Prescription Drugs Defined

Drugs that can be obtained only by means of a medical physician’s prescription.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Drugs are prescribed for many reasons and most are used by patients in the way they are intended. Some prescription medications, however, cause psychoactive side effects or elicit artificial experiences or feelings, that make them more likely to be abused for non-prescription purposes. Prescription medications are some of the most commonly abused drugs in the U.S. with an estimated 52 million people using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at some point during their lives. They are the third most commonly abused drug in the U.S. after alcohol and marijuana, and are the second most abused illicit drug after marijuana. Prescription drugs are widely abused because they can be obtained fairly easily. Possession of prescription drugs is legal for correct health purposes and they are often cheaper and safer to use than many illicit substances. Many people obtain prescription drugs by stealing them from the medicine cabinets of family members or friends or by fraudulently using other people’s prescriptions. Prescription drugs are abused for the purposes of study aids, as a method of dieting, or to reduce the comedown effects of hallucinogens and stimulants.

The Effects of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are often abused for their psychoactive effects. The most commonly abused prescription drugs fall into three categories:

  1. Opioids
    • Typically Prescribed- to treat pain.
    • How They Work- They reduce the intensity of pain signals to the brain and affect brain areas that control emotion, and thus diminish the effects of painful stimulus and the body’s perception of pain.
    • Why They’re Abused- They create an intoxicating high, can relieve anxiety, and affect the brain regions involved in reward.
    • Dependence and Withdrawal- Regular, long-term use can cause dependence, and in some cases, addiction. Discontinuing their use after long-term use can cause withdrawal symptoms.
    • Most Common- Hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and other related drugs.
    • Statistics- A poll done in November, 2015, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 9% of Americans say that they have had a family member or close friend die of a prescription painkiller overdose. Additionally, 27% say that either themselves or someone close to them has been addicted to prescription painkillers.
  2. Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants, Sedatives or Tranquilizers
    • Typically Prescribed- to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
    • How they work- These drugs affect the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters facilitate communication between brain cells and inhibit brain activity through their ability to increase GABA.
    • Why They’re Abused- CNS are typically abused to reduce anxiety and are often used to reduce the comedown effects of other drugs. They are also used as date rape drugs due to their tendency to impact memory.
    • Dependence and Withdrawal- A dependence for CNS drugs occurs because they relieve insomnia and anxiety or they can be used augment a high experienced from another drug to alleviate negative effects. Those addicted to CNS drugs should not attempt to stop taking them on their own. Withdrawal symptoms from these drugs can be problematic and even life-threatening. In many cases, addicted patients should undergo medically supervised detoxification because the dosage they take needs to be gradually tapered.
    • Most Common- CNS drugs are benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Halcion, PromSom), non-benzodiazepine sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata), and barbituates (Mebaral, Luminal Sodium, Nembutal)
  3. Stimulants
    • Typically Prescribed- to treat individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders.
    • How they work- These drugs have a calming and focusing effect on individuals with ADHD. Treatment with stimulants helps to improve ADHD symptoms along with the patient’s self-esteem, thinking ability, and social and family interactions.
    • Why They’re Abused- Since stimulants suppress appetite, increase wakefulness, and increase focus and attention, they are often abused for weight loss or performance enhancement purposes. They are also abused for recreational purposes because they can produce a euphoria.
    • Dependence and Withdrawal- A dependence for stimulants occurs because these drugs can induce a rapid rise in dopamine in the brain. Those taking these medications typically experience withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, depression, or disturbed sleep patterns.
    • Most Common- Stimulant ADHD Medications are amphetamines (Aderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta).

Prescription Drug Addiction

Many prescription drugs are habit forming, and many addictions come about as a result of being prescribed the drug for a genuine medical condition. This is particularly common with painkillers, with some people becoming addicted as a result of long term use. The high degree of accessibility also makes it easy to become addicted to prescription medication, with 54.2% of people abusing prescription drugs using medication belonging to friends or relatives.

Difference Between Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction

While misusing any prescription drug can be dangerous, not all people who abuse them form a dependency and become addicted. Those that do form a dependency may need treatment in order to stop using prescription drugs. Certain people are more at risk of becoming addicted, with factors such as family history of addiction, traumatic experiences, mental illnesses and early drug use impacting on the likelihood of a dependence forming.

