Prescription drug abuse and addiction is a growing problem in the United States. Prescription drugs are meant to be taken at a certain dose to treat a specific condition. When they are taken in a way that was not prescribed, however, there is a potential for misuse and addiction to occur.
Though prescription drugs are safe when used correctly, their use still carries some risks. Understanding that these substances have addictive potential and knowing the signs and symptoms of addiction can help provide people with a better chance at recovery.
Are Prescription Drugs Addictive?
Doctors prescribe drugs at a specific dose for a certain amount of time because prescription drugs can be physically and psychologically addictive. The most common addictive prescription drugs include opioids, stimulants, and central nervous system (CNS) depressants.
10 Most Addictive Prescription Drugs
These are CNS depressants that are used to treat sleep disorders like insomnia. Barbiturate addiction occurs because of the drug’s ability to lower inhibitions and cause euphoria, sedation and unusual excitement.
These CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, and they can also act as muscle relaxants. Benzodiazepine addiction occurs due to the drug’s ability to cause euphoria and sedation, reduce anxiety and lower inhibitions.
- Sleep Medications
These CNS depressants are used to treat sleep disorders like insomnia. Addiction to sleep medications occurs due to their ability to cause sedation.
This opioid is used to treat mild to moderately severe pain. Addiction to codeine is caused by its ability to relieve pain and relax the body.
This opioid is used to treat moderate to severe pain. Addiction to morphine occurs due to its relaxing properties, which can make people feel happy and can also cause a high.
- Fentanyl and Analogs
This synthetic opioid is used to treat severe pain, and it is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Addiction to fentanyl occurs because of the pain relief, euphoria and sedation experienced when taking it.
- Opioid Pain Relievers
These drugs are used to treat moderate to severe pain. Addiction to opioids is caused by their pain-relieving properties, which relax the body and create feelings of pleasure.
This stimulant drug is used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Amphetamine addiction results from the feelings of exhilaration, increased energy, and alertness that occur when the drug is taken.
This stimulant drug is used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Addiction to methylphenidate is caused by the drug’s effects on energy, heart rate, and alertness.
Causes of Prescription Drug Abuse
There is a common misconception that prescription drugs are always safe to use because they are given by a doctor. While this is often the case, prescription drugs must be taken at the correct dose and length of time to remain safe. When they are taken for other purposes or used in other ways, addiction and misuse can occur.
Prescription drug misuse often begins with someone getting a prescription for a potentially addictive drug. For example, someone may be given an opioid pain reliever after a surgery or injury. They take it for pain management in the beginning, but they soon become addicted. Many prescription drugs have addictive potential, as classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug misuse can occur when someone takes a prescription for so long that their body becomes dependent on it to function. They may also become physically and psychologically addicted.
Other causes of prescription drug abuse are related to the ease of access to these drugs. The number of prescriptions given out by doctors has been increasing since the 1990s. In addition, prescription drugs are often perceived as being safer than illicit drugs like heroin. However, prescription opioids are Schedule II drugs, meaning they have a high potential for misuse and addiction. These drugs can be just as dangerous as illicit substances.
How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?
Prescription drugs can be misused in many different ways. Examples include:
- Ways Prescription Drugs are Abused
Taking a larger dose than a doctor prescribes
Taking someone else’s medicine
Using the medicine outside of its prescribed purpose (getting high, for example)
Taking the medicine in a different way than prescribed
Many of these drugs come in pill forms meant to be taken orally. However, there are ways these pills can be modified to enhance their effects. Snorting prescription pills is a common method of misuse, especially in the case of stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin. Another method is injecting prescription pills, which is often done with opioids. Injection creates an increased risk of infections, and needle sharing can pass along diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Prescription drugs can also be smoked to enhance their effects.
Prescription Drug Addiction Statistics
There is a growing prescription drug problem in America. In 2017, 18 million people reported misusing prescription medications at least once in the past year, which is roughly 6% of the population of people aged 12 or older. Prescription drug abuse statistics show that anyone at any age can be affected by misuse and addiction.
Statistics show that 14.4% of young adults (18 to 25 years old) reported misusing prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. In addition, 4.9% of youth (12 to 17 years old) reported misuse as well. While alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are most commonly used by 12th graders, prescription drugs are also being taken. In a study of high school seniors in 2017, 6% were found to have misused the prescription stimulant Adderall, and 2% reported misusing the opioid pain reliever Vicodin. Misusing prescription drugs at a young age can also influence the use of other drugs in young adulthood, such as alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine.
Older adults are also at risk for prescription drug addiction. Patients aged 57 to 85 typically take the most prescription medications. Research shows that 80% of older adults use at least one prescription daily, and more than 50% take five or more medications a day. Due to the greater amount of prescriptions being taken, older adults are at a higher risk of misusing them and potentially developing an addiction. Other reasons for their risk include higher rates of comorbid chronic illnesses, slower drug metabolism, and potential drug interactions.
Prescription Drugs in Florida
Florida has often been labeled as the center of the prescription drug epidemic. Pain clinics, known as “pill mills,” are commonly found in Florida. Here, doctors write and fill prescriptions for opioid pain relievers much more than is necessary. To get to these pill mills, many people will take a trip down the “oxy express,” a nickname given to Interstate 75.
