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Addiction to prescribed medication

There’s a common misconception that prescription drugs are less addictive than illegal drugs or alcohol because they’re medically licensed and prescribed.

Whilst this is the case with some prescription drugs, such as antibiotics, it’s not true for prescription medications that produce psychoactive effects. Any substance that has psychoactive qualities can be misused, and prescription drug addiction becomes a high possibility when medication is misused.

See treatment.

What are Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs are a category of drugs that are prescribed by a medical professional for varying reasons. They cover an array of medicines, from antibiotics, and antivirals, to stronger types such as stimulants and depressants.

There is the capability for misuse from certain prescription drugs, particularly those of high potency. These include opioids – typically used to treat pain, stimulants – used to treat conditions such as ADHD, and depressants – used to relieve anxiety or induce sleep. 

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

In recent years, the misuse of prescription painkillers has become increasingly prevalent, this includes abuse of prescription opioids, stimulants and benzodiazepines. Abuse of these prescription medications continues to take a devastating toll on individuals, their families, and many communities throughout the UK. Although all three types of drugs produce different physiological and physical effects in the user, each one carries the risk of addiction due to its psychoactive properties. See Lunesta.

Opioids

Prescription opioids are the most misused type of prescription drug due to their strong painkilling properties. In addition to treating pain, opioid-based prescription medications can also cause you to experience a sense of relaxed euphoria. This pleasurable sensation, combined with the addictive nature of the opioid medication, can easily result in sustained abuse, which can result in addiction. Different types of prescription opioids include:

  • Oxycodone (including brand names such as OxyContin and Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (including the brand name, Vicodin)
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Co-codamol
  • Tramadol

Opioids may be prescribed to help ease moderate to severe pain, which has occurred as a result of an injury, a chronic condition, or after surgery. These drugs can also improve mood and reduce fever. The strength of opioids means that using them recreationally is particularly dangerous, and increases the risk of suffering a fatal overdose.

Benzos

Benzodiazepines, also known as ‘benzos’, ‘sedatives’ or ‘tranquilisers’, are a widely-abused type of prescription drug. These types of prescription drugs are most frequently prescribed to those who experience anxiety, panic attacks, seizures, and certain other psychiatric and medical conditions.

Benzodiazepines result in the individual feeling calm and induce a deep sense of relaxation – feelings that can be highly addictive to some people, particularly if they are enduring a time of deep stress or anxiety. Hence, this needs to sustain such a sensation can quickly result in the development of a harmful benzodiazepine dependency. Different types of prescription benzodiazepines include:

  • Diazepam (commonly known as Valium)
  • Alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax)
  • Zolpidem (commonly known as Ambien)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (commonly known as Librium)

Stimulants

Stimulants are typically prescribed in the treatment of conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy – a disorder that is characterised by uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep. Prescription stimulants are designed to increase attention, energy, and alertness, and they do this by increasing the activity of various chemicals in the brain, including dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical involved with pleasure, and because of this, taking stimulant medication can result in highly addictive, pleasurable and euphoric sensations. Different types of prescription stimulants include:

  • Methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin)
  • Dextroamphetamine (commonly known as Adderall)

Prescription Drug Addiction Statistics

Prescription drugs are widely administered across the country, for varying medical reasons.

Public Health England’s analysis shows that, from 2017 to 2018, 11.5 million adults in England (26% of the adult population) received, and had dispensed, one or more prescriptions for any of the medicines within the scope of the review. The totals for each medicine were:

  • Antidepressants 7.3 million people (17% of the adult population)
  • Opioid pain medicines 5.6 million (13%)
  • Gabapentinoids 1.5 million (3%)
  • Benzodiazepines 1.4 million (3%)
  • Z-drugs 1.0 million (2%)

These statistics display that a vast number of the population take prescription drugs frequently, and because of how widespread and readily available this category of drugs is, misuse is a common occurrence, which can easily stem into misuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Signs of prescription drug addiction include taking the drug in a way it wasn’t intended to be taken, for example taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often or crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug. 

Signs of addiction also include taking the medication to feel high, mixing it with alcohol or certain other drugs, or feeling reliant on its consumption.

Side Effects of Prescription Drug Addiction

Overdose is a common occurrence when abusing Prescription Drugs, and in the United States, more than half of drug overdose deaths each year are caused by Prescription Drug misuse. 

Prescription drugs can alter the reward systems in the brain, making it harder for a person to feel good without taking the drug. This can also produce intense cravings, which make it hard to stop using.

Physical side effects can also manifest when a person becomes addicted to prescription drugs, these differ between prescription drug categories.

Depressant use can result in:

  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of co-ordination
  • Disorientation
  • At high doses, or when combined with another depressant such as alcohol, they may even result in overdose and death.

Furthermore, when someone who is addicted to prescription depressants stops taking them suddenly, they may experience seizures, which can be incredibly harmful. This emphasises the need for a medically supervised detox, to prevent harm to the individual.

Opioid use can result in:

  • Nausea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Higher doses can even result in stunted breathing, overdose, and potentially death

Stimulant use can produce an erratic range of feelings in the user, including:

  • Paranoia
  • High body temperature
  • Fast heartbeat

These physiological symptoms can be distressing for the user and put them into an extreme state of panic, which only furthers the psychological symptoms of anxiety that a user can experience.

Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction

Treatment for prescription drug addiction can be incredibly effective, and Castle Craig has a dedicated programme for this type of addiction.

Often, treatment for prescription drug addiction involves a supervised medical detox, which can be complicated. Castle Craig offer 24/7 attention to all patients, ensuring that their detoxification process is as comfortable and safe as possible.

Inpatient Treatment

Addiction is complex, and its manifestations range from patient to patient. That’s why it’s so important to assess an individual’s needs and figure out what treatment plan will be best for someone’s for specific circumstances.

Inpatient treatment is more intensive, and as you immerse yourself in the rehabilitation programme, and results can be incredibly effective.

Castle Craig offers a rounded treatment programme that incorporates an array of models, including:

  • 12 Step facilitation
  • Medical treatment
  • Psychiatric care

These are all complemented by a range of other treatments including holistic treatments, specialised therapies, and personalised care plans, including a strong focus on aftercare, to give you the best chance of recovery.

Inpatient treatment gives you the best chance of recovery, as you are surrounded by 24/7 care and don’t have any external factors around you that may be triggering your addiction.

Outpatient Treatment

Depending on your circumstances, outpatient treatment may be the best choice for you, particularly if your addiction is mild, most commonly the case when identified in the very early stages.

Outpatient treatment can be preferable for some users, as they can continue to work and keep up with regular responsibilities while receiving the treatment they require. However, an in-depth consultation is needed to ensure that the user will benefit from this form of treatment, as opposed to the all-around care and attention given at an inpatient facility.

Discuss your options with a medical provider or contact Castle Craig to discuss the next steps in your journey to recovery.

FAQs

Can you get addicted to prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs are often thought of as ‘safe’. However, these substances are controlled because many of them carry a high risk of addiction. Misusing prescription drugs such as opioids, stimulants and benzodiazepines can result in tolerance and dependence after a short time.

Why do people get addicted to prescription drugs?

Misusing drugs or taking more than the recommended dose can lead to physical and psychological dependence. This can occur very quickly, leaving the user needing more of the drug just to feel normal.

Why is prescription drug addiction on the rise?

Prescription drugs are becoming more easily accessible through street dealing as well as the dark web. Many people believe that prescription medications are safer because they are legal. However, they still carry the risk of addiction much like illicit drugs.

Specific Prescription Drug Addictions

Page published: August 11, 2019. Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked January 25, 2022