The Most Commonly Used Drugs

The Most Commonly Used Drugs

Explore the most commonly used drugs, from illicit substances to over-the-counter pills, and their impact on society.

Commonly Used Drugs Overview

Understanding the landscape of the most commonly used drugs is essential to comprehend their impact on society and individuals. This overview covers trends in drug use and the most common over-the-counter drugs.

Trends in Drug Use

Drug use among adults is on the rise, and prevalent substances include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription drug misuse, and illicit opioids. While young adults ages 18-25 have the highest rates of drug use, adults ages 26-49 are also experiencing an increase in drug use.

Substance Trend
Marijuana Increasing
Cocaine Increasing
Methamphetamine Increasing
Prescription Drug Misuse Increasing
Illicit Opioids Increasing

Most Common Over-the-Counter Drugs

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are medications that can be purchased without a prescription. The most common OTC drugs used by patients in a study conducted between June and November 2021 were paracetamol (13.35%) and ibuprofen (2.04%). These drugs are typically used to manage pain, inflammation, and fever.

OTC Drug Usage %
Paracetamol 13.35
Ibuprofen 2.04

The misuse of OTC drugs is also a significant concern. The two most commonly misused OTC medicines are Dextromethorphan (DXM) and Loperamide. DXM, found in many cold medicines, acts as a cough suppressant, while Loperamide is an anti-diarrheal available in various forms. Misuse of these drugs can lead to health issues ranging from mild stimulation to intoxication, causing hallucinations, paranoia, and aggression at high doses, and even more severe physical consequences.

OTC Drug Common Misuse
Dextromethorphan (DXM) Hallucinations, Paranoia, Aggression
Loperamide Euphoria, Fainting, Stomach Pain, Constipation, Heart-Related Issues

This overview of commonly used drugs offers a glimpse into the broader issue of drug use and misuse. In subsequent sections, this article will delve into illicit drugs, prescription medications, misuse of OTC medicines, drug use among college students, and the impact of drug use.

Illicit Drugs

Among the most commonly used drugs, illicit substances hold significant prominence. These include marijuana, cocaine, LSD, heroin, and MDMA, each with its unique properties and effects.


Marijuana, derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, is a widely recognized drug. Its main psychoactive component is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This compound is responsible for the mind-altering effects experienced by marijuana users, which can range from a sense of euphoria to heightened sensory perception.


Cocaine is a potent stimulant drug, originating from the coca plant native to South America. Recognized for its addictive properties, cocaine use can lead to short-term euphoria, energy, and talkativeness. However, it may also cause harmful effects such as paranoia, sensitivity to light, sound, and touch, as well as a risk of heart attack or stroke [4].


Lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, is a hallucinogen. It's derived from lysergic acid, a compound found in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. LSD causes profound distortions in the user's perception of reality, often resulting in visual hallucinations and altered awareness of the surroundings [4].


Heroin, an opioid drug synthesized from morphine, occupies a notable space in the roster of illicit drugs. Morphine is a natural substance extracted from the seed pod of various opium poppy plants. Heroin usage is associated with a high risk of addiction and overdose, with effects such as euphoria, dry mouth, and heavy limbs.

MDMA (Ecstasy)

MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, is a synthetic, psychoactive drug with qualities akin to both the stimulant amphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline. The scientific name for this compound is 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. MDMA users often experience increased energy, distorted perception of time, and enhanced pleasure from tactile experiences. However, it can also lead to dangerous side effects, such as dehydration, high blood pressure, and kidney failure.

Understanding the properties and effects of these illicit drugs is crucial for raising awareness about their potential risks. As usage trends continue to evolve, it is essential to stay informed about these substances and their impact on society.

Prescription Medications

Prescription medications are a subset of the most commonly used drugs and play a pivotal role in managing and treating various health conditions. They range from treatments for chronic diseases to relieving acute pain. This section delves into some of the most frequently prescribed medications: Lisinopril, Levothyroxine, Atorvastatin, Metformin, statins for controlling high cholesterol, and certain pain management medications.

Lisinopril, Levothyroxine, Atorvastatin

Lisinopril, marketed under the brand names Prinivil and Zestril, is an ACE inhibitor commonly used to manage high blood pressure and heart failure. Its long-acting property may make it more convenient for patients.

Levothyroxine is a medication frequently prescribed for hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone.

Atorvastatin, known by its brand name Lipitor, is a popularly prescribed statin in the U.S. It led drug sales for most of the previous decade before the release of generic Atorvastatin in 2011 [5].


Metformin, sold under the brand name Glucophage, is believed to be the most widely prescribed medication globally for diabetes. It is readily available in the U.S. as an inexpensive generic, with many pharmacies offering it for free or at a reduced cost under their discount generic programs.

Statins for High Cholesterol

Statins are a class of drugs often prescribed to individuals with high cholesterol. They work by reducing the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad cholesterol," in the blood. Atorvastatin is one of the more commonly prescribed statins for this purpose.

Pain Management Medications

Among the most commonly used drugs for pain management are those containing Acetaminophen and Hydrocodone. This combination pill is often prescribed for moderate to severe pain following surgery or trauma. However, due to its opioid content, there are concerns regarding potential substance misuse.

It's crucial to note that while these medications are commonly used, they should always be taken as prescribed by a healthcare professional. Misuse can lead to severe health consequences, including addiction. Always consult with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about your medications.

