Talking About Prescription Drug Misuse

Learn about prescription drug abuse and misuse and ways to prevent it.

Prescription misuse can happen when ANY prescription medication is used in a way that is different than what is prescribed by your doctor. 

For example:

  • Using another person's medication, even if it is for similar symptoms and health condition
  • Taking a larger dose of pain medication than was prescribed because the pain feels worse
  • Taking sleeping pills to take the edge off
  • Snorting or injecting crushed pills instead of swallowing them

Surprisingly, prescription drug misuse usually doesn’t start on the street, it starts at home!


In 2019, 23% of Canadians 15 years and older report using a commonly misused medication (opioids, stimulants, or sedatives). Of that group, 7% (493,000) report using them differently than the reason they were prescribed. This could include to use it for the feeling it caused, to get high, or for the experience.


Prescription medication misuse affects many Canadians. The three most common groups of medications misused are:

  • Opioids – used to help relieve pain
    • 1% of all Canadians 15 years of age and older had problematic use in the past year
  • Sedatives – used for sleep and anxiety
    • 3% (85,000) of Canadians 15 years and older using sedatives use them to get high
  • Stimulants – used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • 1% of all Canadians 15 years of age and older had problematic use in the past year 

Situations that can lead to prescription drug misuse:


Using a prescription drug… too often

This may happen when not following the doctor's recommended use. For example, taking 4 pills per day instead of the 2 pills per day that were prescribed. Taking a medication more often than your doctor has prescribed increases your risk of medication misuse.

Using the medication for something different than what was attended for

Some people will take pain medications to help them relax or an ADHD stimulant medication to help them study or stay awake. These are warning signs of prescription drug misuse.

Taking medication that is not prescribed for you

Do not, under any circumstances, share your prescription medications with others. It’s also possible for prescription drugs to be stolen by guests rummaging through your medicine cabinet.

Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse and Misuse

Watch for signs of medication misuse

If you start to notice that a family member or friend is acting differently than before or is having problems in various aspects of their life, they may be struggling with substance use, like drugs. Things to watch for:

  • Changes in personality (isolating themselves from friends/family, extreme changes in behaviour or mood, trouble concentrating)
  • Changes in habits around medication use (using their medication more often, using more medication to get the same effect, getting medication from different sources)
  • Difficulty managing basic parts of their life due to increased medication use (missing work and school, health gets worse, strained relationships)

If you no longer need a medication, dispose of it safely

Expired and unused prescription medications are often left lying in medicine cabinets and cupboards. This leads to their potential misuse.

You can return your unused and expired medications to your pharmacy.

Learn more about proper medication disposal

Be an informed patient

The more you know about your medication, the better. Five simple questions that you can ask your doctor, pharmacist, or nurse about your medications to learn more are:

  1. Changes? Have any medications been added, stopped, or changed, and why?
  2. Continue? What medications do I need to keep taking, and why?
  3. Proper use? How do I take my medications, and for how long?
  4. Monitor? How will I know if my medication is working, and what side effects should I watch for?
  5. Follow-up? Do I need any test and when do I book my next visit?
Learn more ways to be an informed patient

If you or someone you know is struggling with medication misuse, visit . This website contains information about getting support for mental health and medication use support.


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