Prescription Drug Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Resources

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 16, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A physician administers prescription medications to treat various conditions such as anxiety, chronic pain, and seizures. However, even if prescribed for a medical reason, some prescription medications are associated with a variety of uncomfortable side effects, including the potential for abuse and dependence.

What are prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs are prescribed by doctors to treat medical conditions. Some are intended to treat pain, while others may treat ADHD, insomnia, seizures, and more. Prescription medications are helpful but do have side effects and can be misused. There has been an increase in prescription drug addiction treatment admissions over the last 20 years.[1]

Side Effects of Benzos (Xanax®, Valium®, Klonopin®)

Benzodiazepines are considered a Schedule IV controlled substance and are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs to treat anxiety, sleep problems, and seizures. Xanax® is one of the most common examples of this type of medication. Benzos are CNS depressant drugs, meaning they suppress or slow the activity of the nervous system and calm it down. This gives a person a sense of relaxation and sleepiness.

Ativan®, Klonopin®, and Valium® are other common benzos. Street names include Xanies, downers, sleeping pills, and blues.

Side Effects of Opioid Painkillers (Vicodin®, OxyContin®, Tramadol®)

While it’s possible to develop a prescription drug dependence with any chemically altering substance, opioid painkillers are some of the most common. Opioids are derived from the same plant as heroin and morphine, all of which are highly addictive and have a high potential for abuse.

They are intended to treat severe pain, such as pain after surgery, injury, or for cancer patients. Common names for them include schoolboy, goodfella, cody, juice, and perks. Opioids are Schedule II controlled substances.

Side Effects of Stimulants (Adderall®, Ritalin®)

Stimulants are designed to give people more energy and focus and are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Stimulants are Schedule II controlled substances, meaning they have a significant potential for abuse but still have important medical uses. Common names for these drugs include blues, hearts, speed, and truck drivers.

How are prescription drugs taken?

Most prescription drugs are pills or capsules that should be swallowed whole, usually with food for maximum absorption. Oral consumption ensures that the pill’s total dose is released gradually over time as your stomach acid breaks it down. Taking these pills in other ways could lead to more serious effects and dependence.

Misuse of prescription drugs by snorting crushed pills. This process releases the drug’s total dose at once, increasing its effects. Injecting prescription medications is another form of misuse. Taking prescription medications in any way other than as prescribed can induce feelings of euphoria and lead to potential overdose or death.

Prescription Drug Quick Reference Chart

Drug Category Commercial & Street Names DEA Schedule Administration
Benzos (CNS Depressants) Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, downers, sleeping pills, Xanies Schedule IV Oral
Stimulants Adderall, Ritalin, speed, truck drivers Schedule II Oral
Opioids OxyContin, Vicodin, Tramadol, oxy, cody, juice, perks Schedule II Oral

 

Statistics on Prescription Drug Use, Misuse, and Addiction

Some of the most addictive prescription drugs are opioids, like Vicodin, and sleeping pills, like Ambien.[2] While not everyone will develop a dependence, some influencing factors include genetics, family history of substance use, and underlying mental health issues.

When taken as prescribed, one is less likely to develop a dependence, but if taken over long-term, it’s still a possibility. If you have a substance use disorder or are misusing prescription medication, the risk of dependence increases.

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

In most cases, patients take prescription drugs to help with a condition, but as your body becomes more accustomed to the substance, it can be difficult to function without it.

If prescription medications are misused, you may find yourself craving them or going through withdrawals when you’re not using them. Some may become isolated from their friends and family, while others may steal to get more drugs. Others may experience a downward spiral in their mental health, relational challenges, and financial trouble.

Can You Overdose On Prescription Drugs?

Yes, you can easily overdose on prescription drugs if you take too many at once or mix them with other substances. Mixing alcohol with prescription drugs can intensify the symptoms and lead to serious side effects. Some serious effects include heart attack, stroke, overdose, and death. An overdose is more likely when taken in non-prescribed ways such as snorting, injecting, or smoking.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Overdose

When someone overdoses, they will likely be unresponsive. Their heart rate will be low, and their breathing will be very shallow. They may feel cold, clammy, and sweaty. They may be confused and experience severe nausea and pain if they are still conscious.

