What is prescription drug addiction?

Prescription medications are an essential part of treating many health problems and are used effectively by many people; however, when not taken as prescribed or misused they can develop into dependency which can escalate into addiction.

Misuse is when a person uses a prescription drug that is not meant for them or uses a prescription in a way that is different from how the doctor recommended (taking it more often, using larger amounts, or using it for longer than prescribed).

Why do people misuse prescription medication?

People who misuse prescription or over the counter medications may be self-medicating to better deal with symptoms of an existing (and possibly undiagnosed) mental or physical health disorder, or because they like the pleasurable effects of the drugs and think they are safe to consume because they have been given by a GP or are sold in stores

What are the most common causes for prescription drugs misuse?

People misuse prescription drugs to relieve physical pain, when facing stressful situations, or as a coping mechanism. Here are some of the most common causes that can lead to prescription drug addiction:

  • to relieve physical pain,
  • to relax or relieve tension,
  • to experiment or see what the drug effect is,
  • to feel good or get high,
  • to improve sleep,
  • to better cope with feelings or emotions,
  • to increase or decrease the effects of other drugs,
  • the user has developed an addiction

Excessively consuming depressants, stimulants, opioids and morphine derivatives can lead to severe adverse effects.

Adverse effects of prescription drug misuse

Misusing substances, like opioids, tranquilisers, and stimulants may lead to a change in the central nervous system which can affect self-control, judgement and can intensify cravings.

Mild side effects:

  • drowsiness
  • impaired judgement
  • mood swings
  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • hyperactivity
  • poor hygiene

In some instances, the drug user can develop a ‘tolerance’ to the medicine; and more of the same substance is necessary to achieve the same intoxicating effects. Prescription medication taken in large amounts – in combination with other prescription drugs or some over-the-counter medications, or when consumed with alcohol or illegal or recreational substances – can be especially dangerous and even lead to coma, overdose or death.

Once individuals have begun abusing their prescription medication they may look to obtain drugs from various other sources when they are refused or have run out of prescription refills. This often happens with people that have been prescribed opioids after a survey or for pain management. Once the legal prescriptions run out they turn to buying illegal street heroin as a substitute. They could be getting involved in buying illegal substances  at work or school, sharing between family and friends, or by deceiving multiple doctors to prescribe the same medication without them knowing about the other prescriptions, also known as “doctor shopping”.

When reducing or stopping the consumption of misused prescription medications, the drug user can experience unwanted withdrawal symptoms. Prescription drug users should get professional help and assistance to better deal with the unpleasant, or sometimes deadly, withdrawal symptoms.

What are the most addictive prescription drugs?

People often abuse three types of prescription drugs: opioids, depressants/sedatives, and stimulants.


Probably the most addictive type is opioids. Doctors usually prescribe these medications for pain relief. When prescribed medications are consumed responsibly, as recommended by the doctor, patients who are struggling with pain (cancer, accident, disability, surgery), are relieved of pain and start developing a more positive perspective on life.

Opioid painkillers are known as codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone.

When taken improperly for a long period, these substances can lead to dependence and addiction. The health risks of taking these drugs for a long time include low blood pressure, low pulse, coma, unconsciousness, shortness of breath and even death. If the medications are taken with depressants (alprazolam, clonazepam, diazepam) and alcohol the risk of death is much higher.


Sedatives and depressants such as phenobarbital, amobarbital, pentobarbital, and secobarbital can help a patient deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders. Patients feel calmer and sleepier, as the medication slows brain activity. They are also known for the general feeling of well-being they produce.

If interrupted suddenly, these depressants can lead to withdrawal symptoms, and the patients can experience serious seizures.  The health risks include lowered blood pressure, slowed breathing, respiratory problems, and death. The risks are higher for those patients who combine depressants with alcohol. Sedatives and depressant abuse can lead to addiction and overdose.


Another addictive category of prescription drugs are Stimulants. When consumed for medical reasons, these drugs can give someone a boost in energy and attention, improving productivity, focus and concentration. Doctors usually prescribed these medications for patients with ADHD and ADD, and sleep disorders (narcolepsy).