Doctors in Florida prescribed more opioids per 100 persons than the U.S. average from 2006 (79.7) to 2011 (87.6). This number decreased to its lowest point in 2017, at 60.9 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people. To combat growing prescription drug misuse, Florida created the Electronic-Florida Online Reporting of Controlled Substances Evaluation (E-FORCSE) in 2009. The drug monitoring program states that it “…is an initiative to encourage safer prescribing of controlled substances and to reduce drug abuse and diversion within the state of Florida.” Since its establishment, opioid prescriptions have continued to decline in Florida.
Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction
There are several signs of prescription drug addiction and misuse. Addiction can be most recognized by an increase in drug use, both in dose and frequency. In a display of drug-seeking behavior, patients will also lie about their condition to doctors in order to be prescribed more pills. If they are denied, they may search for other doctors who will give them the prescription. By doing so, people may spend a lot of money attempting to acquire the drug.
Visible signs of addiction and misuse may include sudden unexplained weight gain or loss, red or glassy eyes or a runny nose. Other symptoms can also occur, such as shortness of breath, slurred speech, drowsiness, oversleeping, sweating and poor hygiene.
Behavioral signs of prescription drug misuse become noticeable when individuals begin to forget responsibilities at home, work, and school. Their main priority becomes acquiring and using the drug. Depending on the drug being misused, sleeping disorders can also develop. Amphetamines will cause insomnia or make someone feel “wired,” causing them to go for days without sleeping. Depressants, on the other hand, will cause intense drowsiness and sedation.
Prescription drug misuse will also interfere with a person’s social life and interactions. They become more dependent on those who support or drive their addiction and avoid people who do not. Someone who is misusing prescription drugs may also avoid social interaction, stay indoors and not communicate.
Side Effects of Prescription Drug Addiction
The effects of prescription drug abuse and addiction impact both the body and the brain. The short- and long-term effects of prescription drug abuse depend on many factors, including the type of drug being taken, the dose, length of time and more.
The short-term effects of prescription drugs relate mainly to the development of drug tolerance. Tolerance develops when someone takes a drug for a long time and has to increase the dose in order to get the same effects.
The long-term effects of prescription drugs are dependent on the drug being taken. Most often, the structure of the brain is altered by these drugs, which creates changes that affect long-term function. In some cases, mainly with opioids, death can result from accidental overdoses due to tolerance. Drug dependence will develop when the body begins relying on the drug to function normally.
Polysubstance abuse is the misuse of more than one drug at a time. Mixing alcohol with prescription drugs is a common form of polysubstance abuse. This can create dangerous or undesirable effects, as many prescription drugs cannot be taken with alcohol. Dual diagnosis is also common with polysubstance abuse, and it refers to when someone has a mental illness and substance use disorder at the same time. Getting the proper treatment for both conditions offers the best chance at recovery.
Can You Overdose on Prescription Drugs?
When someone takes more of a drug than prescribed, they build a tolerance and have to take more to get the same effects. Eventually, increasing this dose can lead to a possible overdose. Prescription drug overdoses are very serious and can be life-threatening, so it is important to recognize the symptoms and seek immediate medical attention if any occur.
Prescription drug overdose symptoms can result from overdoses of opioids, stimulants and CNS depressants. These can include:
- Symptoms of Prescription Drug Overdose
Nausea or vomiting
Confusion, hallucinations or delirium
Slow or difficulty breathing, especially in the case of opioid overdose
Low body temperature, bluish lips or fingernails
Prescription Drug Withdrawal and Addiction Treatment
Prescription drug addiction treatment begins with a step known as withdrawal, where use of the drug is stopped. This can be a dangerous and difficult process, especially if someone is physically or psychologically dependent on the drug. This is because there is a shock to the body’s systems as it adjusts to the absence of the drug.
Withdrawal is best done under the supervision of medical professionals at a detox facility. Here, staff can help with prescription drug withdrawal and make it a safer process. The exact withdrawal process will depend on the drugs used, the length of time they were used and the dose that was taken.
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Key Points: Prescription Drug Addiction
Prescription drug misuse is on the rise in the United States, and it is important to be armed with facts about the potential for addiction. Here are some key points to remember:
- Prescription drugs can be addictive and misused, even when prescribed by a doctor
- The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids, stimulants, and CNS depressants
- Prescription drugs can be misused by snorting, injecting and smoking them
- Recognizing prescription drug overdose symptoms can save someone’s life
If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for prescription drug addiction and withdrawal, The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health can help. Contact us today to learn more about plans and programs that can help treat substance use disorders as well as any co-occurring mental health conditions.
Allen, Greg. “The ‘Oxy Express’: Florida’s Drug Abuse Epidemic.” NPR, March 2, 2011. Accessed December 12, 2019.
Daniulaityte, Raminta; Falck, Russel; Carlson, Robert G. “I’m not afraid of those ones just ‘cause they’ve been prescribed”: Perceptions of risk among illicit users of pharmaceutical opioids.” International Journal of Drug Policy, September 2012. Accessed December 13, 2019.
Florida Department of Health. “E-FORCSE Home Page.” December 4, 2019. Accessed December 12, 2019.
McCabe, Sean Eseban; West, Brady T.; Teter, Christian J.; Boyd, Carol J. “Medical and Nonmedical Use of Prescription Opioids among High School Seniors in the United States.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, September 1, 2012. Accessed December 12, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs.” October 2011. Accessed December 12, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Florida Opioid Summary.” May 2019. Accessed December 12, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Misuse of Prescription Drugs.” December 2018. Accessed December 12, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs.” Updated July 2018. Accessed December 12, 2019.
University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “National Adolescent Drug Trends in 2017: Findings Released.” December 14, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2019.