush its effects) 
  • Taking a prescription drug for another purpose than that which it was prescribed for (e.g., to get high, increase cognitive performance for school, etc.) 


Prescription drug abuse is a problem which is growing in the U.S. and there may be several reasons for this.  For one, because prescription drugs are prescribed by doctors and not drugs that are illegal to take (like cocaine and heroin) it is assumed by many people that these drugs are safe by comparison.  This may be assumed in part because one can better predict the composition and purity of prescribed drugs versus illegal street drugs.  However, any prescription drug may be equally as dangerous as illegal, non-prescribed drugs under certain circumstances.  The increasing prevalence of prescription drug abuse may also be occurring because there are various reasons that people abuse them beyond just getting high.  For example, prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin (usually prescribed to people with ADHD) may be abused by adolescents and young adults to enhance their school performance.  And drugs like OxyContin may be abused even by those with a prescription for it for it if it is used for reasons other than those prescribed (e.g., taking a high dose to intentionally induce drowsiness so that one can sleep).  

Furthermore, the increasing prevalence of prescription drug abuse may be occurring because in some geographic areas (e.g., rural and suburban areas) they may be easier to get than illegal street drugs like heroin.  Along with this, prescription drugs may be less likely to be monitored by law enforcement and thus appear to have a lower likelihood for arrest if one is caught with them as compared to drugs like heroin and cocaine.  There may also be higher social acceptance of the abuse of prescription drugs versus common street drugs.  Lastly, the increase of prescription drug abuse in the U.S. may be occurring due to the rapid increase in the number of prescribed medications over the years to the general public.  For example, the number of opioid analgesic medication prescriptions increased from about 75 million in 1991 to 209 million in 2010.