The most commonly used stimulants are lisdexamfetamine, methylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. During exam sessions, college students may consume stimulants hoping for better motivation and increased mental focus. They may also experience feelings of exhilaration and euphoria. When abusing these substances, people can experience high blood sugar and blood pressure and increased heart rate. Stimulants can also narrow blood vessels.

Patients who choose to take higher doses than prescribed by the doctor can, in time, develop addiction. Most often they consume these drugs by crushing pills and snorting them. Stimulant abuse can lead to an uneven heartbeat and a higher body temperature.

Prescription Drug Abuse Risk Factors

Certain risk factors can make a person more likely to develop prescribed drugs dependence and addiction. These risk factors refer to:

  • Age
  • Friends or entourage
  • Mental health
  • Biology (genes inheritance)
  • Education (how well-informed the user is about prescribed medications and their harmful effects)

Symptoms of prescription drug misuse

Prescription drug misuse can make the user more likely to develop dependence and addiction. If you are struggling with prescribed drug addiction the chances are higher for you to become the victim of a crime, to commit a crime yourself, or to be involved in an accident.

The symptoms experienced by prescribed drug users can be different depending on the medications  consumed. Below are some of the signs and symptoms of different prescription medication abuse:

Signs of a person who abuses opioids include:

  • Dizziness and spacing out sensation
  • Lack of coordination
  • Trouble speaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting or constipation
  • Emotional lability
  • Depression or anxiety

Misuse of sedatives and depressants can lead to:

  • Mood swings
  • Walking difficulties
  • Lack of attention
  • Speech impairment
  • Slow reflexes
  • Loss of memory
  • Slow breathing
  • Judgment errors

Stimulant abuse can produce adverse effects such as:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Sleep disorders
  • Irascibility
  • High blood pressure
  • Paranoia
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Headaches
  • Uneven heart rate

How can prescription drug addiction be treated?

If struggling with opioid addiction, a specialised treatment is required that may include medication to help the user give up the addiction. A rehab specialist can recommend a treatment plan that includes individual or group therapy as well as family therapy to help you or your loved one to regain self-control and live a healthy life.

If a person developed an addiction to depressants and stimulants the recommended solution is counselling and detox under a doctor’s supervision.

Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention

Taking prescribed medication is not always without risks and  to prevent patients from potentially developing a drug dependence experts recommend following a few simple rules:

  • Make sure you do not lower or raise doses before talking with your doctor
  • Follow the doctor’s recommended instructions
  • Do not interrupt medication on your own
  • Tell your doctor about any personal or family history that involved substance misuse
  • Avoid breaking or crushing pills
  • Inform yourself on how the prescribed drug can affect your driving and your daily tasks before taking it
  • Read about consequences and effects if you consume a prescribed drug with alcohol or other prescribed medication and over-the-counter pills
  • Avoid taking prescribed medication from others and do not allow them to take yours

Warnings for Prescription Drug Use

Experts recommend avoiding the use of opioids in combination with depressants, such as antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, general anaesthetics, or alcohol.

They also recommend avoiding the use of depressants with other substances that can impact the activity of the central nervous system, such as prescription opioids (for pain), alcohol, over-the-counter medication, and allergy pills.

Stimulants are not recommended to be taken with medications that give a boost to the nervous system. Some of these substances include over-the-counter medication for decongestion, asthma pills, and antidepressants.

It is strongly recommended to never use any of these medications when consuming alcohol.

Helping a Family Member who is Dealing with Addiction to Prescription Drugs

The first step to take when a loved one is struggling with prescription drug abuse is to talk with your doctor or to a rehab expert, who can offer professional advice and a safe treatment plan.

Try to talk with the individual struggling with addiction as well and tell them you know about their struggle. People dealing with dependence and addiction have a hard time recognizing their problem and that they need help so their reaction may be filled with denial and resistance. However, do not give up! Just let them know you are going to offer your support while they go through the rehabilitation process and leave addiction behind.