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Prescription Drug Addiction: Signs and Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

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Prescription opioids with many bottles of pills in the background

Prescription Drugs Overview

Prescription painkillers are one of the most addictive substances in America. The use and abuse of non-medical prescription drugs have become an epidemic in this country amongst the millions of prescriptions that are written each year.

A prescription drug is any medicine that is regulated by the law that requires a doctor’s prescription before it can be obtained. These drugs usually work by either promoting or suppressing chemical reactions in the brain.

Even though most people take prescription medication responsibly, there are still an estimated 52 million people that have taken prescription drugs for a non-medical reason at least once in their lives. Most people feel that since the medication is prescribed by a doctor, there is no way to abuse the drug.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are three classes of prescription drugs that can be abused. These include:

  1. Opioids – Such as Fentanyl, Hydrocodone, and Morphine
  2. Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants – Such as Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin
  3. Stimulants – Such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Prescription drug abuse is one of the most poorly recognizable chemical dependency, especially in women. However, there are certain signs and symptoms to keep an eye out for in order to recognize when someone has a problem.

A person might be under the influence if they show these signs:

  • Nausea
  • Feeling high
  • Slowed breathing rate
  • Confusion
  • Poor coordination
  • Increased pain with higher doses
  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteady walking
  • Agitation
  • Problems with memory
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High body temperature

A person might be abusing prescription drugs if they are:

  • Stealing, forging, or selling prescription drugs
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Excessive mood swings or hostility
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Poor decision-making
  • Appearing to be high, usually energetic or revved up, or sedated
  • Continually “losing” prescriptions so more prescriptions must be written
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor (doctor shopping)

What Happens to the Body from Prescription Drug Addiction?

Just like illegal drugs, abusing prescription medication can take an extreme toll on your body. You can severely damage your lungs since the opiates and similar drugs can suppress the body’s ability to breathe. Medical research found that opiate abuse is associated with a greater risk of pneumonia.

Your stomach and intestines can also be affected by prescription drug abuse. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, a narcotics abuser can suffer from something called “narcotic bowel syndrome.” This is the result of the slowing down of the bowel function. The symptoms of this syndrome include nausea, bloating, vomiting, abdominal distention, and constipation.

Of course, the liver can be severely affected by prescription abuse, as well. Every drug is broken down and processed through the liver. Because of this, the liver is extremely stressed by the abuse of prescription medication and can store toxins during the breakdown process.

Abusing prescription drugs can also wreak havoc on your muscles and kidneys. Overdosing can cause a condition known as “rhabdomyolysis”. This is a rapid breakdown of the muscle tissue which can leave someone immobilized for a long period of time. This causes the tissue to disintegrate and a chain reaction to damage other organs. Abusing these drugs could also lead to dialysis or even a kidney transplant.

Understanding a Prescription Drug Addiction

Most people who take prescription drugs don’t do so with the intent of becoming an addict. Many originally take the medication as prescribed by their doctor in order to gain relief from pain. However, most people start to abuse the medication once they start to build up a tolerance and make the decision to increase their dose on their own.

An Introduction to Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are more controlled than over-the-counter medications, which can be purchased without a prescription.  Generally, only licensed medical doctors, dentists, optometrists, or a veterinarian can legally write prescriptions for controlled substances. While most people take the medication as prescribed, there are some that abuse the medication and become addicted.

What Does it Look Like and Where Does it Come From?

While there are hundreds of different types of prescription drugs prescribed, there are a group of commonly abused ones. One of the most abused is Klonopin. This drug is used to prevent and control seizures, as well as prevention against panic attacks. These can come in different shapes and sizes, but the most common description is a blue pill with a “K” punched in the middle. This recognizable trait makes it hard to miss.

Another easily recognized, commonly abused drug is Valium. This drug is used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and to relieve muscle spasms. Since this drug has a wide array of uses, a lot of people can easily get their hands on it. This drug has a distinct “V” punched through the middle.

Xanax is another drug that is commonly abused. This drug is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. It is a benzodiazepine that releases a calming effect in the brain. These are commonly referred to as “bars” and get this name due to their long, rectangular shape. They come in different colors but are most commonly white.

Prescription Drug Street Names

Prescription drugs are just as dangerous as any kind of illegal drugs, such as cocaineheroin, and ecstasy. There are even street names to keep suspicion down when discussing the abuse of prescribed medication:

  • AC/DC
  • Coties
  • Demmies
  • Dillies
  • Hillbilly heroine
  • O.C.
  • Oxy
  • Oxycotton
  • Percs
  • Vics
  • Dolls

Common Drug Combinations

Whether legal or not, a lot of drugs can be lethal just on their own. This is especially the case when they are not used properly, or illegally. However, combining different drugs together can certainly lead to severe overdoses and even death.

There really is no way to determine which drug cocktail will most likely harm you, but that doesn’t mean that some pairings aren’t deadlier than others. Here are some of the worst combinations:

Alcohol and Benzos

This lethal combination is a common sight in party settings. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to let the person who overdid it  just “sleep it off.” This is a terrible idea and could have deadly consequences. You may be overlooking the signs of an overdose by leaving someone alone to recover on their own.

Alcohol and Prescription Painkillers

This concoction is, unfortunately, growing in popularity. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of emergency room trips doubled due to overdoses on fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, morphine, and oxycodone. This type of combination tends to be most common in young women who indulge at parties and concerts.

Cocaine and Opiates

Commonly referred to as the speedball, this lethal combination is the most dangerous of them all. The cocaine in this combination can cause seizures, strokes, heart attacks, and unregulated body temperatures. When you mix that with opiates, you can suffer from severe respiratory depression. The combination of the two can make it harder to recognize the impact of one chemical.

Benzodiazepines, Narcotic Painkillers, and Sleeping Pills

Combining any central nervous system depressant (such as OxyContin or Xanax) with another is a certain recipe for disaster. A combination of these medications can suppress your breathing, which you may not even notice. The area in your brain that tells you that you are getting high, and the area that controls your breathing, may not necessarily communicate as you need them to.

Multiple Prescription Painkillers

Narcotics that are used for pain are only effective for about six weeks. People can often get a false sense of security from prescription drugs. When the effects start to lessen over time, people start to increase their dosage on their own. They think that because their doctor prescribed it that they are safe to take however many they need. It is very important to take the medication as prescribed.


Like most addictions, there is a treatment for prescription drug abuse. There are non-addictive medications that can help people contract the symptoms of prescription drug addiction and regain control of their lives. This medication (Buprenorphine) is used to treat opiate withdrawal and is used in combination with Suboxone to help prevent the person from relapsing.

Another common treatment for prescription drug affection is methadone and the blood pressure medicine, clonidine. This helps the addict safely withdraw from the drug and gives them a better chance of staying clean.

Of course, there are also various groups that meet up to talk about their addictions. Meeting with a counselor or therapist can also be an effective way to treat prescription drug abuse.