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Prescription Drug Addiction: Signs and Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription opioids with many bottles of pills in the background.

Published: July 17, 2023

Prescription drug addiction may be more common than addiction to illicit drugs. People who misuse prescription medications may believe they are safer than other kinds of drugs or alcohol.

Prescription drugs are pharmaceutical drugs that may not be dispensed without a legal medical prescription, while over-the-counter medications do not require a prescription.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), prescription drug misuse and addiction is a major health concern in the United States.

If you or someone you love would like to know more about prescription drug addiction, abuse, or misuse, keep reading for more information on diagnosis and treatment.

About Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction occurs when someone repeatedly or chronically uses a prescription drug in ways other than what it was prescribed or intended for due to a mental reliance on it. This includes the use of someone else’s prescription medication.

To develop an addiction to prescription drugs, a person must first have access to them. Addiction to prescription medication is prevalent in many people who have been prescribed pain medication, as well as loved ones in their household, such as young teens.

Prescription Drug Abuse vs. Addiction

It is possible to abuse prescription drugs without having an addiction to them. There is a clinical difference between misusing, abusing, and forming an addiction to prescription medication.

To be clear, taking your prescription the way it is directed by your doctor does not constitute prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drug abuse happens when people take prescription in any way other than what was intended, such as searching for particular doctors to prescribe them medication, called “doctor shopping”.

People abusing prescription medication reported having altered thinking and behavior, as well as altered body function. Prescription drug addiction is a brain disorder that may manifest as the uncontrollable use of prescription medication despite the consequences.

People with an addiction to prescription drugs have a physical and/or psychological need to take the medication because of the intense withdrawal symptoms they may experience when they go without it.

Prescription Drug Dependence

A person who has an addiction to a prescription drug may also find that they are physically dependent on it as well.

Physical dependence is the body’s response to long-term use of a prescription drug. Physical dependence may worsen due to tolerance, or the need to take higher doses of the medication to get the same effects.

People who are experiencing prescription drug dependence may experience withdrawal symptoms when cutting back or suddenly quitting the prescription medication.

Some prescription drugs that may cause physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms:

  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Stimulants
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants

List of Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that there are three classes of prescription drugs which are often abused: opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants.

Opioids are medications often prescribed for pain. When used as directed by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), opioid use can help people with acute and chronic pain have a higher quality of life.

Opioids include:

  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone (brand names: Norco, Vicodin)
  • Morphine (brand names: Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, and Oramorph SR)
  • Oxycodone (brand names: OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin)

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which include benzodiazepines, are used to treat anxiety disorders and insomnia. CNS depressants also include a category called barbiturates, which are used to treat seizure disorders and for anesthesia.

CNS depressants can include the following medications:

  • Ativan
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Amytal (Amobarbital)
  • Nembutal (Pentobarbital)
  • Luminal (Phenobarbital)
  • Seconal (Secobarbital)

Stimulants are prescription medications that are often used to treat health conditions like ADHD, ADD, depression, and narcolepsy. Stimulants give your body a boost in alertness, energy, and attention.

The following stimulant medications are the most often prescribed:

  • Dextroamphetamine (also known as Dexedrine, Dextrostat, and ProCentra)
  • Lisdexamfetamine (also known as Vyvanse)
  • Methylphenidate (also known as Concerta, Daytrana, Methylin, Ritalin)
  • A mix of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (known as Adderall)

Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction can occur in many age groups, from young adults to the elderly. Signs of prescription drug addiction may vary depending on the type of prescription medication.

Some of the signs of an opioid addiction can include dizziness, slow or shallow breathing, upset stomach, constipation, vomiting, slurred speech, poor coordination, mood swings, depression, and anxiety.

Signs of a benzodiazepine addiction include the following: mood changes, trouble walking, trouble concentrating, poor judgment, slow reflexes, slurred speech, memory problems, and slow breathing.

Stimulant addiction can include the following signs and symptoms: weight loss and lack of appetite, dizziness, headache, insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure, uneven heart rate, and paranoia.

