We remain a prescription nation. Nearly 70% of Americans take one prescription drug and more than half take two, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center. What's more, about 20% of Americans use at least five prescription medications. That same research shows that prescription drug use has been increasing steadily in the U.S. for the past decade. With such a vast swath of the population relying on prescriptions, what drugs are being prescribed, and why?
The most recent data available, an April 2012 study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, a company that tracks sales at the pharmacy level for drug companies, shows that the top five medicines prescribed in the U.S. in 2011 were:
- Levothyroxine sodium.
- Amlodipine besylate.
These drugs are being prescribed in the millions, according to the IMS Institute. The numbers of prescriptions for each range from a high of 136 million for hydrocodone/acetaminophen and 104 million for Levothyroxine sodium to 96 million for Simvastatin, 88.8 million for Lisinopril, and 62.5 million for Amlodipine besylate.
Uses for the most commonly prescribed drugs
The top drugs are used to treat a variety of ailments -- from pain to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Here's a breakdown of the use of each drug:
- Hydrocodone/acetaminophen is the nation's most popular painkiller, used to treat moderate to severe pain. Hydrocodone, a narcotic analgesic, relieves pain through the central nervous system, and it also is used to stop or prevent coughing. This drug's reputation precedes it, as it can become habit-forming when used over an extended period of time.
- Levothyroxine sodium is used to treat hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough of the thyroid hormone. This drug also is used to treat thyroid cancer and to help shrink an enlarged thyroid gland.
- Simvastatin (generic Zocor) is prescribed to treat high cholesterol and is typically recommended in conjunction with diet changes. This drug is believed to have a variety of benefits, including helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
- Lisinopril (which used to be sold under the brand names Zestril and Prinivil) is a high blood pressure medication. Its main function is to block chemicals in the body that trigger the tightening of blood vessels. Lisinopril also is used to help treat heart failure.
- Amlodipine besylate is used to treat high blood pressure. It's used either alone or in conjunction with other medicines. Amlodipine is also used for chest pain.
Cost of the drugs
The cost of each of these drugs is a slippery subject, as the price varies depending on where you buy them and on your insurance coverage. Factors that influence cost include such things as how many tablets are in a prescription or how many milligrams are in each tablet. If you are prescribed a brand-name drug, be sure to ask if there is a generic, since brand names tend to be 80%-85% more expensive than generics, which legally cannot differ in efficacy, potency, quality, or safety.
Here are some cash price estimates for the five drugs at CVS, based on GoodRx searches in San Francisco. Keep in mind that your costs will differ based on your insurance status and drug co-pays associated with your plan.
- Hydrocodone/acetaminophen: $45
- Levothyroxine sodium: $12
- Simvastatin: $38
- Lisinopril: $14
- Amlodipine besylate: $39
There are a variety of ways to save money on prescription drugs. If you're paying cash for your prescription medications, look into drug coupons -- from a website like GoodRx -- or in weekly discount fliers and direct mailings from major pharmacies.
Another way to save money on prescriptions is to shop through an online pharmacy, which can shave 35% or more off the cost of your medication. If you go this route, your doctor can fax or mail the prescription to the online pharmacy, and then the medicine is mailed to you.
Some states, such as Washington and Kentucky, also offer drug discount cards for those who meet age and income requirements. Another resource is the non-profit NeedyMeds, an organization that maintains a website about programs that can help people who can't afford medication. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a website to help connect people with prescription discount programs. Many pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs for individuals who cannot afford their medications, so look into your options before making a purchase -- especially if it's for a pricey brand-name drug.