Prescription Drug Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

Often times the signs of prescription drug addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of prescription drug addiction.

Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction

Learn about prescription drugs and substance abuse

When used as prescribed by a medical doctor treating a specific condition, most prescription medications offer a relatively low risk for developing an addiction. However, in certain people, prescription drugs may cause a very serious addiction. A prescription drug is defined as a medication required by law to have a valid medical doctor’s prescription before it is attained. Prescription drugs may treat a variety of symptoms from pain disorders to anxiety and work by promotion or suppression of neurotransmitter activity in the brain.

Some of the behavioral changes that are often involved with prescription drug addiction include:

  • Changes in patterns of sleep
  • Increased amounts of irritability, especially when medication isn’t available
  • Frequent usage of alcohol
  • Mood swings that are correlated to the absence and availability of prescription drugs

One of the major warning signs for prescription drug abuse is called “drug-seeking behaviors,” and include:

  • Crushing, chewing, or breaking pills
  • Often requesting refills from doctors
  • “Doctor shopping” or going to many different physicians to obtain more prescriptions
  • Borrowing or stealing medications from others
  • Forging or stealing prescriptions
  • Usage of over-the-counter medications for health-related conditions that a prescription has been issued

There are three primary classes of prescription medications that are more susceptible to abuse by individuals. These include:

Opiates – these painkiller medications, derived from the poppy plant, are prescribed many millions of times each year for the treatment of pain and pain related disorders. As opiate narcotics do offer the user a degree of mild euphoria and happiness, these are common drugs of abuse. Certain people who have been legally prescribed opiates for pain disorders may seek out painkillers in order to achieve the high or as a means of psychological relief.

Stimulants (amphetamines, methylphenidate) – the usage of stimulants produce feelings of mental alertness, increased amounts of energy and feelings of exhilaration. These medications are paradoxically used to calm the moods and symptoms of ADHD in those with that medical condition. Stimulant abuse is becoming more and more prevalent in the younger generations who feel they must do more, be better, or be faster.

Tranquilizers (barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sleep medications) – tranquilizers or sedatives are often prescribed to manage sleep or anxiety disorders and have a high potential for abuse.


Prescription drug addiction statistics

In 2010, it’s estimated that 16 million individuals living in the United States reported using a prescription medication for nonmedical reasons in the previous 12 months. About 7 million individuals in the US reported using a prescription drug for a non-medical purpose in the past month. Prescription drug abuse is a largely misunderstood type of drug abuse that merits further research.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for prescription drug addiction

Most individuals take the prescriptions they were prescribed by their doctor in the way the drugs were intended to be used. There are a number of individuals who do abuse their prescription drugs and while there is not one single root cause for the development of an addiction to prescription drugs, some of the factors leading to addiction include:

Genetic: Those who are born to parents who are addicts or have another first degree relative, such as a sibling, who is an addict are at a higher risk for developing addiction in their lifetime.

Biological: Certain theories suggest that people who are addicted to prescription drugs are lacking in certain neurotransmitters in the brain. In order to correct these deficits, they abuse substances in order to feel normal.

Behavioral: Research has suggested that exposure to relatives abusing substances may increase the likelihood that an individual will come to see drug addiction and abuse as “normal” and an appropriate coping mechanism.

Psychological: Many individuals who are suffering from underlying psychiatric conditions will attempt to reduce these symptoms by self-medicating with prescription medications. In time, addiction will follow drug abuse, leading to prescription drug abuse and addiction.

Addiction to prescription medication does not happen to each person who is prescribed a medication with a high potential for addiction. It’s likely a number of factors working together to cause the addiction.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction

As one of the most sought-after prescription drugs, opiate abuse is on the rise. Some of the more common symptoms of opiate abuse may include the following:

  • Crushing depression
  • Shortness of breath
  • Digestive irregularities such as chronic constipation
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hypotension not caused by health-related issue

Painkiller abuse may not be noticed until one attempts to cease usage of the opiates. Many individuals also use alcohol or other drugs along with opiates to increase or intensify the feelings. This cocktail does run a high risk for overdose.

Withdrawal symptoms for opiates are serious and include:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Involuntary movements of the extremities
  • Cold flashes
  • Pain in the bones and muscles
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac arrest

Stimulants are becoming a very popular drug of choice among teenagers and young adults and are often used recreationally as party drugs due to the intense euphoria and increased energy they produce. Those who abuse stimulants may take these prescriptions more often in higher doses or if the drug is used for a nonmedical purpose.

Symptoms of stimulant abuse include:

  • Cardiac dysrhythmias
  • Hypertension
  • Seizures
  • Heart failure
  • Insomnia
  • Inexplicable weight loss
  • Intense agitation or irritation
  • Elevated core body temperature
  • Hostility
  • Paranoia

Individuals who cease their intake of stimulants after physiological addiction has occurred experience withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Drug cravings
  • Depression
  • Hunger
  • Insomnia

Someone abusing sedatives or tranquilizers may not be able to see how this addiction may affect their behavior and appearance. The most obvious signs that a person has an addiction to sedatives or tranquilizers include the following:

  • Extreme confusion about environment
  • Challenges with memory
  • Rapid, involuntary eye movement
  • Poor decision-making abilities
  • Unsteady gait and mannerisms
  • Appearing sleepy or intoxicated
  • Involuntary movements
  • Poor judgment

Many individuals who take sedatives for treatment of anxiety disorders or depression do so at the recommended dosage and frequency as prescribed by their physician. However, a subset of people do become addicted to these drugs and the cessation of these drugs will result in withdrawal symptoms. Typical symptoms of withdrawal from sedatives and tranquilizers include:

  • Rebound effect – the brain becomes highly excitable
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Decreased appetite
  • Tachycardia
  • Unstable blood pressure
  • Increased respiration rate
  • High fever
  • Seizures


Effects of prescription drug addiction

When people begin to abuse prescription drugs and take them to relieve emotional problems or stress without the supervision of a physician, the underlying cause for the emotional pain is not addressed. Using prescription medications in a way they were not intended can only cause greater problems for the individual. These problems may include:

  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Legal problems
  • Job performance problems
  • Job loss
  • Increased psychological problems

Co-Occurring Disorders

Prescription drug addiction and co-occurring disorders

As is the case with many types of mental health conditions, addiction to prescription drugs may occur with other illnesses. These include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Other addictions
  • Alcoholism

Effects of Withdrawal

Effects of withdrawal from prescription drugs

As is the case with any substance that is abused to the point of addiction, the effects of abruptly stopping the medication can come with serious side effects. While many symptoms of withdrawal from prescription medications are specific to the medication, some of the common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Pain in areas of the body
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death