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Prescription Drug Addiction

prescription drugs
It is a common misconception that prescription drugs are safe because they’re legal and prescribed by a doctor. When abused or misused, many prescription medications can be just as addictive and harmful as illicit drugs. Prescription drug addiction is a chronic condition that affects the memory, motivation, and reward centers in the brain and manifests itself through biological, psychological, and social symptoms. Cravings, lack of control and insight, and poor functioning are all characteristic symptoms of addiction 1.

The misuse or abuse of prescription drugs in order to produce a high can have lasting, detrimental effects on a user’s life and can pave a road toward addiction that can be extremely difficult to recover from.
While prescription medications can be effective in treating mental and physical ailments, many people take them in a way other than prescribed to achieve intoxication. When the therapeutic use of prescribed medications escalates to misuse, abuse, or addiction, it can significantly impair your social, occupational, and educational functioning and result in negative mental and physical health consequences that can lead to an early death.

In this article you will learn more about:

  • Prescription drug abuse.
  • The signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction.
  • Treating prescription drug addiction.
  • Cost and payment for treatment.
  • Causes of prescription drug addiction.

Prescription Drug Abuse

The misuse or abuse of prescription drugs in order to produce a high can have lasting, detrimental effects on a user’s life and can pave a road toward addiction that can be extremely difficult to recover from.

Some of the ways that people misuse or abuse prescription medication include:

  • Taking more than has been prescribed.
  • Taking medication more frequently than has been prescribed.
  • Selling or buying medication that has not been prescribed.
  • Using a different mode of delivery than has been prescribed (i.e. snorting, injecting).
  • Combining prescription medications with other drugs, including alcohol.

There are three categories of prescribed medications that are the most commonly abused. These include 3,4,5,6:

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Opioids: Opioid medications are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and include medications such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Codeine, Tramadol, and Fentanyl. People who abuse these medications may do so by taking them orally, but they may also attempt to snort them or dissolve them in solution to inject them. A common motivating factor behind prescription opioid abuse is the euphoric and calming feelings that they produce.

Stimulants: Stimulant medications are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, and include medications such as Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta. People who abuse stimulants may inject them, smoke them, snort them, or take them orally. Stimulants are often abused for their euphoric and energizing properties. Students may use them as a study aid or combine them with alcohol for recreational purposes, while others may use them to lose weight.

Sedatives: Sedative medications are prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and sometimes seizure disorders. They include medications such as benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan), non-benzodiazepine sleep medications (Lunesta, Ambien), and barbiturates (phenobarbital). Sedatives are often abused because of the feeling of calm that they produce, but they can also elicit euphoria and disinhibition similar to alcohol intoxication.

If you are misusing or abusing one or more of the medications listed, please contact one of our representatives at 1-888-439-3435 Who Answers? , to speak about your options for recovery.

Where Do Young Adults Get Their Prescription Medications?

Many college-age people are able to obtain prescription stimulant medications to treat ADHD despite not having a prescription. This is a widespread problem that may result in widespread abuse. But where do people get access to these drugs? In 2016, a Recovery Brands survey revealed that a whopping 63% of people in their 20’s acquire their medications to treat ADHD through companions. Almost 20.5% get ahold of them via a member of their family, more than 18% by means of other students, and only 14.8% from an actual illicit dealer. People with doctor approval for these medications should keep track of their prescription ADHD medications in order to protect susceptible young individuals from the consequences of abuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

When a person becomes addicted to a prescription drug, they tend to exhibit common behavioral, physical, and psychological symptoms.

The behavioral symptoms can include 7:

  • Using more of the medication than originally intended.
  • Failing to decrease or quit using the medication.
  • Spending a great amount of time using, obtaining, and recovering from effects of the medication.
  • Having strong cravings to use the medication.
  • Continuing to use the medication despite interference with school, home, or work obligations.
  • Continuing to use the medication despite negative interpersonal, social, physical, and psychological consequences.
  • Abandoning previously enjoyed hobbies in favor of use.
  • Using the medication in dangerous situations, such as while driving.

man taking prescription pill
Tolerance, which is characterized by the need for increasing doses of a drug in order to produce the desired effects, occurs in chronic opioid, stimulant, and sedative users. Someone who is tolerant to a drug may experience an increased risk of overdosing due to the higher dosing required to overcome the tolerance.

