When you think of drug addiction, you may imagine dangerous meetings in dark alleys or gangsters with guns. But would you ever think of a drug addiction beginning in a doctor’s office?
Prescription drug addiction is a tricky problem because some people may not even realize they’re addicted. After all, a doctor prescribed this medication to them, so they can’t misuse it, right?
Unfortunately, some prescription medications have the potential to be highly addictive. It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of prescription drug abuse.
Some types of prescription drugs are more addictive than others. Let’s break down the most commonly abused prescription drugs:
Doctors most often prescribe stimulant medications to treat ADHD. However, these medications can sometimes also treat fatigue and brain fog.
The two most commonly abused ADHD medications are Amphetamine and Methylphenidate. These drugs are more commonly known as Adderall and Ritalin, respectively. One form of methylphenidate is also sold under the brand name Concerta.
Stimulants make people feel energetic, focused, and clear-headed.
People may take stimulants in order to work long hours or study all night. Some people also take stimulants as a party drug, often mixing them with alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs.
Benzodiazepines are drugs that treat anxiety and panic disorder. Benzos are classified as sedative-hypnotics.
The most commonly prescribed benzos are Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin.
Benzos can be addictive even when people take them exactly as prescribed. Once someone becomes addicted to benzos, they are also more likely to take more pills than their doctor ordered.
These drugs can provide immense relief to people struggling with anxiety, but that relief comes at a steep price. Benzodiazepine addiction is one of the most dangerous types of prescription drug addiction and can be fatal in a number of ways.
Z-drugs are also sedative-hypnotics, but they are different from benzos. Doctors prescribe Z-drugs for insomnia. The most common Z-drug is zolpidem, also known as Ambien.
Ambien is also the most addictive hypnotic. Ambien is very effective at helping people sleep, but it can give people a high if they purposely stay awake after taking it.
Ambien was marketed as a non-habit-forming alternative to benzos, but doctors eventually realized that it carries the same potential for abuse.
Most sedative medications can be habit-forming, especially when taken in higher doses than prescribed. Some other sedatives that may be addictive include beta-blockers like propranolol, sedative-antidepressants like trazodone, and anticonvulsants like gabapentin.
These drugs are most likely to be habit-forming in people that already struggle with other types of drug abuse. Some people take these drugs in order to augment the effects of the other sedative drugs they already use.
If you’ve looked at the news any time in the past decade, you’ve probably heard that the U.S. is dealing with an “opioid crisis.” The opioid crisis refers to the vast number of Americans who are addicted to both prescription and non-prescription opioids.
Opioids are prescribed for pain relief and anesthesia. Prescription opioids include Oxycontin, Oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, and codeine.
Opioid medications are extremely dangerous when taken in large quantities or mixed with alcohol and/or other drugs.
Prescription drug use has shifted over time in the U.S. Stimulants have gradually become more popular in recent years, while opioid drug use suddenly rose in 2020 after a steady decline.
Here are the most recent prescription drug abuse demographics and statistics.
In 2020, about 5 million people ages 12 and older misused prescription stimulants. The demographic that most commonly abuses prescription stimulants are college students. However, older high school students are beginning to abuse stimulants more often, particularly during SAT and college application season.
College students are most likely to use ADHD medications (which they may call “study drugs”) to stay up all night studying for an exam or doing homework.
People who developed this habit in college are more likely to bring it into their post-grad workplace. This is especially true of people who enter into high-stress careers, such as finance.
Hospitality workers experience the highest rates of drug abuse in the workplace. They are most likely to use stimulants in order to push through long, busy shifts.
About 5.3 million adults in the U.S. report recent benzodiazepine abuse. A large percentage of these adults are prescribed benzos but do not use them as directed. People who are prescribed other addictive medications, such as stimulants or opioids, are at high risk for benzo abuse.
Z-drug abuse is not as common as benzo abuse, but it is a significant problem. Over 500 thousand people in the U.S. are currently abusing Ambien. Most people who abuse Ambien are prescribed it by a doctor and take it in dangerously high doses due to a tolerance they’ve built up over time.
You may know the classic story of the American opioid epidemic.
Someone gets injured, and they’re prescribed opioid painkillers during their recovery. Before they know it, opioid addiction rules their life. This story rings true all too often. People who have suffered from a traumatic injury are 1.4 times more likely than the average person to become addicted to opioid painkillers.
Opioid-related deaths were on the decline until 2020. Then, most likely due to the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, they rose sharply. Opioid overdose deaths rose from 51,000 to almost 70,000 between 2019 and 2020.