What to do if you suspect someone is overdosing on prescription drugs:

An overdose of this kind can be fatal when left untreated. Call for medical assistance right away. Getting the person the treatment they need may save their life. It can also reduce other risks, such as brain or organ damage.

Dangers of Long-Term Prescription Drug Use

Using medications like Xanax or opioid painkillers for years can be extremely damaging to your body and brain. Long-term prescription use often leads to depression and anxiety. Long-term use can also lead to liver and kidney damage. Some medications can permanently damage the brain and lead to cognitive decline. Those who develop dependence may find it difficult to stop or reduce their medication use without treatment.

Mixing Prescription Drugs with Other Substances

Mixing prescription drugs with alcohol may lead to a coma, stroke, heart attack, or death. Mixing depressant medications with sedative-hypnotics can also lead to these symptoms. It is so important to take these drugs only as prescribed to be as safe as possible.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse

The most common issue with prescription pill use is taking them for nonmedical uses or misuse. This is especially true of opioid painkillers.[3] People may snort or inject them to experience more intense euphoric effects. Signs of prescription drug misuse include pain, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, paranoia, mood swings, and fever.

Signs of Addiction to Prescription Drugs

Prescription medication dependence can be identified by the presence of withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Some may steal prescriptions from their friends and family, while others may spend much of their time alone using drugs. If one has multiple prescriptions for the same medication from various providers, it may be time to seek professional help.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Mental Health

Because many prescription drugs affect brain chemistry, they can negatively influence one’s mental health over time. Many prescription drugs cause anxiety, paranoia, depression, and sometimes psychosis.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

In some instances, substance use disorder treatment begins with detox to rid the body of harmful toxins. The next level of care is residential treatment, where treatment and sober living co-occur.

PHP programs or Extended Care offer full-time treatment but with the freedom to sleep at home. Intensive and standard outpatient services take place over several months to build practical coping skills as a foundation for lifelong recovery. Treatment includes therapy, psychiatric care, peer support, and coping skill development.

Therapies Used in Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Art Therapy
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI)
  • Psychotherapy
  • Group Therapy

Dual Diagnosis for Co-Occurring Disorders

Most people start taking prescription drugs because they have a medical or mental health condition to treat. Common conditions include insomnia, pain, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and seizures. If you struggle with mental health concerns and develop a substance use disorder related to prescription medication use, professional dual diagnosis treatment is the most effective treatment option.

Drugs Used in Prescription Drug Withdrawal Management

In some cases, there may be other medications prescribed that are less harmful that can alleviate cravings and the symptoms of withdrawal. Medications like Suboxone and buprenorphine can help with opioid withdrawal. Some may also experience suicidal thoughts or violent outbursts. If it’s a good fit, the medication-assisted treatment makes the process much smoother.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Prescription Drugs Addictive?

Many prescriptions are addictive, especially opioid painkillers and some sleeping pills. However, the potential for addiction increases when a person misuses the pills or takes too many at once. 

How Do People Misuse Prescriptions?

Many people crush and snort pills or inject them to experience euphoria. Others may take their medication with alcohol or other substances. 

What Are Prescription Drug Side Effects?

Every drug has different side effects, but many cause dizziness, nausea, confusion, anxiety, and stomach problems. Some side effects can be very serious and even life-threatening, like overdose, stroke, heart attack, and psychosis. 

Embark on a New Chapter: Beat Prescription Drug Addiction

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Sources

[1] NIDA. 2023, March 6. Overview. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/overview on May 19, 2023.
[2] Addiction to prescription drugs. Harvard Health. (2014, December 2). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/addiction/addiction-to-prescription-drugs on May 19, 2023.
[3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, May 18). Commonly used drugs charts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/commonly-used-drugs-charts#prescription-opioids on May 19, 2023.