The Most Commonly Prescribed Drugs in America

Health, Medical Costs

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We remain a prescription nation. Nearly 70% of Americans are taking at least 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.

And sales are high, too. According to an April 2015 study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, a company that tracks sales at the pharmacy level for drug companies, total drug spending in 2014 was $374 billion, up 13.1% from the prior year.

So which drugs are the most widely prescribed? That same IMS report shows that the top five medicines prescribed in the U.S. in 2014 were:

  1. Levothyroxine
  2. Hydrocodone/acetaminophen
  3. Lisinopril
  4. Metoprolol
  5. Atorvastatin

These drugs are being prescribed in the millions, according to the IMS Institute. There were about 120 million prescriptions dispensed for levothyroxine, 119 million for hydrocodone/acetaminophen, 104 million for lisinopril, 85 million for metoprolol, and 81 million for atorvastatin.

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:

  • Levothyroxine is used to treat hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This drug also is used to treat thyroid cancer and to help shrink an enlarged thyroid gland.
  • 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.
  • 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 treat heart failure.
  • Metoprolol, the generic version of Lopressor, is used to treat high blood pressure and also helps reduce the risk of repeated heart attack. Metoprolol also treats heart failure and heart pain, or angina.
  • Atorvastatin, the generic of Lipitor, 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 prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Cost of the drugs

The cost of these drugs is a slippery subject, as the price varies depending on where you buy them and on your health insurance coverage. Factors that influence the cost of a prescription include how many doses are in a prescription and how many milligrams are in each dose. If you are prescribed a brand-name drug, be sure to ask the pharmacist if there is a generic version, since brand names tend to be 80% to 85% more expensive than generics, which legally cannot differ in efficacy, potency, quality or safety.

» COMPARE: Health insurance quotes

Here are cash price estimates for the five drugs based on GoodRx searches in San Francisco for both 30- and 90-day prescriptions. Keep in mind that your costs will differ based on your insurance status and drug co-pays associated with your plan. Where you get your prescription filled can also affect the price you pay, so be sure to shop around.

  • Levothyroxine: $4-$16
  • Hydrocodone/acetaminophen: $12-$20
  • Lisinopril: $4-$12
  • Metoprolol: $4-$13
  • Atorvastatin: $15-$41

Discount programs

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 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, 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 nonprofit 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 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.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer covering health and personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @LacieJaeGlo and on Google+.