Signs & Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

The signs, symptoms, and effects of prescription drug addiction can be different for every person impacted. Learning about prescription drug addiction is one of the first steps towards getting better.

Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction

Learn about prescription drugs and substance abuse

Prescription drugs allow many people to experience relief from medical or psychological ailments. For example, opioid-based painkillers help relieve severe chronic or post-surgery pain, and sedatives and hypnotics can allow people with insomnia and other sleeping disorders to find rest. Stimulants help people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to focus and succeed in work and school, while benzodiazepines, or benzos, help relieve symptoms of anxiety disorders.

These medications help millions of people every year, and they are quite safe when used in accordance with physicians’ guidelines. However, many of these drugs also present tempting targets for abuse. Opioids, sedatives, and benzos can all produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation when abused, while stimulant abuse causes a user to feel pleasure and excessive amounts of energy. Abusing prescription drugs puts a person at risk of developing a prescription drug use disorder, which can potentially have severe and life-threatening consequences. Fortunately, it is possible to overcome a prescription drug use disorder with proper treatment provided by a caring team at a comprehensive substance abuse treatment center.


Prescription drug addiction statistics

The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that 2.4 million Americans had abused prescription medications for the first time during the previous year. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that more people engaged in past-month prescription drug abuse than past-month abuse of cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants combined. NIDA also reported that 52 million people have abused prescription drugs at some point in their lives. Painkillers are the most popular drug of abuse, followed by sedatives and stimulants.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for prescription drug addiction

While each person’s struggle with prescription drug abuse is unique, treatment experts have identified a number of factors that can contribute to an individual’s risk of developing a prescription drug use disorder, including the following:

Genetic: A person’s vulnerability to prescription drug abuse can be affected by his or her genetics. People whose parents or siblings have a prescription drug use disorder are more likely themselves to also develop a prescription drug use disorder. Certain genetically influenced personality traits, such as impulsivity and novelty-seeking, can also increase a person’s risk of prescription drug abuse.

Environmental: Along with genetics, certain environmental forces can also act as risk factors for prescription drug abuse. One of the key environmental risk factors is availability of the drugs. People with prescriptions, or those who associate with people with prescriptions, are more likely than others to develop a prescription drug use disorder. Other environmental risk factors can include an unstable home environment, exposure to community violence, and experiencing trauma, abuse, or neglect.

Risk Factors:

  • Easy access to prescription medications
  • Family history of substance use disorder or mental illness
  • Personal history of substance use disorder
  • Experiencing traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, or violence
  • Having friends or family who abuse prescription medications

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction

The signs and symptoms of a prescription drug use disorder will vary based on the particular drug a person abuses, how long the person has been abusing it, and how extensive the person’s abuse of the drug is. That being said, the following signs and symptoms may suggest that a person is struggling with a prescription drug use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Using medications in larger amounts or over a longer time period than intended
  • Efforts to reduce medication abuse are unsuccessful
  • Spending large amounts of time obtaining, using, or recovering from use of medications
  • Failure to fulfill major tasks or obligations at home or work as a result of prescription drug abuse
  • Neglecting important occupational or recreational events in favor of using
  • Abusing prescription medications even in situations where being high is physically dangerous, such as while driving or at work
  • Continuing to abuse prescription drugs despite being aware of problems in one’s life that are caused by medication abuse

Physical symptoms:

  • Needing higher and higher doses of a medication over time in order to achieve a desired effect
  • Experiencing strong discomfort and unpleasant symptoms when abstaining from use for a period of time
  • Drowsiness
  • Excessive energy
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Unsteady gait
  • Dilated pupils
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Sweating or chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Changes in weight
  • Weakness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Experiencing cravings for one’s medication of choice
  • Slowed or racing thoughts
  • Impairment in attention, concentration, or memory
  • Confusion or delirium

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Continued abuse of prescription drugs despite experiencing interpersonal conflict or difficulties caused by use
  • Neglecting social events in favor of use
  • Changes in mood
  • Emotional fluctuations


Effects of prescription drug addiction

Although prescription drugs are safe when used appropriately, when they are misused they can be just as dangerous as illegal drugs such as meth or heroin. If a prescription drug use disorder goes untreated, a person may experience the following negative consequences:

  • Onset or worsening of mental health symptoms
  • Polysubstance use, addiction, or chemical dependency
  • Weight changes
  • Malnutrition
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Poor performance at work
  • Job loss or demotion
  • Relational conflict, separation, or divorce
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of child custody
  • Financial strain
  • Heart attack
  • Organ failure
  • Seizure
  • Coma
  • Overdose

Co-Occurring Disorders

Prescription drug addiction and co-occurring disorders

People with prescription drug use disorders often struggle with additional co-occurring mental health issues. In addition to the disorder(s) for which a person is being prescribed medication, some of the more common co-occurring mental health disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Gambling disorder
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal and Overdose

 Effects of prescription drug withdrawal and overdose

Effects of prescription drug withdrawal: Because there are multiple types of prescription drugs, there are multiple sets of withdrawal symptoms that can emerge when a person who has become dependent upon the drug attempts to abstain from use. Below are some of the most common symptoms of prescription drug withdrawal:

  • Depressed mood
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Vivid nightmares
  • Changes in appetite, weight, and sleep patterns
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Tremor or shakiness
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sweating
  • Excessively slow or fast heartrate
  • Anxiety
  • Seizure

Effects of prescription drug overdose: As with illicit drugs, it is possible for a person to ingest more of a prescription medication than his or her body can metabolize or excrete. This potentially life-threatening condition is known as an overdose and should be addressed as soon as possible by medical personnel. The symptoms of a prescription drug overdose can include:

  • Large or small pupils
  • Aggression, agitation, or violent behavior
  • Drowsiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty walking
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Tremors
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Delusions
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seizure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma

Marks of Quality Care
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)
  • Pennsylvania Department of Drug & Alcohol Programs
  • Glasser Quality Organization
  • The Jason Foundation