Certain strong medications that are typically only available by prescription can run the risk of addiction if misused. Prescription drug misuse is using a drug in a way that was not intended by the person who prescribed it, or using it without a prescription. Misuse becomes abuse when a person experiences consequences of drug use.
This article discusses both frequent and rare signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction and when to seek medical care.
Types of Prescription Drug Misuse
The most common types of prescription drugs that are misused include:
- Opioids: These medications are prescribed to manage chronic or severe pain. They include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, and codeine.
- Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: These are medications used to treat seizures, anxiety, and sleep disorders that include barbituates and benzodiazapenes.
- Stimulants: This type of medication is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and depression.
How the drug is taken can impact the risk of addiction. More specifically, this includes:
- Taking a high dose of the medication
- Taking it over long periods of time
- Using extended release formulas
Additionally, some people are at a higher risk of developing an addiction to substances.
Risk Factors for Addiction
People who have experienced the following may be at an increased risk for addiction:
- Family history of addiction
- Drug use at an early age
- Trauma or abuse
- Living with a mental illness
- Having a more pronounced response to medication (enhanced euphoric feeling)
- Chronic or severe pain
Frequent Signs and Symptoms
Addiction to prescription medications can manifest in a number of ways depending on the type of drug abused. In general though, if you are concerned that you may be experiencing addiction, some signs may include:
- Needing to take more to experience same effect over time (increased tolerance)
- Using medication to avoid withdrawal symptoms (which can include nausea, depression, insomnia, sweating, shaking, and anxiety)
- Not being able to stop using despite a desire to stop
- Prioritizing medication use before other activities and obligations
- Not doing the activities you used to enjoy
- Knowingly using medication despite experiencing problems due to its use
Noticing similar signs and symptoms may be an indicator of prescription drug abuse and addiction in others. Some additional signs—ranging from behavioral, physical, and social—to look out for may include:
- If prescribed, running out of medication sooner than expected
- Dilated or narrowed pupils
- Lack of motivation or energy
- Challenges with concentration
- Slurred speech
- Change in appetite and sleeping
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Neglecting relationships
- Poor performance in school or at work
Rare Signs and Symptoms
High doses and misuse of the most commonly misused prescription medications can result in:
- Sudden cardiac arrest
- Respiratory suppression or arrest (when a person stops breathing)
There are a few factors that make prescription drug abuse more complex and potentially life-threatening, including:
- Use of other medications and drugs: Using other illicit drugs or even over-the-counter medications can interact with the use of prescription medications, sometimes leading to increased blood pressure, slow breathing, or irregular heart rhythms.
- Age: In general, older adults are prescribed medications for longer periods of time. When paired with changes in the way that their bodies metabolize medications, this could lead to more serious complications with prescription drug abuse.
- Preexisting health conditions: Having respiratory issues that impact breathing may be especially impacted by abusing prescription medications like opioids. Those with wasting syndrome and other conditions that impair their strength and energy may be especially impacted by opioid abuse.
When to See a Doctor
If you or someone you know is concerned about prescription drug addiction, seeking support from a healthcare provider can help.
Stopping the use of some prescription drugs can result in withdrawal symptoms. In the case of depressant medications in particular, the withdrawal symptoms may even be life-threatening.
A provider or care team knowledgeable in addiction treatment can help a person taper down their prescription drug use, manage withdrawal symptoms, and provide behavioral treatment or therapy.
Urgent Medical Care
If a person who uses experiences a prescription drug overdose, it’s considered an emergency. Prescription drug overdoses can be fatal.
Overdose Signs and Symptoms
If someone is experiencing any of the following signs or symptoms of an overdose, they need emergency medical care:
- For an opioid drug overdose: Small pupils, shallow breathing, becoming unconscious, choking sounds, cold or clammy skin, or discoloration of lips or nails
- For CNS depressant drug overdose: Slow or shallow breathing, hypoxia, or coma
- For stimulant drug overdose: Rapid breathing, confusion, high fever, tremors, restlessness, rapid breathing, seizure, or heart problems (potentially leading to a heart attack)
If you or someone you know begins to experience any of these signs of drug overdose, seek immediate medical care by calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room. Healthcare providers may administer medication that can reverse the overdose for a short time (such as naloxone) and provide other life-saving treatment.
Some strong prescription medications are used to treat legitimate health conditions. However, their use can put some people at risk for addiction, depending on how they are used. When prescription medication is abused, it can impact day-to-day life and result in social, physical, and behavioral consequences.
Some of these signs and symptoms, particularly physical ones, can vary depending on the prescription medication. Knowing the signs can help identify whether you or someone who know may be experiencing addiction. Healthcare providers can be a source of support for those who wish to seek treatment for addiction. Overdosing on medication requires emergency medical care.