The proportion of drug addicts checking into rehab that abuse prescription medications has seen a four-fold increase in the past decade, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
In 1998, 2.2 percent of people seeking treatment reported abusing prescription pain relievers, but that number has climbed steadily over the years. In 2008, nearly 10 percent reported abusing common prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin or morphine, according to the study released Thursday.
Peter Delany, director of the Office of Applied Studies at SAMHSA, who conducted the study, says that this spike is a reflection of a steady increase in the prevalence of the issue.
"In a way it's a good news/bad news story," he says. "People are getting treatment, which is good news. But the bad news is the problem just keeps growing.
"People look at these medications and because it's a prescription, they don't think it's as dangerous," he adds.
But the dangers of prescription drug abuse become clearer with every year, Delany says.
A June report by SAMHSA highlighted this danger: Researchers found that emergency room visits associated with prescription drug overdose more than doubled from 2004 to 2008.
"This has been a trend coming for 10 years," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of A Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "It should be no surprise that now it is showing up in ER visits and people checking into treatment centers."
Despite its prevalence, prescription drug addiction is still a poorly understood issue in America, Pasierb says.
"We have to struggle with overturning the public misperceptions," he says. "I'm hoping this report can be like a cold, wet slap in the public's face to wake up to the fact that this is an actual, real public problem."
The study draws on the Treatment Episode Data set, a periodic report that collects national information on patients admitted to drug rehabilitation programs.
Researchers found that the increase in patients checking into rehab with prescription drug abuse issues was similarly striking across age, gender, level of education and employment status.
"It cuts across all age groups and socioeconomic levels," says Rob Covin, author of "Overcoming Prescription Drug Addiction."
One in five teens say they have used prescription drugs to get high, according to data from A Partnership for a Drug-Free America, he notes, and among those aged 45 to 54, there has been a surge in prescription drug overdoses -- now the second leading cause of accidental death for that age group.
What accounts for this mounting prescription drug problem?
Pasierb says it has a lot to do with how Americans view the medications.
"There's such a low perceptions of risk involved with these drugs," he says. "People think because they're FDA approved, that they aren't dangerous or addictive, and that increases the likelihood of use."
Many people also assume that addiction cannot happen to them, Colvin adds.
"We hear about it when a celebrity dies," he says, "but we don't hear about the families that deal with it every day."
The availability of these drugs adds to their appeal, as well. The number one source among prescription medicine addicts is their own family's medicine cabinet, Pasierb says. People are prescribed these medicines legitimately, but when they don't use them up, they hold onto them.