Prescription drug addiction

What is prescription medication addiction?

Addiction to prescription medications continues to be a growing problem in the UK. The misinformation surrounding the potential dangers associated with these drugs, as well as their accessibility, has contributed to the substantial increase in addiction figures. Prescription medication addiction is typically characterised by the ongoing and compulsive need to take these drugs despite any negative outcomes. Abuse includes anything from taking more than the recommended dose to stealing someone’s prescription painkiller.

There has long been the misconception that prescription medications are less harmful because they have a legitimate use, with less stigma associated with their misuse as opposed to illicit drugs. However, the UK has seen a subsequent rise in prescription drug-related deaths, with the long-term effects proving just as devastating as illicit drug addiction.

How do people become addicted to prescription medications?

When talking about prescription drug addiction it’s not uncommon for people to assume that prescription medications are abused intentionally for their effects. However, the unfortunate reality is that you can develop an addiction despite taking your prescription medication exactly as prescribed. Taking any psychoactive substance for prolonged periods can cause physical dependence that leads to addiction. Stopping these medications suddenly can be dangerous and it’s always recommended that your dose is slowly tapered to avoid any unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

In other cases, people obtain these medications without a prescription, to experiment with the mental effects of these drugs. The growing demand has meant their availability on places like the dark web has increased significantly, making them more readily available.

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Most abused prescription medications

Prescription drugs are often considered riskless, while many people associate the term ‘addiction’ with illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. However, prescribed medications carry an equally high potential of abuse and addiction, with side effects that can be just as detrimental to your health.

Due to the capacity in which they are so widely prescribed, medications can affect people of any age, gender and background. Some of the most abused prescription drugs include:

Opioids – Prescribed for managing pain due to injury, surgery or chronic illness.
Benzodiazepines – Used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and seizures.
Stimulants – Prescribed to help treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders

Prescription opioids

Opioids have incredibly strong painkilling abilities and have become the most abused category amongst prescription medications. These drugs are known to create a sense of euphoria when taken in high doses. This, paired with its painkilling properties, means there is a high risk of abuse and addiction can develop very quickly.
The most abused opioid medications include:

  • Oxycodone (brand name, Oxycontin)
  • Hydrocodone (brand name, Vicodin)
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Co-codamol
  • Tramadol
  • Xanax
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone

These medications are typically prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain after surgery or because of an injury. They can also be given to patients to alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain and, in many cases, are taken on a long-term basis. If you’ve been taking opioid medications over a long period, your body eventually starts to build up a tolerance in response to its effects. This means you will need higher doses as time goes on, to achieve the same high, you once did.

The dangers of these medications are often overlooked because they’re considered legal, with drugs like co-codamol easily available over the counter. However, the strength of opioid medications should not be ignored, and the potential to overdose is very high.

Prescription benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, also known as ‘benzos’, are another widely-abused classification of prescription drugs. Benzos act as sedatives and tranquilisers and are often prescribed to people who suffer from seizures, anxiety, panic attacks and other similar conditions. Their ability to produce a sense of calm and relaxation is what makes them highly addictive and can eventually lead to physical and psychological dependence.
The most commonly misused benzos include:

  • Diazepam (brand name, Valium)
  • Alprazolam (brand name, Xanax)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (brand name, Librium)
  • Zolpidem (brand name, Ambien)

Prescription stimulants

Certain stimulants are typically prescribed, in controlled doses, to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and narcolepsy. Their ability to boost energy and alertness means they are ideal for managing symptoms of these disorders. Stimulants work by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for the brain’s reward centre, which is why taking stimulant medication can result in highly addictive, pleasurable and euphoric sensations. Different types of prescription stimulants include:

  • Methylphenidate (brand names Ritalin and Concerta)
  • Dextroamphetamine (brand names Adderall and Dexedrine)

The effects produced by prescription drugs means it’s often difficult for family members to identify misuse, simply mistaking any potential signs as symptoms of the medication itself.
Prescription medications can contain a huge variety of chemicals, so determining their dangers can be somewhat challenging. Side effects of abuse can range from mild to extremely dangerous, the intensity of which will depend on the method of use. Pills are sometimes crushed and snorted or injected, producing a far more heightened experience.