Prescription Drug Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person tries to lessen the amount of a prescription drug they take, or if they try to quit suddenly, it is very common for them to experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Withdrawal symptoms caused by opioid addiction include:

  • Drug cravings
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Runny nose
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chills
  • Digestive problems

Withdrawal symptoms caused by benzodiazepines or CNS depressants include:

  • Drug cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea

Withdrawal symptoms caused by stimulants include:

  • Drug cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Extreme fatigue

Side Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Using prescription drugs in any way but the way they are prescribed can have mental and physical consequences. Prescription drug abuse can also lead to problems in your job and relationships.

Short-Term Effects of Prescription Drug Misuse

The short-term effects of prescription drug misuse can vary depending on the prescription mediation, the amount taken, and other factors.

Common short-term effects of prescription drug misuse can include the following:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Drowsiness
  • Accelerated or decelerated heart rate
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Increase in body temperature
  • Visual disturbances
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Respiratory depression
  • Increased rate of drug interactions
  • Increased rate of overdose
  • Coma
  • Overdose death

Long-Term Health Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Over time, taking prescription medication in any way other than what it is prescribed for can cause a number of different types of damage to your body, both mental and physical.

Long-term health effects of prescription drug abuse include the following:

  • Increased risk of developing life-threatening illness, including cardiovascular disease and certain cancers
  • Stimulants like amphetamines can lead to cardiac arrest
  • Snorting crushed pills can lead to problems in the nasal cavity, sinuses, and lungs
  • Increased risk of transmitted infections, such as hepatitis B and C, or HIV
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and even psychotic behavior
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Organ damage, especially to the liver and kidneys
  • Seizures
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Sleep disorders

Risk Factors for Prescription Drug Addiction

There is no guarantee that everyone who abuses prescription drugs will develop an addiction, but there are different risk factors that can make a person more vulnerable to addiction.

The following can be risk factors for developing an addiction:

  • Environmental — People are more likely to develop a prescription drug addiction if they come from homes where abuse occurs, drug use and other forms of addiction happen, as well as have easy access to prescription drugs, friends who abuse prescription medication, and many other factors.
  • Developmental — Young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely to develop an addiction to prescription medication for many reasons.
  • Genetics — A person with a family history of addiction and mental health issues, as well as ethnicity and gender, can also be factors that lead to developing a prescription drug addiction.

These are risk factors that make it possible to develop an addiction to prescription medication, but they will not cause or force you to. A cause is any factor that leads you to developing the disease. For instance, abusing prescription medication can cause you to develop an addiction.

Diagnosing Prescription Drug Addiction

If you or a loved one think you may have a prescription drug addiction, a doctor will likely ask you a series of questions designed to outline your medication use history.

To diagnose a substance use disorder, most doctors and mental health professionals will use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). This is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association.

If they feel you meet the criteria, they have the option of testing your system to see the levels of a prescription drug in your blood or urine.

When to Get Help for a Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction can be hard to recognize. You may not be aware that your loved one has an addiction to prescription medication, especially if it is a medication they are prescribed.

Questions to ask if you are concerned you or a loved one may have an addiction to prescription drugs:

  • Do you take more prescription medication than what was prescribed?
  • Do you take prescription medication for a different reason than what is prescribed?
  • Do you take a family member or friend’s prescription medication?
  • Do you find yourself running out of your prescription faster than you should be?
  • Do you think about when you can take the prescription drug?
  • Have you tried to get more than one prescription for the same drug from different doctors?
  • Have you found that everyday tasks are harder if you have not taken the prescription drug?
  • Has the need to take the prescription drug taken over your life?
  • Do you take prescription medication to avoid withdrawal symptoms?
  • Do you take prescription medication even if it is dangerous for you?
  • Would you rather take the prescription medicine than be with family or friends?
  • Do you need more of the prescription drug to get the same effects?
  • Is it hard or impossible to stop, even if you want to?

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment Options

If you have recently learned you have a prescription drug addiction, the next step is to determine your treatment plan. There are many treatment options and programs available, each with different benefits.