Below is a list of additional physical and psychological signs of prescription drug abuse for the most commonly abused prescription medications 7,8,9,10,11:


  • Slurred speech.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Inattention.
  • Memory problems.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Constricted pupils.
  • Constipation.
  • Euphoria followed by apathy.
  • Dysphoria, or a feeling of unease.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, muscle aches, excessive sweating, fever, diarrhea, and “goose bumps.”


  • Euphoria.
  • Increased sociability.
  • Headaches.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability or anger.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Irregular heart rhythm.
  • Chest pain.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Weight loss.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Repetitive and uncontrollable movements.
  • Dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as fatigue, nightmares, excessive sleep, increased appetite, and inability to feel pleasure.


  • Mood swings.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Calmness.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Slowed reaction time.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Confusion.
  • Memory problems.
  • Vertigo.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Double vision.
  • Profound drowsiness.
  • Stupor.
  • Coma.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as tremor, sweating, insomnia, vomiting, hallucinations, anxiety, and seizures.

In addition to these clinical and drug-specific signs of abuse and addiction, a person who is addicted to medications will often seek out several providers who will write prescriptions for them (doctor shopping) and will lie about, minimize, or deny the fact that they have a problem with prescription medications. This can make identifying a definitive problem and seeking out the appropriate level of care for an addicted person exceedingly difficult.

Treating Prescription Drug Addiction

Addiction is a treatable condition, but early intervention often makes recovery much less difficult. Although you can quit using prescription medication on your own, many people find it helpful to seek out the assistance of a trained professional who can help you get sober while also managing your withdrawal symptoms.

Some treatment options available to you include:

  • Detox: For those who have more a prolonged abuse history, a detox program is a safe and reasonable early recovery option as it provides 24-hour care and medical attention during the withdrawal period, which can be quite severe with opioids and even life-threatening with benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and some other sedatives.
  • Inpatient Treatment: This is a quality option for those coming out of detox. It provides patients with a stable, sober environment and around-the-clock psychiatric and medical care. Services include individual, group, and family therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and relapse prevention classes.
  • Outpatient Treatment: Many patients enter an outpatient program as a follow-up to inpatient care. Individuals also utilize outpatient treatment as primary care when they cannot afford to take time away from work and other responsibilities. There are different levels of outpatient care: Partial Hospitalization (PHP), which is a full-day, group therapy program with access to medical services, Intensive Outpatient (IOP), which is a half-day group therapy with individual therapy, which can help you to delve deeper into underlying reasons that led to abuse.
  • 12-step programs: Fellowship programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Pills Anonymous (PA), are free to join and provide members with a supportive and encouraging environment throughout the recovery process.
  • Holistic treatment: Holistic residential programs integrate traditional approaches, such as psychotherapy, with alternative and complementary methods, such as art and music therapy, massage, acupuncture, and meditation.
  • Population-specific treatment: Certain groups of people have specific needs while recovering from an addiction and they often feel more comfortable with staff members who have experience in working with their populations. These may include veterans, LGBTQ, men-only, women-only, and adolescents.
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While no one of these programs is better than another program, finding a program that suits your individual needs for recovery is essential and will increase your likelihood of success.

As part of a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) approach, many treatment facilities combine therapy and medication when treating prescription drug addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine are two medications that are often used for the treatment of opioid dependence, as they help to reduce cravings and mitigate uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms 12.

Other medications such as sedatives and stimulants do not currently have FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of addiction, however, medication can be administered to treat symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, depression, anxiety, or insomnia.

Cost and Payment

You may be wondering how much prescription drug addiction treatment costs. The price of treatment can range from free to thousands of dollars, depending on a variety of factors, such as:

  • The state in which you live.
  • The level of insurance you currently have.
  • The facility – its amenities and services offered and the level of care provided.
  • The location of the facility and whether it is an in- or out-of-network provider.
  • The length of time spent in treatment.

If you have insurance, call your insurance company and they can help you to navigate your insurance coverage in order to find the best treatment options for you.

If you do not have insurance, however, paying for treatment is still possible. Some options for you to consider include:

  • Asking the facility about their charity or scholarship options, discounts, sliding scale, or payment plans.
  • Requesting help from family and friends through sites, such as GoFundMe and IndieGoGo.
  • Using a credit card or tapping into your savings.