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse and addiction

Treatment for a prescription medication addiction is no riskier than treating addiction to illicit drugs, however, identifying the symptoms of prescription drug abuse can be difficult. Someone misusing their medication will often go to great lengths to conceal the true nature of their habit. Similarly, if you have been using medication in ways not intended and you find yourself being dishonest about your dose, you have likely developed an addiction to your medication. There are some common signs to look out for that can help you identify this. These include – but are not limited to – the following:
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Stealing prescriptions that don’t belong to you
  • Defensiveness when questioned
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Impaired judgement and decision-making
  • Appearing drowsy, high or energetic
  • Lying to your doctor to get more prescriptions
    Seeing more than one doctor
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor
  • Buying medication illegally
    Increasing the dose of your medication or taking it more often than recommended
  • Mixing prescribed medication with alcohol or other substances to intensify the effects
  • Taking more prescribed medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms
  • Administering the drug in a way other than prescribed, i.e., crushing and snorting or injecting the drug for a more powerful high

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At Step-by-Step Recovery, we are dedicated to providing the very best quality of care for each and every one of our clients and our ultimate goal is to provide you with the tools you need to maintain a clean and sober life free from prescription drug addiction.

Long-term effects of prescription drug addiction

Unfortunately, the legality of a drug doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe. It’s crucial to consider the possibilities of long-term damage that can arise as a result of prescription drug addiction. Each category of medication comes with its potential dangers, and mixing medications only increases the risk of overdose or death.

Long-term effects of prescription opioid addiction:

  • Tolerance
  • Paranoia
  • Respiratory issues
  • Heart problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Low libido
  • Fertility issues
  • Joint pain
  • Drying up of spinal fluid which cannot be reversed
  • Paralysis as a result of lost neural connections
  • Physical dependence
  • Decreased sensory feelings like taste, touch, sound, sight, etc.
  • Violent behaviour
  • Lack of concentration
  • Low mobility and slow reflexes
  • Compromised immune system
  • Constipation leading to an intestinal infection
  • Overdose and death

Long-term effects of benzodiazepine addiction:

  • Poor work and school performance
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable mood swings
  • Engaging in risky behaviour
  • Dry mouth, low levels of saliva, and tooth decay
  • Dry and corrosive eyes
  • Kidney and liver failure
  • Decaying of arteries
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to focus
  • Lack of personal hygiene

Long-term effects of stimulant addiction:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Jaw clenching
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Impaired judgment
  • Low oxygen intake resulting in fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Over pessimistic and complete denial of problems
  • Polysubstance abuse
  • Kidney and liver failure
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

Treatment for prescription drug addiction

Suddenly stopping the intake of any of the medications mentioned above can result in a range of unpleasant physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Treatment of which should be medically supervised, ideally in a residential rehab facility.

Like illicit drug addictions, prescription drug addiction can also be effectively treated with the correct form of care. A combination of detox, medication and counselling is recommended to increase the chances of a full recovery.

During a medically assisted detox, you will typically be given a controlled dose of benzodiazepines or sedatives to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal. Ultimately, the type of treatment you need will depend on which prescription medications you have been abusing.

As well as overcoming the physical aspects of addiction, behavioural treatments such as therapy and counselling are also necessary for tackling the psychological element. These treatments are designed to help you keep problematic behaviours under control, as well as cope with cravings and avoid situations that might lead to relapse.

At Step-by-Step Recovery, our counsellors have extensive experience in treating all types of drug addictions, including prescription medication addiction. In addition to a medically assisted detox programme, we offer a range of traditional and holistic therapies aimed at healing the mind, body and spirit as well as identifying any factors that may have contributed to your substance misuse.


Yes. Prescription opioids, stimulants and benzos carry with them the potential of overdose. Unfortunately, symptoms of overdose are not always obvious and are often ignored. It is important to familiarise yourself with the signs to prevent the risk of further harm.
There are several signs you should look out for if you think you have an addiction to prescription medication. Lying about your dose or engaging in deception to obtain prescriptions are two major signs of addiction to medication. If you find yourself taking higher doses than recommended, then you should seek help to avoid developing physical dependence.
Many options are effective in treating prescription medication addictions. Ultimately, you will benefit from a medically supervised detox, followed by behavioural therapy. Talking therapies like group discussions are necessary in treating addiction to tackle the psychological aspects of the disease.

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A page revised the 6 of July of 2021, by Danielle Byatt, a Level 4 addictions counselling, Level 5 in Leadership & Management, BA applied social work. and Treatment Director at Step by Step Recovery.

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