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

Prescription drugs come in many forms, and they can treat a variety of health problems. Some treat insomnia, while others help people concentrate or reduce pain. But problems can arise when the user becomes addicted.

What are Prescription Drugs?

While there are many categories of prescription drugs, the most common are opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Opioid painkillers being among the most commonly abused medications, with around 8.7 million people in the United States misusing them in 2021.[1]

It is more likely for a person to become addicted to a prescription drug when they misuse it than when using it as prescribed. This is because misuse allows the drug to affect the brain differently, and often more intensely.

Side Effects of Common Opioid Painkillers

Opioids are often prescribed to those with severe pain such as that experienced post-surgery,or chronic pain such as that associated with nerve damage or cancer.

Opioids are Schedule II substances, meaning they have significant medical uses but also a high potential for addiction and abuse. Opioids are often called blues, white stuff, and schoolboy.

Common side effects include euphoria, slurred speech, confusion, and fatigue.

Side Effects of Common Benzodiazepines

Benzos are primarily used to treat insomnia and anxiety. They depress the nervous system and make it easy for a person to relax. Benzos are Schedule IV drugs, meaning they have less of a potential for abuse. But, this doesn’t mean that they are without risks.

It is possible to develop a prescription drug addiction to benzos, especially when misusing them.

Side effects of benzos include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, stomach problems, and difficulty concentrating. People often refer to benzos as downers, Xannies, and bars.

Side Effects of Common Stimulants

Stimulants are often used to treat ADHD or sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. They make a person more focused and alert. Stimulants are Schedule II substances due to their high potential for abuse.

Some people refer to these drugs as speed or smart pills. Their side effects include tachycardia (fast heart rate), high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia.

How are Prescription Drugs Taken?

Most prescription drugs are pills that are meant to be taken orally. This ensures that the pill breaks down over several hours and doesn’t result in a euphoric effect. However, some people misuse the drugs by crushing the pills and snorting them through the nose. Others may melt or dissolve the pills into a liquid and inject the substance. Both of these methods of administration cause the substance to be released all at once, which causes a “high,” which can be very addictive.

Prescription Drug Quick Reference

Drug Category Commercial & Street Names DEA Schedule Administration
Benzos Xanax®, Valium®, Klonopin®, Ativan® Street names:, Xannies, downers, sleeping pills Schedule IV Oral
Stimulants Adderall®, Ritalin®, Vyvanse® Street names: speed, smart pills Schedule II Oral
Opioids OxyContin®, Vicodin®, codeine, morphine, fentanyl Street names: blues, white stuff Schedule II Oral
A distressed person sitting behind a table with a spilled bottle of pills in the foreground.

Statistics on Prescription Drug Use, Misuse, and Addiction

In the United States, the main cause of injury-related deaths is drug overdose.[2] Many of these overdoses are due to opioid painkillers and sleeping pills. Many overdoses are accidental. A person may try taking a dose of their prescription that’s larger than usual, and because their body can’t handle it, they end up overdosing.

Overdoses are also more common when a drug is mixed with other drugs. There are also a few intentional overdoses in the case of suicide. Prescription drug addiction treatment is the best way to avoid these potentially fatal issues.

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

When using prescription drugs as instructed, they can have beneficial effects for various conditions. But many problems can arise when they are misused. For example, if you take Adderall when you don’t have ADHD, this is a form of misuse that could lead to addiction. Misuse also involves taking too much of a drug or snorting it to get an instant effect.

Can You Overdose on Prescription Drugs?

Many people die from prescription drug overdoses. These overdoses often occur when a person takes too much of their medication, or they mix it with other drugs. Injecting or snorting the medication can also lead to an overdose due to the way the drug’s total dose is released all at once.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Overdose

Most people who overdose will experience confusion, nausea, and pain before falling unconscious. Many will experience hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen that will occur if the person stops breathing. Some may have heart attacks, and their hearts could stop or sustain permanent damage.

Because an overdose can be fatal, you need to call 911 immediately if you find someone who has overdosed. Once the paramedics arrive, they can provide a drug that will reverse the overdose. For example, in the case of an opioid overdose, naloxone is usually given to reverse the problem.[3]

Dangers of Long-Term Prescription Drugs Use

Most prescription drugs are not meant to be used for long periods of time. Long-term use can lead to changes in the brain. This may cause anxiety, depression, paranoia, difficulty remembering information, and difficulty speaking. It can also lead to liver and kidney damage.

Mixing Prescription Drugs with Other Drugs

Most prescription drugs should not be mixed with alcohol. This can cause serious interactions, such as fainting, comas, seizures, heart attacks, and death. They should also not be mixed with other drugs, especially illicit drugs.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse

Some people don’t realize that they have an addiction until it’s time to stop their medication. They may then find that they have cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It may also be difficult for them to function without the drugs.

Signs of Addiction to Prescription Drugs

Some people may become secretive about their drug use once they develop an addiction. They may try to stock up on their medication by going to different doctors and getting multiple prescriptions. Some may have drug paraphernalia around their home, such as syringes or crushed pills.

Prescription Drug Addiction and Mental Health

Drugs often have a negative effect on a person’s mental health, especially in the long term. Many cause anxiety, depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts. Some drugs can also cause memory problems, speech issues, and mood changes.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

Going to a prescription drug rehab is a great way to get professional treatment. It involves therapy and general support to help you get your life back on track. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to have a very positive effect on those who have substance abuse disorders.

Therapies Used in Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

Here are a few of the most commonly employed therapy methods:

Dual Diagnosis for Co-Occurring Disorders

Those who use prescription stimulants usually have ADHD or narcolepsy. Those who use benzos mostly have insomnia or anxiety disorders, though they may also have seizure disorders. Those with opioid prescriptions have pain or seizure disorders.

However, those who specifically abuse prescription drugs have substance use disorders that are diagnosed concurrently. Treatment will be necessary to address both the addiction and the underlying disorders that may have contributed to the addiction.

Prescription Drug Withdrawal Management Treatment

The withdrawal process involves slowly weaning off the drug by taking smaller and smaller amounts over time. This prevents your brain from going through a large shock, as it would when stopping cold turkey. However, withdrawal symptoms can still be unpleasant and may last several weeks. Therapy and medication-assisted treatment are both important in this process.

Drugs Used in Prescription Drug Withdrawal Management

Buprenorphine and naloxone are very common for helping people get through their withdrawal symptoms, especially in the case of opioid withdrawal. OTC pain medication may also be used to reduce physical discomfort during this time. The medication used in detox will depend on the substance the individual is detoxing from, as well as individual factors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Anyone Become Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

Some people are more likely to become addicted than others, such as those with substance abuse disorders. It is also more likely for you to become addicted when you misuse a drug.

Are All Overdoses Fatal?

While many overdoses are fatal, some are not if treatment is received in time. This is why it’s important to call for medical assistance right away if you ever find anyone who has overdosed.

What Is the Most Addictive Prescription Drug?

Opioid painkillers and sleeping pills are among the most commonly misused drugs. However, it is possible to become addicted to almost any kind of prescription drug.


NIDA. (2023, February 13). What is the scope of prescription drug misuse in the United States?. Retrieved from on May 24, 2023.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023b, May 8). Understanding drug overdoses and deaths. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from on May 24, 2023.


NIDA. (2023, March 9). How can prescription drug addiction be treated?. Retrieved from May 24, 2023.


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