Investing in your sobriety may be time- and money-consuming, but the benefit of that investment in your long-term health and happiness will far outweigh these costs.

If you or a loved one suffers from a prescription drug addiction, call our helpline at 1-888-439-3435 Who Answers? to speak to a treatment representative about recovery options.

Causes of Prescription Drug Addiction

It is a common fallacy that prescription medications are safe and will not cause addiction because a physician has written a legal prescription for their use.

The reasons a person becomes addicted to a prescription drug are complicated and multifaceted and usually not directly linked to any one factor. There are some risk factors that may increase the likelihood that you will develop an addiction to prescription medications. These factors include 10:

  • Pre-existing and untreated mental health conditions 13: Having a condition such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, PTSD, antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, or ADHD may double the chances that you or a loved one will become addicted to prescription drugs.
  • Family history of addiction 14: It is currently believed that genetics may contribute to approximately 39-71% of addiction vulnerability. Therefore, if you have a family member who was addicted to prescription drugs, you may be predisposed to problematic use as well.
  • Environment 15: Environmental influence, such as community poverty, peer pressure, drug availability, household substance abuse, and lack of parental supervision can contribute to drug abuse and addiction.
  • Trauma 16: Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual trauma early in life makes a person more vulnerable to early substance abuse and subsequent addiction.

Again, these are risk factors that may increase the chance that you or a loved one will become addicted to prescribed medications. The presence of one or more of these factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop a substance addiction, nor does the absence of any of these factors necessarily mean that you cannot become addicted.

Long-Term Effects of Prescription Drug Addiction

Addiction, whether to illicit drugs or prescription medications, is a chronic condition that progresses over time; it does not heal or fix itself. Therefore, paying attention to some of the signs and symptoms of abuse and addiction—and acting on them once they are observed—can be instrumental to a successful recovery. If an addiction is allowed to continue and progress, however, the consequences can be long-term and difficult to treat and recover from.

Some of the long-term effects of the three most commonly abused prescription drugs include 7,11,17:


  • Intravenous effects, such as collapsed veins, abscesses, cellulitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, and infection of heart lining.
  • Intranasal effects, such as perforation of nasal septum, irritation of nasal mucosa, and sinusitis.
  • Severe constipation.
  • Difficulties in sexual functioning.
  • Irregular menses and reproductive disturbances in women.
  • Brain damage or coma due to respiratory depression.
  • Impaired decision-making, behavioral regulation, and stress-management.                               


  • Intranasal complications, such as sinusitis, bleeding of nasal mucosa, and perforated nasal septum.
  • Inhalation effects, such as bronchitis and pneumonitis.
  • Intravenous consequences, such as increased risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis, track lines, and puncture marks.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Severe weight loss.
  • Heart attack.
  • Respiratory or cardiac arrest.
  • Stroke.
  • Seizures.


  • Slow pulse.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Decreased respiratory rate.
  • Depression.
  • Emotional numbness or blunting.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Cognitive impairment.
  • Protracted withdrawal symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia, can last for several months after a user quits.
  • Increased risk of overdose, particularly when mixing with other depressants, such as alcohol.
  • Increased risk of having a disabling or life-threatening accident.

In addition to these drug-specific long-term effects, there are also general consequences of drug addiction. These include:

  • Diminished work and school performance that could lead to expulsion or termination.
  • Interpersonal relationship difficulties that may lead to separation, divorce, child neglect, and/or abuse that requires state intervention and the loss of other significant friendships.
  • Legal problems from doctor shopping, forging prescriptions, seeking drugs illicitly, theft, or physical altercations.
  • Long-term effects on mental and physical health that can be terminal or lead to a much-shortened life.
  • Financial hardships.

Chronic prescription drug abuse and addiction can lead to significant impairment and serious and sometimes life-threatening health problems. No matter how long you’ve been suffering from an addiction, it’s never too late to get help.

Get Help for Prescription Drug Addiction Today

If you or a loved one is dealing with an addiction to a prescription medication, it is not too late to get the help that you need. Contact one of our dedicated representatives today at 1-888-439-3435 Who Answers? and discover how you can soon be on the path to recovery.