Misuse of Over-the-Counter Medicines

Even though over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are generally considered safe for public consumption, misuse can lead to severe health issues and addiction. This section will focus on two of the most commonly misused OTC drugs: Dextromethorphan (DXM) and Loperamide.

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

Dextromethorphan (DXM) is a common ingredient in many OTC cold medicines, where it acts as a cough suppressant. Despite its legitimate medical use, DXM misuse can lead to a range of effects, from mild stimulation to intoxication. At high doses, it can cause hallucinations, paranoia, and aggression.

Furthermore, misuse of DXM products containing acetaminophen can result in liver damage. Moreover, overdosing on cold medicines containing DXM can lead to life-threatening reactions or death. Similarly to other opioids, an overdose can cause breathing to slow or stop, resulting in hypoxia, which can lead to coma, brain damage, or death [3].


Loperamide is an anti-diarrheal medicine available in various forms. Misuse of Loperamide can cause euphoria and lead to severe physical consequences such as fainting, stomach pain, constipation, and heart-related issues.

Additionally, when combined with other drugs, Loperamide can act similarly to opioids, causing various health issues such as rapid heart rate, kidney problems, and even coma. Just like DXM, overdosing on products containing Loperamide can lead to severe reactions, including death.

The misuse of DXM or Loperamide can lead to addiction, characterized by health issues and the failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. Although there are no specific medications approved for treating addiction to these drugs, behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management can be beneficial [3].

Understanding the potential for misuse and the associated risks of these OTC drugs is crucial in order to prevent harmful effects. Always follow the recommended dosage and consult with a healthcare provider if you have any concerns or questions.

Drug Use Among College Students

In the context of the most commonly used drugs, it's crucial to understand the patterns of drug use among specific population groups, such as college students. This demographic is often characterized by significant changes and pressures, which can sometimes lead to increased drug use.

Prevalence Rates

According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), young adults aged between 18 to 25 years report the highest rates of lifetime (60.5%), past year (34.6%), and past month (20.3%) use of any illicit drug. The prevalence of past year illicit drug use by college students aged 18 to 22 years was comparable to their same-age peers not attending college.

Marijuana use has also seen a significant rise among U.S. college students over the past decade. Young adults aged between 18 to 29 years have the highest past-year prevalence rates of marijuana use, abuse, and dependence compared to older age groups [7].

Patterns by Gender and Ethnicity

When looking at the patterns of drug use by gender, it has been observed that male students are generally more likely to report drug use and abuse than female students.

In terms of race and ethnicity, Hispanic and White students were more likely to report drug use and abuse than Asian and African American students, both before and during college.

The 12-month prevalence rates of drug use for undergraduate college students based on race/ethnicity and gender show that the use of drugs tends to be higher for Hispanic and White students than for Asian and African American students, among both men and women.

Race/Ethnicity 12-Month Prevalence Rates (%)
Hispanic 30
White 28
African American 15
Asian 10

Figures courtesy NCBI

These patterns suggest that preventive measures and interventions need to be tailored to specific populations based on cultural, social, and individual factors. Understanding these patterns can inform the development of effective strategies to address drug use among college students.

Impact of Drug Use

The use and misuse of drugs, from illicit substances to over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, have significant consequences. These consequences range from addiction and health issues to legal and academic implications, particularly for college students.

Addiction and Health Consequences

Misuse of drugs can lead to addiction, characterized by health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. For instance, some of the most commonly misused OTC medicines are Dextromethorphan (DXM) and Loperamide. DXM is found in many OTC cold medicines and acts as a cough suppressant, while Loperamide is an anti-diarrheal available in various forms.

Overdosing on cold medicines containing DXM or Loperamide can lead to life-threatening reactions or death. Similar to other opioids, an overdose can cause breathing to slow or stop, resulting in hypoxia, which can lead to coma, brain damage, or death [3].

Furthermore, misuse of DXM products containing acetaminophen can result in liver damage. Meanwhile, Loperamide misuse, when combined with other drugs, can act similarly to opioids, causing various health issues such as rapid heart rate, kidney problems, and even coma.

Treatment Options

While no specific medications are approved for treating addiction to these drugs, behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management can be beneficial.

Campus Policies and Resources

College campuses, like the University of San Francisco (USF), have specific policies and resources in place to address drug use among students. For instance, USF prohibits the illegal possession, manufacture, distribution, use, sale, or gift of any prescription or non-prescription drug and being under the influence of any prescription drug or controlled substance, except as prescribed by a licensed physician.

The University's policies on substance abuse and alcoholic beverages are outlined in section 6.2 of The Fogcutter, which provides a detailed guide on handling substance abuse and alcohol-related issues on campus.

Furthermore, students seeking community drug or alcohol counseling services, treatment, rehabilitation, or re-entry programs are advised to contact for more information.

The Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1989 are mentioned as the guidelines under which USF maintains a healthy and socially responsible campus environment regarding drugs.

Resources are also provided to get facts about the most commonly misused and abused drugs, along with the option to download the commonly abused drugs chart [8].

In summary, the impact of drug use extends far beyond the individual user. It affects their health, their relationships, their academic and professional performance, and even the community around them. Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive approach, including education, prevention, treatment, and policy measures.










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