prescription medicationsLast updated
A prescription medication is any medication that requires a written order from a doctor in order to dispense, as opposed to over-the-counter medications. Prescription medications may have brand names (e.g., Coumadin) and generic versions (e.g., warfarin). When describing a medication taken by a person as part of a treatment plan, the terms “medicine” or “medication” are more precise than “drug.”
While prescription medications are a class of controlled substances, the terms are not interchangeable, as the US Drug Enforcement Agency also classifies substances with no recognized medical use as controlled substances (such as heroin and ecstasy).
How someone takes a medication can be described in terms of “takes” or “is prescribed,” instead of “uses,” as referring to prescription medications in terms of “drugs” and “uses” can carry strong connotations of substance use disorder or intentional misuse, particularly around medications that are perceived as being commonly misused. If writing specifically about prescription medications in the context of substance use disorder, they can still be described as prescription medications, not drugs, but the term “misuse” can be employed in this context. If writing about treatment that involves multiple medications, terms like “medication regimen,” “medication routine” or, in a scientific context, polypharmacy, rather “cocktail,” are straightforward. (Though the term “cocktail” historically was used in the context of HIV treatment, a term like “medication regimen” is clearer and more accurate.)
Reporting around prescription medications often refers to the “adherence” or “diversion” of a person who takes a particular medication. Adherence refers to how closely a person follows the instructions of a treatment plan, while diversion refers to purposely mismanaging medications (by giving or selling them to friends and family, for example).
Additionally, any medication can be misused, whether intentionally or not, simply by taking it at the wrong time, too often, too infrequently, or any other number of variables; a person intentionally or unintentionally misusing a medication is not the same as a person having substance use disorder. For instance, one common reason a person may take their medication incorrectly is because of cost: If someone cannot afford to fill a prescription as frequently as it’s needed, they may resort to taking it less often or at a lower dose.
When writing about a specific person’s medication, be aware that “strength” is a relative term. The effect of a medication can vary based on everything from a person’s weight and age to the other medications they take or what they’ve eaten that day. If necessary, referring to “dose” or “dosage” specifically, instead of strength generally, is helpful for clarity. The Controlled Substances Act classifies substances according to the potential for abuse and accepted medical uses, not explicitly by strength (or strength of effect). If someone discloses that they take a medication that is controlled, this does not necessarily mean that this person uses a “strong drug.” It can also be helpful to avoid words like “powerful,” “knock out,” or “overwhelming,” which are vague and subjective.
Similarly, be aware of the distinctions between a medication’s effect and its purpose. While a pain medication may have the effect of sedation, its purpose would be to treat pain. So when writing about a medication like this, it can be more accurate to discuss it in terms of pain treatment (purpose) than as a sedative (effect or feeling). A medication may be known to cause a particular effect, but that does not mean that everyone prescribed it will experience that effect, understand it as such, or view it as inherently negative.
Several medications commonly reported on include opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants (like Adderall). Although these medications may be perceived as being commonly abused, it’s important to consider that a prescription medication is prescribed because it has specific medical uses, so there are many reasons a person may take any of the above medications. Nearly every medication can become dangerous or harmful if misused, whether intentionally or not, and portraying a particular medication as being inherently or automatically prone to misuse can reinforce negative stereotypes.
- UN Report: The non-medical use of prescription drugs (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)
- Words Matter: Terms to use and avoid when talking about addiction (National Institutes of Health)
Prescription medications include a wide variety of medicines. How someone takes a medication can be described in terms of “takes” or “is prescribed,” instead of “uses,” as referring to prescription medications in terms of “drugs” and “uses” can carry strong connotations of substance use disorder or intentional misuse, particularly around medications that are perceived as being commonly misused.