Did you know this version of Internet Explorer is out of date?

To get the latest experience from our website, please upgrade your browser.

Have a drug or medical device concern?


Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction is a disease of the brain, and people suffering from it require medical treatment to be cured. Millions of Americans suffer from substance abuse disorders involving prescription drugs. The side effects of abusing the drugs can be severe and life-threatening. Fortunately, treatment is available for addictions to some of the most addictive drugs like opioids, benzodiazepines and amphetamines.

Page Contents:

    Tell Us What You Think

    Please provide us any comments, suggestions, or feedback on how we can improve our website.

    Email (optional)

      Thank You!

      Thank you for filling out our customer survey. We greatly appreciate all the feedback you've provided!

      If you would like to provide us any additional feedback, please feel free to contact us at contact@drugwatch.com

      Most-Abused Prescription Drugs

      Fortunately, treatment options are available for people who are addicted to prescription drugs. Professional medical treatment is very effective at helping people recover from substance abuse disorders. Recovery is not easy, but with help people do get better.

      Some of the Most-Abused Prescription Drugs
      Opioids (painkillers)
      OxyContin (oxycodone) Dilaudid (hydromorphone)
      Roxycodone (roxicodone) Vicodin (hydrocodone)
      Norco (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) Lortab (hydrocodone/paracetamol)
      Percocet (oxycodone/paracetamol) Morphine
      Benzodiazepines (depressants)
      Xanax (alprazolam) Ativan (lorazepam)
      Valium (diazepam) Klonopin (clonazepam)
      Amphetamines (stimulants)
      Adderall (dextroamphetamine/amphetamine) Ritalin (methylphenidate)

      Some of the Most-Abused Prescription Drugs

      Opioids (painkillers)
      • OxyContin (oxycodone)
      • Hydromorphone (dilaudid)
      • Roxycodone (roxicodone)
      • Vicodin (hydrocodone)
      • Norco (hydrocodone/acetaminophen)
      • Lortab (hydrocodone/paracetamol)
      • Percocet (oxycodone/paracetamol)
      • Morphine
      • Fentanyl
      Benzodiazepines (depressants)
      • Xanax (alprazolam)
      • Ativan (lorazepam)
      • Valium (diazepam)
      • Klonopin (clonazepam)
      Amphetamines (stimulants)
      • Adderall (dextroamphetamine/amphetamine)
      • Ritalin (methylphenidate)

      Side Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

      All drugs cause side effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only approves drugs when the drug’s benefits outweigh the risks. For example, the popular antibiotic penicillin can cause side effects like nausea or a headache. However, it is effective at fighting bacterial infections, so its benefits outweigh its risks until the infection is eliminated.

      Similarly, the painkiller OxyContin can cause side effects like constipation, nausea, stomach pain and loss of appetite. It’s also highly-additive, but it is effective at treating pain. So, doctors prescribe it to people in severe pain until symptoms subside.

      When people misuse prescription drugs, they increase their risk of addiction. That can lead to long-term drug use. Long-term use of a drug like OxyContin will cause an increased dependency and tolerance of the drug. That leads to people taking it in doses higher than prescribed, eventually leading to an overdose.

      The proof is in the numbers. Doctors prescribed opioids at drastically increasing rates in the 1990s and early 2000s. The number of people who died from opioid overdose quadrupled from 1999 to 2007.

      Additionally, about 1 million emergency department visits are caused by prescription drug abuse every year. Opioids, depressants and stimulants account for the most visits. As the number of overdoses and emergency room visits grew, so did the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drug addiction.

      The stimulant Adderall is another example of a drug with serious side effects. The FDA approved it to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, but it can increase blood pressure and heart rate. The FDA warns that it has a high potential for abuse which can cause serious cardiovascular events and sudden death.

      The risk of such adverse events drastically decreases when the drugs are taken as prescribed.

      How People Become Addicted

      Prescription drug addiction is a disease most often caused by the misuse of drugs. However, some people become addicted to prescription drugs even if they take them exactly as prescribed.

      Doctors prescribe drugs based on numerous factors including age, weight, family history, other medications being taken and medical history. If doctors do not have correct or complete information, they may incorrectly prescribe the drug.

      Biologically, addiction occurs because of the way drugs affect the brain.

      The brain receives information, processes it and then communicates it to other parts of the body. It’s made up of multiple parts that perform different functions. Drugs interfere with the way the brain works, and long-term use of certain drugs can cause permanent changes.

