Prescription Drug Addiction Signs, Symptoms & 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 Drugs

Learn about prescription drugs and substance abuse

Countless individuals are plagued by the presence of addiction throughout the world. When many people initially think about drug addiction, the substances that would historically come to mind were illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, or meth. Within the past decade, however, there has been a drastic spike in the amount of people who have found themselves addicted to prescription medications. Prescription medication abuse is typically defined by the act of consuming prescription drugs in ways other than that which is directed by a doctor. In other words, when individuals do things such as taking larger dosages than they are prescribed or consuming multiple types of medications against medical advice, there likely exists a serious problem.

There are many different types of prescription medications that have the potential for abuse. The most commonly abused of these medications include:

  • Stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as Klonopin, Valium, or Xanax
  • Sedatives, such as Ambien
  • Pain medications, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, or morphine

The appeal that draws people to abuse these substances lies in the fact that, when taken outside the limits that are set and determined by physicians, the potency of these drugs can elicit feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and/or intense relaxation, while also offering relief from the presence of any type of pain. Excessive use of these substances can also bring about feelings of detachment from one’s surroundings, which can be appealing to individuals who experience chronic stress and emotional turmoil.

While there are numerous detrimental consequences that can come about as a direct result from this type of addiction, it is often extremely difficult for individuals to break their habits without professional help and interventions. Fortunately, there are many viable treatment options for prescription drug that can help these people overcome their addiction and find the healing that they need in order to reach true recovery.


Prescription drug addiction statistics

As knowledge expands on the popularity of using prescription medications recreationally, much research continues to be conducted on the exact prevalence rates of this type of substance abuse. Recent estimates have shown that approximately 52 million individuals over the age of 12 in the United States have used some type of prescription medication for non-medical purposes at some point in their lives. Furthermore, studies that have been done regarding the rates of drug overdose throughout America has found that prescription medication overdoses claim more lives than do suicides, gunshot wounds, or car accidents.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for prescription drug addiction

Rather than being the result of any one, single cause, the development of an addiction to prescription medication is believed by researchers and mental health professionals alike to result from a combination of genetic, physiological, and environmental causes, as well as the existence of additional risk factors. Such causes and risk factors are described briefly in the following:

Genetic: Because drug and alcohol addictions are known to run in families, extensive research has been done on the heritability of chemical dependency. This research has found that individuals who have a family history of substance abuse and dependence are significantly more vulnerable to suffering from drug and/or alcohol abuse concerns at some point in their lives. Those who have first-degree biological members who struggle with addictions are at an even higher risk for experiencing the onset of addictive behaviors.

Physical: The use of prescription medication results in the occurrence of a number of physiological changes and disturbances. When these types of drugs are abused for extended periods of time, the communication amongst nerve cells in the brain becomes disrupted, ultimately resulting in significant functional impairment. Additionally, these physiological changes can involve various neurochemicals in the brain becoming imbalanced, leading an individual to lose control over his or her ability to regulate moods or control impulses.

Environmental: There are certain environmental factors that can place an individual at a higher risk for developing an addiction to prescription medication. Perhaps the most prominent of such factors is when people are exposed to environments in which they have readily access to prescription medications. Whether this be due to living in a home with others who have these types of prescriptions in their possession or due to having an ongoing health condition that requires the consumption of such medications, therefore easily receiving prescriptions from various doctors on one’s own. As would be expected, the easier it is for individuals to get their hands on this type of substance, the more likely they are to persistently use it, leading to the onset of addiction. Additionally, individuals who are exposed to environments where there exists chronic stress or conflict are at a heightened risk of turning to substances like prescription medications in an attempt to numb themselves from the distress they experience as a result of such circumstances.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of chemical dependency concerns
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Suffering from chronic pain
  • Having easy access to prescription medications
  • Persistent exposure to stress and/or conflict

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction

The signs and symptoms that indicate the presence of a prescription medication abuse problem will vary from person to person depending upon a number of different factors, including one’s age, the specific type of medication one is using, the length of time one has been using, and the amount that one uses. Additionally, when an individual is suffering from a co-existing mental health condition, the types of symptoms that present will similarly vary. Examples of possible signs and symptoms that may be displayed by an individual who is struggling with an addiction to prescription medication include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Decline in academic performance
  • School refusal
  • Decline in one’s ability to perform adequately in one’s occupation
  • Frequent absences from work
  • Seeing multiple doctors in an attempt to acquire multiple prescriptions
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Sudden change in the company one keeps
  • Isolating oneself from family or friends
  • Engaging in instigative, and sometimes aggressive, behaviors
  • Causing disturbances within interpersonal relationships

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Coordination struggle
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Tremors
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Decline in appropriate hygiene care

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Delayed thinking
  • Impaired ability to use sound judgment
  • Impaired ability to use appropriate decision-making skills

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Frequently fluctuating moods
  • Decline in motivation
  • Loss of interest in things previously enjoyed
  • Personality changes / changes in one’s temperament
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety


Effects of prescription drug addiction

The ongoing abuse of prescription medications can render a person susceptible to experiencing countless negative ramifications. A person’s physical health can become compromised, his or her mental health can become disturbed, and one’s overall sense of well-being can deteriorate under the power of a prescription medication addiction. Examples of various effects that can occur as the result of prescription medication addiction may include:

  • Damage to vital organs
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Memory loss / memory disturbances
  • Other types of irreversible cognitive impairments
  • Changes in temperament
  • Onset of other mental health conditions
  • Social isolation / peer rejection
  • Academic failure
  • Job loss / chronic unemployment
  • Financial problems
  • Familial strife / relationship discord
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Death as the result of an overdose

Co-Occurring Disorders

Prescription drug addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for individuals who abuse prescription medications to be struggling with a co-occurring mental health condition as well. Some such conditions may have been previously diagnosed or may have yet to be identified but when prescription drugs are abused, the effects can exacerbate symptoms or elicit the onset of new symptoms. Examples of the different disorders that have been known to exist alongside an addiction to prescription medication may include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Polysubstance use

Withdrawal and Overdose

Learn about prescription drug withdrawal and overdose

Effects of withdrawal from prescription medication: When individuals consistently abuse prescription medications over a prolonged period of time, they run the risk of becoming both physically and psychologically dependent on the presence of the substance in their bodies. When such dependency exists, and an individual ceases his or her use, there is the great possibility that he or she will experience a period of withdrawal. The symptoms that may develop when someone is withdrawing from prescription medications can include the following:

  • Hallucinations
  • Vivid dreams
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Prominent sleep disturbances
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Aching of one’s muscles
  • Tremors
  • Profuse sweating
  • Elevated levels of depression and anxiety
  • Elevated levels of irritability and agitation

Effects of prescription medication overdose: Any time that individuals abuse substances, including the abuse of prescription medications, there exists a risk for overdosing. An overdose occurs whenever a person ingests more of a substance than his or her body is able to metabolize. When this occurs, it should be viewed as a medical emergency and individuals should receive immediate treatment so as to prevent potentially fatal outcomes. Examples of warning signs that may arise in the event that a person overdoses on prescription medications will vary, yet may include the following:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Dilated pupils
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Muscle cramping
  • Changes in skin pallor
  • Respiratory failure
  • Vomiting
  • Clammy skin
  • Dizziness
  • Cyanosis
  • Seizure
  • Loss of the ability to communicate
  • Loss of consciousness or falling into a coma
  • Sudden death
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