Indiana University Bloomington

Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Common Myths #1

It's OK to take a pill that was prescribed for someone else.

There is a growing perception among youth that abusing prescription drugs is “controlled” or “safe.” So one might wonder, “Is taking someone else’s prescription medication, even for a good reason, a safe thing to do?”

In order to answer this question, let’s examine the general concept of a prescription:
A medical expert (typically a doctor) has decided that someone (we’ll call him “Bill”) has a specific problem that needs to be treated with a substance (let’s assume that it’s a pain killer such as OxycontinTM, which may have been prescribed following surgery on a broken arm). In this scenario, let’s assume that Bill has his medication sitting near the sink in the restroom where he will remember to take it.

At first, it might seem like anyone else, such as his wife, children, or other visitors could also take one of his pills to treat their pain. After all, they are safe enough for him, and they seem to effectively treat his pain; why would they be dangerous to other people?

Let’s examine the potential problems with using Bill’s prescription medication:
Although many studies minimize the dangers associated with the use of prescription medications, these findings are true when the drugs are taken as prescribed or used in a managed medical situation. This means that a doctor has examined Bill and knows about his medical history and his current behavior, and is monitoring his progress and use of the medication. Statements indicating that these medications do not promote substance abuse later in life, are not addictive, and are relatively safe to use (in the case of prescription stimulants like RitalinTM), , or that the chance of becoming addicted is fairly low (in the case of prescription pain killers like OxycontinTM) only hold true in such a managed situation.

  1. Taking a dose of Bill’s medicine that is too strong, for example, can be lethal!
  2. If you have certain other substances in your body, such as alcohol, taking Bill’s pain killers can be dangerous.

There are numerous unknown factors involved any time you take someone else’s prescription medication, and in the case of such medicines, the unknown can be dangerous!


  Friedman, R.A. (2006). The changing face of teenage drug abuse – The trend toward prescription drugs. The New England Journal of Medicine, 354, 1448-1450.

  McCabe, S.E., Teter, C.J., and Boyd, C.J. (2006). Medical use, illicit use, and diversion of prescription stimulant medication. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 38(1), 43-56.

  Staff. (2006). Prescription medicines: Basic facts. Retrieved online on 7/24/08 from: http://www.phoenixhouse.org.

  Staff. (2006). NIDA Infofacts – Prescription pain and other medication. Retrieved online on 8/17/08 from: http://www.nida.nih.gov/infofacts.