Signs & Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Most people go to the physician and are prescribed medications for a short duration of time, take their medication as directed, and stop the medication as instructed. No one goes to the doctor and begins to take prescription medication with the intention of becoming a drug addict; however, prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the United States and worldwide. Many people who go on to engage in prescription drug abuse erroneously believe that prescription and over-the-counter medications are safer than illegal street drugs, however this is only the case if the intended person takes the proper dosage at the right time. When abused, prescription drugs can be highly addictive and put abusers at risk for health risks – including fatal overdose – most especially when combined with other drugs or alcohol. The most common classes of abused drugs include:

Opioid Narcotics: These prescription painkillers are used to manage people who have moderate-to-severe pain associated with broken bones, cancer, surgery, and other types of chronic pain. Opioid narcotics include Norco, Vicodin, and OxyContin.

CNS Depressants: These sedative-hypnotics include medications used to induce sleep and reduce anxiety and include benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan.

Stimulants: These prescription medications are used treat narcolepsy and ADHD in those who have these disorders. Stimulants include Adderall and Ritalin.

When taken directly as intended, prescription medications very safely treat specific mental or physical symptoms; however, when taken in different quantities or after symptoms have dissipated, these medications affect the brain in ways similar to illegal drugs. All of these classes of drugs directly or indirectly lead to feelings of pleasure by stimulating the production of dopamine in the brain. Repeated abuse of prescription medications can very quickly lead to addiction and dependence.

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What are the Methods of Abuse for Prescription Drugs?

There are a number of ways in which a person may abuse prescription drugs, including:

Taking a medication prescribed for someone else: many people do not understand that sharing medication between friends or family members can be extremely dangerous, especially when these drugs are highly addictive.

Taking medication in a different manner than prescribed: Most prescription medications are dispensed in tablets; however, abusers may crush the tablets and snort or inject the powder directly into a vein. This hastens the ability of the drug to cross the blood-brain barrier and intensifies the high.

Using the medication in a higher quantity than prescribed: Many people erroneously assume that simply taking more of a medication than indicated by a physician will not lead to any  lasting effects. Unfortunately, using more of the prescription than intended can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Using the drug for a purpose other than intended: Stimulants, CNS depressants, and opioid narcotics all produce pleasurable effects in high doses. The usage of prescription medication to produce psychoactive results – getting high – is one of the primary reasons people abuse prescription drugs. This also constitutes prescription drug abuse.


In 2010, about 7 million people (or 2.7% of the population) in the United States were current users of prescription medication taken for a nonmedical purpose. The most commonly abused classes of prescription drugs were prescription painkillers followed by sedatives then stimulants.

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Drug Abuse

Experts agree that prescription drug abuse is likely not the result of a single risk factor; rather it is likely a combination of several genetic, environmental, and physical causes and risk factors working together to cause addiction. The most commonly cited reasons for prescription drug abuse include:

Genetic: People who have a first-degree relatively, especially a parent or sibling, who is a past or present addict are at greater risk for developing an addiction than others. It should be noted that not all people who become addicted to prescription drugs have a family history of the disorder, nor do all people with the family history of the disorder develop an addiction.

Physical: It’s been noted that the consistent presence of drugs or alcohol in the brain leads to physical tolerance, dependence, and addiction. All drugs of abuse cause a surge of dopamine, part of the brain’s “reward” system, which induces pleasurable feelings in the user. This leads to repeated use and the development of dependence; the body comes to rely upon the drug and goes into withdrawal if drug use is stopped or drastically reduced.

Environmental: Exposure to drugs at younger ages increases the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction to drugs, such as prescription drugs. In addition, a family environment conducive to drug use increases the risks for developing and drug addiction.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Presence of mental illness
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of family involvement
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Loneliness

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Long-term abuse of prescription drugs can lead to a host of unpleasant complications that leave virtually no part of an addict’s life unscathed. The effects are most notable when people abuse several drugs at once. The most common complications of prescription drug abuse include:

Prescription Painkiller Effects:

  • Increased risk of aspiration and choking
  • Hypotension
  • Slowed respiration rate
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma

Anxiolytic Effects:

  • Impaired memory
  • Needing more medication to achieve the same effects
  • Loss of normal coping abilities; relying upon medication to deal with unpleasant emotions
  • Hypotension

Stimulant Effects:

  • Dangerous hyperthermia
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Hypertension
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Aggressiveness
  • Paranoia

Other Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse:

  • Job loss
  • Homelessness
  • Poverty
  • Worsening mental health
  • Addiction
  • Incarceration
  • Organ system damage
  • Organ system failure
  • Seizures
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Coma
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Death
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Overdose and Withdrawal

Many people who abuse prescription drugs use a mixture of drugs and alcohol to increase the feelings of happiness and reduce the unpleasant side effects. This can very easily lead to overdose. If you suspect someone you love is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Common symptoms of overdose on prescription medications include:

Prescription Painkiller Overdose Symptoms:

  • Awake but unable to talk
  • Limp body
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Cyanosis
  • Slow, erratic heart beat
  • Choking sounds
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory collapse
  • Coma
  • Death

Anxiolytic Overdose Symptoms:

  • Nystagmus
  • Falling
  • Confusion
  • Stupor
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulant Overdose Symptoms:

  • Tachycardia
  • Rapid respiration rate
  • Chest pain
  • Large pupils
  • Seizures
  • Muscle cramping
  • Dizziness
  • Coma

When a person becomes physically dependent upon a prescription drug, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued. Withdrawal should always take place with help and under the supervision of a doctor and trained medical staff. The most common symptoms of withdrawal include:

Prescription Painkiller Withdrawal:

  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal cramping and diarrhea
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea and vomiting

Anxiolytic Withdrawal:

  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome
  • Tachypnea
  • Tachycardia
  • Tremors
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Status epilepticus
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulant Withdrawal:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or agitation
  • Increased appetite
  • Vivid, unpleasant dreams

Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who struggle with drug abuse and addiction have co-occurring mental health disorders. Some of the most commonly co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Polysubstance abuse
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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