Your healthcare provider can help you determine which level of care will be right for you.

Drug Detox Programs

In drug detox programs, patients are monitored 24/7 by qualified healthcare providers. They will keep an eye on the patient’s vital signs, including the heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.

When entering a drug detox program, a physical examination will be performed to assess the patient’s health. Providers will identify any co-occurring conditions, and acquire a complete drug use history.

Based on the information gathered, medical staff will design an individual treatment plan for each patient.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Certain medications assist with withdrawal symptoms, making them less severe and encouraging recovery. This treatment is known as medication-assisted treatment or MAT.

The following are FDA-approved MAT medications:

  • Methadone — This synthetic opioid prevents withdrawal symptoms, and relieves drug cravings. Doctors have successfully used methadone for more than 40 years.
  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone) — Certified physicians can prescribe this medication, as well as nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants. It is used to treat opioid dependence and is an option for treating severe or chronic pain.
  • Naloxone — This medication is used for the emergency treatment of known or suspected opioid overdoses.
  • Naltrexone — This is an injectable, long-lasting medicine that can be a useful treatment for patients addicted to opiates. It helps curb their cravings and prevents them from taking the opiate again.

Inpatient Rehab Programs

Inpatient treatment programs, also known as residential treatment, are a type of intensive addiction treatment that requires patients to stay at the center for the duration of their treatment. Patients have a structured schedule to ensure that recovery is effective.

Inpatient programs are considered to be a higher level of care, and have the highest success rates for any degree of addiction. Treatment occurs in a safe, comfortable environment where patients are free from outside relapse triggers.

Patients will typically work with a therapist to uncover the root of their addiction. Other evidence-based treatments include family therapy, relapse prevention, life skills training, trauma counseling, gender-specific groups, and more.

Outpatient Programs

For patients who are moving out of inpatient treatment or may not need intensive addiction treatment, outpatient programs are available.

In outpatient programs, there are generally three levels of care:

  • Partial hospitalization programs — These programs are designed to help patients move from inpatient to outpatient treatment in a step-down approach designed to assist patients who need more frequent, intensive treatment.
  • Intensive outpatient programs — This type of program is used as a step down from partial hospitalization programs. This could also be a program for patients who need less intensive care than inpatient or partial hospitalization.
  • General outpatient programs — This is considered the least-intensive level of care for outpatient programs. General outpatient programs help prepare patients for a life in long-term recovery. This level of care will continue for as long as it is needed.

Continuing Care

Continuing care includes any type of services offered on an outpatient basis after a person receives addiction treatment, either through inpatient or outpatient programs.

Generally considered less intensive, these types of programs are designed to taper off after a while. Continuing care can include community-based self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, individual counseling, behavioral therapy, and more.

Find Help for a Prescription Drug Addiction

Unfortunately, misuse of prescription drugs is becoming more common in the United States. Prescription drugs are easily accessible for some, through medicine cabinets or having a doctor prescribing them for a family member.

If you are concerned about improper prescription drug use by yourself or someone you love, there is help waiting for you! Call our helpline today to speak with someone who can help you get started.

Prescription Drug Addiction FAQs

What prescription drugs can cause addiction?

Opioids like hydrocodone and Oxycontin, benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, and stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin may lead to an addiction with misuse.

What are signs of prescription drug misuse and addiction?

Using a prescription drug in any way other than what was directed is misusing a prescription. Some of these ways include taking higher doses, taking more frequent doses, or taking someone else’s prescription.

Addiction can cause a person to take high doses to get the desired effect, and can cause many health conditions.

What is the most common type of prescription drug abused?

Prescription painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants are the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

Is prescription drug addiction dangerous?

Prescription drug addiction can be dangerous when left untreated and can lead to serious medical conditions or even death when drugs are taken in high doses, and/or mixed with other medications and substances.

How do you treat addiction to prescription medications?

Prescription drug addiction can be treated with detoxification, inpatient treatment programs, and a number of different outpatient programs ranging in intensity.

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