Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse

Understanding prescription drug addiction

Many people who abuse prescription drugs believe these medications are safer than illegal drugs because they are legally prescribed by a licensed healthcare practitioner and dispensed by a pharmacist. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a statement that states that prescription drug abuse should be considered an epidemic. Patterns of drug use in the U.S. have changed in the past few years. However, while some types of drug abuse have significantly declined, such as cocaine, there has been a marked increase in the abuse of prescriptions drugs. Results of national surveys have indicated that almost one-third of those over the age of 11 use prescription drugs non-medically when first starting to experiment with drugs.

Prescription drug abuse has been defined as the use of prescription medications for purposes not intended by the prescribing physician. This problem may be acquired due to the pleasurable effects resulting from the drug. Some people develop this problem after legitimately using a prescribed medication for pain, illness, or psychological reasons. After taking the drug they notice the enjoyable effects when the condition for which it is prescribed remits, and begin taking the medication for recreational purposes. Addiction often follows and individuals continue to take the drug when no longer necessary, needing more of the substance to maintain the desired effects. Others may develop a prescription drug abuse problem by experimenting with medications found in their medicine cabinet at home or trying medications given to them by a friend.

Once an addiction develops, many individuals often find themselves without a plausible reason to obtain a prescription. This results in attempting to have more than one prescription written for them by several different providers. However, as drugs with a high propensity for abuse are carefully monitored through computer systems, which link patient records from different pharmacies, those who try to fill multiple prescriptions are caught and can no longer obtain legal prescriptions for the drug. This may result in severe withdrawal symptoms, causing the person to turn to illegal drugs to remedy their inability to tolerate the distressing symptoms.


Statistics of prescription drug addiction

The prevalence rate for prescription drug addiction in those over the age of 17 in the U.S. has been estimated at about 2.7%, which amounts to over 7 million people. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has indicated that past month estimates of people who’ve used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons approach 6.1 million people. The most frequently used categories of prescription drugs abused in this country in order of decreasing frequency are:

  • Pain medications – abused by 5.1 million Americans
  • Tranquilizers – abused by 2.2 million Americans
  • Stimulants – abused by 1.1 million Americans
  • Sedatives – abused by 0.4 million Americans

These estimates are considered low however, since many individuals who abuse prescription medications fail to seek treatment. In general, most of those who present for treatment have been suddenly cut off from the drug to which they are addicted.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders

Distinguishing conditions that are likely to co-occur with prescription drug addiction can be difficult, due to the fact that some individuals may be self-medicating in order to help maintain the symptoms of an additional mental health illness. However, there is evidence that certain disorders co-occur with this condition. These include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Somatization disorders
  • Poly substance abuse (use of drugs from at least three different classes)
  • Illegal drug use disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (child and adult onset)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Process addictions


Causes of prescription drug addiction

Given the large number of different drugs that may be abused by individuals with a prescription medication addiction, it is impossible to establish which factors are causes of addiction to all the possible drugs of abuse. However, there are some general causes which have been demonstrated as being associated with the development of this disorder.

  • Genetic – Though not always specific to type, it has been demonstrated that those with a first-degree relative suffering from any substance use disorder is at increased risk for developing a prescription drug abuse disorder.
  • Temperament– Temperamental qualities have been theorized to be related to the predisposition to develop this disorder. Examples include:
  • Activity Level – Individuals who prefer maintaining a high activity level may be predisposed to developing an addiction to medications that increase energy and alertness, such as amphetamines or other stimulants, in order to increase their stamina.
  • Preference for Novelty – People who have an inborn desire for frequent new experiences may develop an abuse problem due to experimenting with prescription medications found in their home or the home of someone they know or to taking something given to them by a friend.
  • Irritability – Those with a tendency to feel irritable and agitated may discover from legitimate treatment with a prescription medication that the drug not only decreases irritability and agitation, but also provides a sense of pleasure, which leads to the need for more of the drug to maintain the pleasurable effects and subsequently addiction.
  • Stimulation of the Brains Pleasure Centers – All drug addiction disorders generally result from the drug’s effect on the brain’s reward centers. When a drug has the same effects as substances produced in our brains, they can be mistaken for these natural compounds and the neurological system responds in the same way to the drug as it does to what is normally produced. These drugs come to substitute for the substances our brain produces and prevents them from being produced. This increases the negative symptoms of withdrawal as it takes time before our brain begins producing the natural version of the substance.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction

The symptoms of this condition can vary widely based on what prescription medication is being taken. However, there are certain symptoms common to all prescription substances that are abused which include:

  • Stealing or borrowing drugs from others or altering prescriptions
  • Obtaining other medication through legal prescriptions then selling them to obtain the money to purchase the drug of choice
  • Using more of the medication than what was prescribed by the physician
  • Intense mood swings, involving being excessively upbeat, happy or elated, or being irritable hostile, aggressive, or displaying anger outbursts
  • Increased or decreased need for sleep
  • Impaired judgment and decision making abilities
  • Repeatedly reporting lost or stolen prescriptions to obtain additional prescriptions
  • Obtaining prescriptions from multiple healthcare providers
  • Mashing pills and snorting the powder to provide a quicker effect

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Effects of prescription drug addiction

The effects of this disorder also vary widely as it is dependent on the medication taken. Some frequently observed effects include:

  • Emotional numbing after the initial positive effects on emotions
  • Relationship problems
  • Lowered productivity, decreased motivation to perform well, job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Legal trouble
  • Psychological/emotional distress
  • Impaired judgment and impulsivity leading to high risk behaviors
  • The need to replace prescription drugs with illegal drugs

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms of prescription drug addiction

Physical withdrawal symptoms differ markedly depending on the drug of choice. However, psychological withdrawal symptoms related to prescription drug use correspond more closely since they are primarily based on the belief that it will be impossible to function in various areas of life without the substance. Psychological withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Decline in a sense of self-worth and self-confidence
  • Fear of failure in performance or achievement related settings
  • Fear of becoming social inept leading to social rejection
  • Fear related to adjusting to the world as it is and not as the person has experienced it while using a substance

Some other common symptoms may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flu-like aches
  • Sweating
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Chills
  • Shakes
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