      Different drugs affect the brain in different ways, but they all affect the way nerve cells in the brain communicate. Some drugs mimic chemicals in the brain, and others overstimulate the “reward” part of the brain.

      For example, opioids imitate a neurotransmitter that affects the brain’s nerve cells, causing them to send unusual communication to different parts of the body. Stimulants overstimulate the “reward” part of the brain, causing a neurotransmitter called dopamine to be released. Dopamine produces happy feelings. When too much is released, it can cause a sense of euphoria or “high.”

      prescription pills

      It’s these feelings that lead to addiction. The brain remembers things that make us happy and programs itself to want to do those things again. When people misuse prescription drugs, the brain programs itself to want to continue that behavior, but it releases less dopamine each time. Decreased dopamine production causes withdrawal and an increased tolerance to drugs.

      Long-term misuse of drugs can lead to drastic changes in the way the brain works.


      Who Gets Addicted

      Anyone can become addicted to a prescription drug. However, a number of factors are known to contribute to the likelihood of prescription drug addiction, including:

      • A family history of substance abuse or criminal behavior.
      • Pressure from peers to try drugs.
      • Trying drugs early in life while the brain is still developing.
      • Smoking or injecting drugs that are not meant to be smoked or injected.

      Senior citizens are the largest consumers of prescription drugs, accounting for more than 50 million opioid prescriptions and more than 28 million depressant prescriptions annually. The numbers can be explained by the age group’s likelihood to suffer from chronic pain and mental health issues. However, their risk for addiction is made worse by their likelihood to take multiple prescription drugs and their pattern of mistakenly failing to take drugs as prescribed.

      The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration labels prescription drug abuse as the “nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs.” The category includes pain relievers, depressants, stimulants and sedatives.

      Pain relievers are by far the most addictive. An estimated 4.3 million people misuse pain relievers, and an estimated 1.9 million of them are believed to have a pain reliever use disorder.

      SAMHSA 2014 Prescription Drug Abuse Estimates
      Age Range People Who Misuse
      12 to 17 655,000
      18 to 25 1.6 million
      26 and older 4.3 million

      Getting Help

      In almost all situations, people suffering from addiction need professional help to recover. Help most often comes in the form of professional health care providers at rehabilitation or treatment centers.

      Remember, prescription drug addiction is a disease. Just like other diseases, medical treatment is usually necessary.

      In rare cases, the only treatment necessary may be a prescription to help with addiction from a patient’s health care provider, help from a therapist or help from a support group.

      In all situations, the first step towards getting treatment is recognizing help is needed.


      Before you can seek help for yourself or a friend, you must first recognize the addiction. You may know you’re addicted to prescription drugs if you are taking them in higher doses than prescribed, taking them without a prescription or feel you can’t function normally without them.

      There are also numerous ways to tell if a friend or family member is addicted. People who have a substance abuse disorder often begin to act differently than they used to.

      Noticing a change in a person’s actions isn’t the only way to recognize a substance abuse disorder. Friends and family may recognize physical side effects of people misusing prescription drugs.

      Signs of prescription drug addiction include:

      • Illegally obtaining or selling prescriptions.
      • Seeking prescriptions from different doctors.
      • Losing prescriptions often.
      • Mood swings and unprovoked hostility.
      • Drastic changes in sleep.
      • Bad decision-making.
      Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse
      Opioids (painkillers)
      Constipation Nauseau Slowed breathing
      Tiredness Confusion Poor coordination
      Benzodiazepines (depressants)
      Tiredness Confusion Slurred speech
      Poor coordination Unbalanced movement Memory problems
      Amphetamines (stimulants)
      Loss of appetite Irritability Insomnia
      Anxiety Paranoia Feeling hot
      Abnormal heartbeat High blood pressure
      Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse
      Opioids (painkillers)
      Slowed breathing
      Poor coordination
      Benzodiazepines (depressants)
      Slurred speech
      Poor coordination
      Unbalanced movement
      Memory problems
      Amphetamines (stimulants)
      Loss of appetite
      Feeling hot
      Abnormal heartbeat
      High blood pressure


      Fortunately, decades of research produced proven treatments for prescription drug addiction. There isn’t a once-size-fits-all cure. Each person and each type of addiction requires different kinds of treatment. However, almost all treatment plans include some type of detoxification and counseling. Some also require anti-addiction drugs.

      The length of treatment also varies from person to person. Some people may be able to recover faster than others. Prescription drug addiction is a long-lasting disease, so many people need long-term treatment or repeated treatments. One of the most important parts is continuing treatment even if a relapse occurs.

