What Is Prescription Drug Addiction?

Prescription drug addiction is the use of a medication in a way that is different from what your healthcare provider prescribed, and it's an epidemic in the United States. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics cites that 16 million (6%) of Americans over the age of 12 abuse prescriptions in a year, and that 12% of those are addicted to prescription drugs.

What’s striking is that among the various prescription drug categories, for example, non-opioid painkillers, sedatives, stimulants, and psychotherapeutics, 4 out of 5 prescriptions filled by pharmacies are opioids that are abused yearly by 9.3 million people, in which 57.1% are from individuals with prescriptions.

This article further discusses addiction, addictive prescription drugs, signs of addiction, and treatment options. 

Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction - Illustration by Theresa Chiechi

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Causes and Risk Factors

Anyone can develop a substance abuse disorder, and it can occur at any time. However, certain circumstances increase the risk of drug abuse, which include:

  • Genetics
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Mental health issues

Other factors also include a dependency to prescription medications for pain management, but an individual’s environment also plays a role in increasing the risk of drug abuse. Those factors may include peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, and early introduction to drugs. Teenagers are among the most vulnerable because the part of the brain that control judgments, decision-making, and self-control are not fully developed, leading to higher risk in substance abuse disorder.

When opioids and other addictive drugs are introduced, neurons in the brain that send and receive signals through their neurotransmitters are disrupted. Because of their chemical make up, certain addictive drugs activate a neuron, leading to abnormal messaging sent through the brain's circuits and network. An important effect of taking certain prescription drugs is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that responds to pleasurable activities. But after a certain period of time, to achieve that dopamine hit, the individual becomes more dependent on the drug, increasing the risk of a substance abuse disorder.

In the United States alone there are 16.3 million people who annually abuse prescription drugs. The breakdown is 43.3% of first time abusers who use painkillers compared to 32.1% who abuse sedatives. Prescription drugs are the third-most abused illegal substance after marijuana and cocaine.

Dependence on prescription drugs can be both physical and psychological. While the body can build a tolerance to the drug, the dose must be increased to achieve that continued dopamine hit and have the desired results. 


Excessive dependance of prescription drugs can lead to a substance abuse disorder. Signs of abuse can lead to problems at home, school, and work, which can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness, and shame. 

Physical signs can include changes in appetite, sleep pattern, weight loss, bloodshot eyes, pupils that are smaller or larger than normal, unusual body odor, little to no interest in appearance, and no motor coordination.

Behavioral signs include secretive behavior, excessive absences from school or work, and dramatic change in friend and social activities.

Psychological signs include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, fear, paranoia without any reason, and a significant change in personality and attitude.


The most commonly abused prescription drugs are classified as depressants, opioids and morphine derivatives, stimulants, and other compounds found in cold and cough medications. 


Depressants are primarily known as substances that help you fall asleep, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and help prevent seizures. Health risks include lowered blood pressure, slowed breathing, increased risk of respiratory distress, and death when combined with alcohol. Within this category there are three types:

  • Barbiturates can be taken orally or injected. Side effects specific to barbiturates include euphoria or unusual excitement, fever, irritability, and life-threatening withdrawal. Commercial names include Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, and Phenobarbital.
  • Benzodiazepines are taken orally and include Ativan, Halcion, Librium, Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin.
  • Sleep medications are swallowed and include Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta.

Opioids and Morphine Derivatives

Opioids are available in several forms, including tablets, capsules, skin patches, powders, liquids, suppositories, and lollipops. They can be injected, swallowed, sniffed, or smoked. Effects on the body include: pain relief, euphoria, drowsiness, sedation, weakness, dizziness, nausea, impaired coordination, confusion, dry mouth, itching, sweating, clammy skin, constipation, slowed or arrested breathing, lowered pulse and blood pressure, unconsciousness, coma, and death. The risk of death increased when combined with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants.