Not everyone who has access to habit-forming medication will become addicted to it. Not all brains are the same, and not all people are born into the same circumstances. These are just some of the pre-existing factors that make certain people more likely to develop a prescription drug addiction.
If someone experiences any of these risk factors, they should be especially careful when taking habit-forming prescription drugs, even if they take them as prescribed.
Though we don’t yet know precisely which gene is responsible, addiction very likely does have a genetic component. People who struggle with addiction usually have a parent or sibling that also struggles with it.
When it comes to prescription drug addiction specifically, there is another type of genetic link. If someone has an illness with a genetic component, such as ADHD or panic disorder, they are at a greater risk of developing a dependence on the drugs that treat that illness.
Some people may be born lacking certain neurotransmitters. This may not be the result of genetics but simply of a birth defect. These people may be more likely to abuse prescription drugs in order to self-medicate this chemical deficiency.
For example, if someone is born with a dopamine deficiency, they may be more likely to abuse stimulants. Stimulants help the brain generate dopamine.
There is a strong link between addiction and trauma. If someone lives in a stressful environment or has experienced a traumatic event, they are more likely to abuse drugs.
People who live in high-income areas are more likely to abuse prescription drugs because these drugs are more readily available to them than street drugs.
For example, imagine a suburban teenager with parents who fight all the time. This young person may use the prescription drugs in their home to self-medicate when they feel anxious about their parents’ arguments.
Perhaps the greatest risk factor for prescription drug addiction is mental illness.
Most addictive medications were designed to treat psychiatric conditions. Therefore, people who see a psychiatrist are more likely to come into contact with these drugs in the first place.
Mental illness can also affect one’s ability to make wise decisions. This makes access to addictive medication especially dangerous. Some mental illnesses that may increase the risk of pill addiction include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia.
Let’s break down the signs that someone may be addicted to prescription drugs.
When you recognize these signs in someone you know, you should consider looking into addiction recovery services.
The most telltale sign that someone is abusing medication is simple: are they taking more than they are prescribed?
Any prescription drug use not specified by a doctor is considered “misuse.” Drug misuse doesn’t equate to drug addiction, but it is usually a step on the way there.
Prescription drug misuse can mean taking a greater dose than the doctor ordered or taking a prescribed dose too often.
When someone is addicted to prescription drugs, they may try to get multiple prescriptions in order to keep up with their habit.
If you see someone going to the pharmacy to fill their prescription more than once a month, that is a sign that they may have multiple prescriptions. Some people may also forge prescriptions to achieve the same result. Besides being dangerous for someone’s health, forging prescriptions is a serious crime.
If you see someone “borrowing” prescription drugs from someone else, that should be a red flag. This usually means that they’ve quickly used up their prescribed supply. This may also mean that someone is recreationally taking a drug that they aren’t prescribed at all.
Most people who illegally obtain prescription drugs get them from a family member or friend. If you see someone giving out their prescription drugs to others, you may want to warn them of the dangers of prescription drug addiction.
When someone is addicted to a drug, they may become very angry when that drug is not available to them. This may occur when the pharmacy runs out of their prescription and has to delay a refill. You may also see someone get angry when they ask to borrow a pill from someone, and that person refuses.
Addiction rewires the part of the brain that manages priorities. Obtaining drugs will become someone’s highest (and sometimes only) priority. This can lead to someone acting angrier than is socially acceptable when they are denied their drug of choice.
Prescription drug abuse affects the body’s ability to fall asleep naturally. This can lead to severe disturbances to someone’s circadian rhythm.
If you notice someone staying up all night or sleeping a lot throughout the day, this is a sign that they may be abusing prescription drugs. If someone already suffers from a diagnosed sleep disorder, they may be at a higher risk of abusing the medication they take to fall asleep at night.
Abusing prescription drugs can disrupt someone’s appetite. Stimulant drugs usually curb the appetite and can lead to someone losing a lot of weight without realizing it.
Sedatives, on the other hand, may lead to someone binge eating large amounts of food. Sedative drugs can also make someone more sedentary in general, which can lead to weight gain from lack of exercise.
One of the biggest signs that someone is abusing prescription drugs is a drastic change in their energy level. If someone is running around with lots of energy and talking unusually fast, they may be abusing stimulant medications. If someone seems extremely lethargic, unresponsive in conversation, or falls asleep in unusual situations, they may be abusing sedatives.
Of course, energy level changes look different for everyone. For instance, some people are naturally hyperactive. In that case, you shouldn’t be alarmed if they appear highly-energic.
As we mentioned before, addiction can make people much more prone to impulsive decisions. These decisions may be unsafe or simply unwise.
For example, someone may risk legal trouble by forging prescriptions or seeing multiple doctors. They may also put their life at risk by buying prescriptions illegally on the street.