      There are two basic types of addiction treatment: behavioral and pharmacological.

      Behavioral treatments

      Behavioral treatments center around helping a person learn strategies for living without drugs. They include tactics for dealing with cravings and avoiding situations that might lead to relapse. They also teach people how to handle a relapse.

      Types of treatments include both individual and group counseling, contingency management and cognitive behavioral therapy.

      Pharmacological treatments

      Pharmacological treatments chemically inhibit the drug’s effects on the brain, leading to changes in behavior. They’re often used to help with withdrawal symptoms, lessen cravings and prevent overdose.

      Many people receive behavioral or pharmacological treatment, but it isn’t uncommon to receive both types. A coordinated treatment plan is effective at helping people recover.

      Helping a Friend

      Prescription drug abuse can be a difficult topic to bring up. We don’t want to offend or embarrass our friends or loved ones. But doing nothing can lead to dangerous, potentially life-threatening consequences.

      Remember, prescription drug addiction is a brain disease. People with substance abuse disorders need professional help in order to get better. They also need friends and family for support just like people suffering from any other disease.

      You can help a friend or family member get the treatment they need by reducing the stigma or shame associated with substance abuse. Instead, celebrate and support their attempt to seek treatment.

      You can help them find a rehabilitation center, talk to their healthcare provider or be there to comfort them. In some situations, people must voluntarily choose to seek treatment. However, research shows that coerced or government-mandated treatments are effective.


      Treatment for prescription drug addiction is often a long and challenging process. Health experts and regulators put an increased focus on preventing addiction before it occurs in order to avoid putting patients through the treatment process.

      In October 2015, President Barack Obama ordered federal departments and agencies to take steps toward fighting the prescription drug abuse epidemic.

      The two components of the plan included improved training for professionals who prescribe opioids and improved access to treatment options for people in need of help. The plan included identifying and eliminating barriers to treatment access.

      In addition, healthcare providers are being trained to identify people with a substance abuse disorder in order to stop it from getting worse. Patients can also take steps to avoid addiction, like communicating clearly with healthcare providers, being aware of their medications’ interactions with other drugs and taking prescriptions exactly as prescribed.

      Addiction isn’t a choice, but people suffering from it must make the choice to seek treatment. It is unfortunate to see people ignore the symptoms of disease and not seek help. People struggling with prescription drug addiction don’t need to continue suffering. Help is available.

      Share This Page:
      View Sources
      1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Vital Signs: Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers—United States, 1999-2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60(43). Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6043a4.htm
      2. Eisler, P. (2014, May 22). Older Americans Hooked on Rx: ‘I was a zombie’. USA Today. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/20/seniors-addiction-prescription-drugs-painkillers/9277489/
      3. MayoClinic. (2015). Symptoms. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/basics/symptoms/con-20032471
      4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). From the director. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/director
      5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What is prescription drug abuse? Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/what-prescription-drug-abuse
      6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). How many people abuse prescription drugs? Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/trends-in-prescription-drug-abuse/how-many-people-abuse-prescription-drugs
      7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). How many people suffer adverse health consequences from abusing prescription drugs? Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/trends-in-prescription-drug-abuse/how-many-people-suffer-adverse-health-cons
      8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Preventing and recognizing prescription drug abuse. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/prescription-drugs-abuse-addiction/preventing-recognizing-prescription-drug-abuse
      9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treating prescription drug addiction. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/treating-prescription-drug-addiction
      10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treating addiction to prescription opioids. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/treating-prescription-drug-addiction/treating-addiction-to-prescription-opio
      11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treating addiction to CNS depressants. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/treating-prescription-drug-addiction/treating-addiction-to-cns-depressants
      12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treating addiction to prescription stimulants. Retrieved from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/treating-prescription-drug-addiction/treating-addiction-to-prescription-stim
      13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Prescription drugs. Retrieved from: https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/prescription-drugs
      14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Brain and addiction. Retrieved from: https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction
      15. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National survey on drug use and health. Retrieved from: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FRR1-2014/NSDUH-FRR1-2014.pdf
      16. The White House. (2011). Epidemic: Responding to America’s prescription drug abuse crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/issues-content/prescription-drugs/rx_abuse_plan.pdf
      17. The White House. (2014). National drug control strategy. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/policy-and-research/ndcs_2014.pdf
      18. The White House. (2015, October, 21). Fact sheet: Obama Administration announces public and private sector efforts to address prescription drug abuse and heroin use [Press release]. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/21/fact-sheet-obama-administration-announces-public-and-private-sector
      Free Drug Addiction Case Review