Types of opioids include:

  • Codeine can be swallowed or injected. The National Institute of Drug Abuse notes that codeine has less analegesia, sedation, and respiratory depression than morphine. Commercial names include, Empirin with Codeine, Fiorinal with Codeine, Robitussin A-C, and Tylenol Codeine.
  • Morphine can be swallowed or injected. Commercial names: Roxanol and Duramorph.
  • Methadone can be swallowed or injected. Methadone is used to treat opioid addiction and pain. Overdose risk is high when not used properly. Commercial names: Methadose and Dolophine.
  • Fentanyl can be injected, snorted, or smoked. Fentanyl is 80-100 times more potent than morphine. Commercial names: Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze.
  • Other opioid pain relievers include Oxycodone HCL (a muscle relaxant that is twice as potent as morphine with high abuse potential), Hydrocodone Bitartrate Hydromorphone, Oxymorphone, Meperidine, and Propoxyphene.


Prescription stimulants are medications that are typically used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. They increase alertness, attention, and energy. Side effects include: feelings of exhilaration, increased energy, mental alertness, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism, reduced appetite, weight loss, nervousness, insomnia, seizures, heart attack, and stroke

Types of stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines can be injected, swallowed, snorted, or smoked. Commercial names: Biphetamine, Dexedrine, and Adderall. Side effects include: rapid breathing, tremor, loss of coordination, irritability, anxiousness, restlessness/delirium, panic, paranoia, hallucinations, impulsive behavior, and aggressiveness.
  • Methylphenidate can be injected, swallowed, or snorted. Commercial names: Ritalin and Concerta. Side effects include: blood pressure changes either increasing or decreasing, GI problems, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
  • Other compounds, which are normally found in cold and cough medicine and come in tablet, capsule, or syrup forms. The most common compound is Dextromethorphan. Side effects include: euphoria, slurred speech, increased heart rate and blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, paranoia, distorted visual perceptions, and impaired motor function.


For effective and successful treatment, several elements need to be incorporated, including detoxification, counseling, and medications. In many cases, multiple courses of treatment may be needed for the patient to make a full recovery.

The two main categories of treatment are: 

  • Behavioral treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that consists of changing unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior. The individual will learn strategies to manage cravings, avoid cues, and situations that lead to relapse; or, in some cases, providing motivation to abstain. CBT may include individual, family, or group counseling.
  • Medication treatment. Prescription opioid addiction can be treated with buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone, which can prevent other opioids from affecting the brain (naltrexone) or relieve withdrawal symptoms and cravings (buprenorphine and methadone), and help the patient avoid relapse. These medications are combined with both psychosocial support or behavioral treatments, known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). A medication to reduce the physical symptoms of withdrawal (lofexidine) is also available. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

The first step in your recovery is recognizing that you have a substance abuse disorder. Then, seek help as soon as possible by asking your healthcare provider for treatment and/or therapist referrals or any other counseling services that deal with substance abuse. 

If you have loved ones with a prescription drug addiction, don’t ignore it. Get them help immediately. There are many treatment programs available that are able to provide help and guidance. But remember, treatment is not a quick fix, but a long process that will take time to overcome.


Prescription drug addiction is a chronic disease that has adverse effects on individuals, their family, and friends. The most commonly abused prescription drugs include depressants, opioid and morphine derivatives, stimulants, and cold and cough medications. Symptoms of substance abuse disorder includes physical, behavioral, and psychological changes. If you have a substance abuse disorder or a loved one is exhibiting signs of addiction, get help immediately. Speak with your healthcare provider for a referral to a therapist who specializes in treating substance abuse disorders.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Drug abuse statistics.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of adolescent substance abuse disorder treatment: a research-based guide.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs and the brain.

  4. National Institute of Drug Abuse. Commonly abused prescription drugs.

  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription stimulants drugfacts.

  6. National Institute of Drug Abuse. How can prescription drug addiction be treated?.

By Rebeca Schiller
Rebeca Schiller is a health and wellness writer with over a decade of experience covering topics including digestive health, pain management, and holistic nutrition.