A prescription drug addict may also put their financial security at risk by spending money on drugs that they need to spend on rent and other bills.
When someone goes on a prescription drug “bender”, they are likely to lose track of the date and/or time. This can cause someone to miss important meetings or social events.
If someone continuously fails to show up to things that they commit to, it may be the result of prescription drug addiction. Sedative drugs are most likely to cause this problem because they significantly impair cognitive ability.
Prescription drug addiction can have drastic effects on someone’s physical health and personal life. The longer someone is addicted to prescription drugs, the harsher these effects are likely to be. The worst possible outcome of prescription drug addiction is death. This usually results from an overdose. It may also come from withdrawal symptoms or addiction-related health conditions.
Encourage anyone with prescription drug addiction to enter a rehabilitation program as soon as possible. That is the best way for them to avoid these effects and, worse, a fatal outcome.
It’s hard to be a good friend (or partner) when you’re addicted to prescription drugs. Long-term abuse of these drugs is likely to damage important relationships in someone’s life.
A prescription drug addict may continuously let down the people around them because they cannot stop seeking drugs. They may also lash out at the people in their life due to drug-related mood swings.
A long-term drug habit is costly, both for someone’s health and for their wallet.
Even with insurance coverage, prescription drugs can be expensive. This cost will multiply if someone is seeing multiple doctors or forging extra prescriptions.
Of course, the most expensive way to purchase prescription drugs is without insurance coverage. This can happen either at the pharmacy or on the street.
Abusing prescription drugs can lead to a variety of health issues.
Abusing stimulants can raise your heart rate and blood pressure over time, leading to a greater risk of heart disease. Abusing sedatives can have the opposite effect, weakening your heart and blood vessels.
Prescription drug abuse can also wreak havoc on your digestive system and your nervous system. It can also cause insomnia, tremors, and even seizures.
Abusing sedative-hypnotics may increase someone’s risk of dementia later in life.
While depression and anxiety can make someone more likely to develop a pill addiction, this connection can also work the other way around.
Getting high on prescription medications causes someone’s mood to rapidly elevate. Then, their mood will crash just as quickly. Over time, that person’s brain can become accustomed to these patterns and adopt them even if that person stops using. The unpleasant, real-life consequences of drug addiction may also cause someone to become depressed or anxious.
Prescription drug abuse makes someone more likely to start using other drugs. The most common example of this is the pipeline from Adderall abuse to cocaine addiction.
Abusing sedatives, especially opioids, can also lead to heroin addiction.
Prescription drug addicts are most likely to turn to street drugs when they lose access to their prescriptions. This may also happen when someone’s tolerance to prescription drugs becomes very high.
Prescription drug addiction requires careful treatment. No one should try to kick a pill addiction on their own.
The best way to get clean from prescription drugs is with the support of family, friends, and professionals.
If someone is addicted to pills, they may need intervention to start their treatment. In an intervention, that person's loved ones will explain to them how their addiction has impacted those around them.
Intervention can help break someone out of their drug-induced haze and face the harsh light of reality.
Prescription detox can be dangerous. This is the main reason that no one should attempt to kick their drug habit alone.
Benzodiazepine detox is one of the most dangerous types. Quitting benzos cold turkey can cause someone to have seizures. Benzos, and some other prescription drugs, must be tapered under the supervision of a professional.
Inpatient treatment is the best way to make sure that someone kicks their drug habit. In an inpatient program, drug addicts have access to 24/7 medical care and psychiatric professionals.
Inpatient also offers addicts opportunities to share their stories in group therapy, which can help them feel less alone. Recovering in a supportive community is much easier than recovering alone.
Dual diagnosis is the process of treating both someone's addiction and their co-occurring mental health problems. Dual diagnosis is essential to treating pill addiction. Many people with pill addictions are prescribed medication to treat psychiatric disorders.
Mental illness can be an underlying cause of addiction. Therefore, it's impossible to effectively treat addiction without addressing mental illness as well.
Aftercare is essential to long-term addiction recovery. After someone leaves an inpatient program, they need a support system to help them stay clean.
Case managers can help with this. Outpatient rehabilitation, group therapy, and individual therapy can also be parts of aftercare. No one should leave inpatient rehab without a plan for the future. The more certain someone's future is, the less likely they are to relapse.
When you notice the symptoms of prescription drug abuse, always seek help as soon as possible. The sooner addiction treatment begins, the easier recovery will be.
There is always hope for prescription drug addiction recovery. At Sober Partners, we’re dedicated to helping people get clean and stay clean in a lasting way.
Contact us today to find out more about the services we offer.