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Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction

Written by Melissa Carmona

& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.

Last Updated - 12/29/22

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Key Takeaways

  • 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 or smoking them, or by taking larger or more frequent doses than prescribed
  • Recognizing prescription drug overdose symptoms can save someone’s life

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.

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, 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 certain prescription drugs can be physically and psychologically addictive. The most common addictive prescription drugs include opioids, stimulants and central nervous system (CNS) depressants.

Many addictive substances, including prescription drugs, artificially create high dopamine releases in the brain, causing pleasurable feelings. The brain then rewires its reward pathway to seek the drug, leading to addiction. An addicted individual may experience psychological or physical withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the drug.

10 Most Addictive Prescription Drugs

Prescription medications are safe to take when used properly, but their use can still lead to addiction, especially if they are being misused. when the The 10 most commonly abused prescription drugs include:


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.


This synthetic opioid is used to treat addiction to opioid drugs, such as heroin. Though it replaces other types of opioid addiction, methadone can become addictive as well.

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 under the supervision of a doctor. While this is often the case, prescription drugs must be taken at the correct dose and length of time to remain as safe as possible. When they are taken for other purposes or used in other ways, addiction and misuse is more likely.

Prescription drug misuse often begins with someone getting a prescription for a potentially addictive drug for a reasonable purpose. 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. Dependence 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.

How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?

Prescription drugs can be misused in many different ways. Examples include:

  • 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. 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 sometimes done with opioids. Injection creates an increased risk of infections, and needle sharing can pass along diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Prescription drugs are also 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 necessary. To get to these pill mills, 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. Misuse can be recognized by an increase in drug use, both in dose and frequency; an inability to control one’s substance use is a good sign of addiction. 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, misuse and withdrawal may include:

  • Sudden, unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Red or glassy eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Oversleeping
  • Sweating

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. They may even neglect their hygiene in their search for 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.

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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.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of prescription drugs relate mainly to time surrounding its use. For example, codeine can lead to drowsiness, itching, constricted pupils, nausea, vomiting, constipation and decreased breathing.

Long-Term 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, an increased risk of accidental overdose can occur due to 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. Drug dependence will develop when the body begins relying on the drug to function normally.

Polysubstance Abuse Side Effects

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 simultaneously 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:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion, hallucinations or delirium
  • Slow or difficulty breathing, especially in the case of opioid overdose
  • Extreme constipation
  • Low body temperature, bluish lips or fingernails
  • Pinpoint pupils

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.

View Sources

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.