Prescription Drugs and Other Drugs

Abusing prescription drugs while on other medication or while taking other recreational drugs can be very dangerous, as many medications should not be taken together. Taking two drugs that contradict each other can cause an unwanted or dangerous reaction.

Prescription Drug Addiction Facts and Statistics

  • 12-17 year old abuse prescription drugs more than methamphetamine, crack, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy combined.
  • Almost one in four teenagers have abused prescription drugs.
  • Painkillers are abused most frequently, followed by tranquilizers and stimulants
  • Only 3.9% of prescription drugs abused are obtained from drug dealers, whereas 54.2% come from friends and relatives
  • 25% of prescription drug abusers use them as study aids.
  • Enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every adult in the US once every four hours for a month.

Overcoming an Prescription Drug Addiction

There are many resources available to people trying to overcome prescription drug addiction. The first stage of recovery is recognizing addiction and wanting to overcome it, and there are programs and treatment centers that can help addicts overcome their dependency. Treatment options include counseling, support groups, inpatient care, and medical treatment.

Symptoms and Warning Signs

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Symptoms differ depending on the type of prescription drugs abused, but fall into three main categories:

  1. Symptoms of painkiller addiction include:
    • Sweating
    • Constipation
    • Low blood pressure
    • Confusion
    • Depression
    • Poor coordination
  2. Symptoms of sedative and anti-anxiety medication addiction include:
    • Dizziness
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness
    • Poor judgement
    • Unsteadiness when standing and walking
    • Involuntary rapid eyeball movement
  3. Symptoms of stimulant abuse include:
    • Insomnia
    • Irritability
    • Weight loss
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • High blood pressure
    • Agitation
    • Impulsive behaviour
    • Restlessness

General warning signs for prescription medication abuse include:

  • Mood swings, hostility and aggressive behavior
  • Exceeding prescribed doses of medication
  • Trying to obtain multiple prescriptions by pretending to lose prescriptions or visiting multiple doctors
  • Lying to friends and family about drug use
  • Poor decision making
  • Appearing to be unusually ‘high’ or drowsy

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Recognizing occasional use can be more difficult, but warnings signs to look out for include:

  • Appearing unusually energetic or drowsy at odd times
  • Regularly studying all night during exams or before deadlines
  • Medication going missing
  • Erratic behavior
  • Disrupted sleep patterns

Prescription Drug Withdrawal

Certain drugs cause symptoms of withdrawal when use is discontinued. Benzodiazepine tranquilizers and opiate painkillers cause pleasure inducing effects that can become addictive. Symptoms of withdrawal from prescription drugs can include:

  • Anxiety, agitation and depression
  • Flu-like symptoms - runny nose, sweating, muscle aches, fever
  • Insomnia
  • GI symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations or delusions

These side effects can make going through withdrawal difficult, and people experiencing these symptoms can find a wide range of treatment options to get them through this difficult time.

Treatment and Recovery

Overcoming Your Prescription Drug Addiction

People seeking to overcome a prescription drug addiction have a wide range of options available to them, including counseling, support drugs, outpatient care and inpatient treatment centers, many of which are covered by health insurance. Getting over a drug addiction can be difficult if the substance you’re dependent on is easy to find. Many people trying to get over drug dependency find it helpful to visit an inpatient treatment center to help them through their period of withdrawal. Patients concerned that they are at risk of becoming dependent on medication prescribed for illness or injury should talk to their general practitioner about alternative treatment options.


There are several different options for treating prescription drug addiction. One of these options is addiction-fighting medications. Newer drugs, such as buprenorphine and naltrexone, and traditional medications like methadone are frequently used by healthcare professionals to treat prescription drug addiction. Another treatment approach is through a 12-step program. One of these programs is known as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which is an international network for community-based meetings for those recovering from drug addiction. It acknowledges the value of methadone or Suboxone in recovery from narcotic addiction. In addition to 12-step programs, counseling is also a recommended method of treatment. There are a few different types of counseling, including cognitive behavior therapy, motivational interviewing, and family and couples therapy.

Find an Prescription Drug Treatment Center

Prescription drug treatment centers can provide the help you need to fully overcome your addiction and start over with a healthy lifestyle. The first step in finding a treatment center is for you and your loved one to acknowledge that a problem exists. Once the problem has been identified, The Addiction Advisor has agents that are available 24 hours a day at (800) 260-1481 to answer your questions. Based on the information you provide, they can help connect you with a treatment provider when it’s convenient for you.