Prescription drugs are often seen as innocent medications to alleviate certain conditions’ physical and psychological symptoms. However, going off prescription and continuing to use or abuse them once the advised period is over can lead to dependence and even addiction. The first essential step toward recovery is spotting the signs and symptoms of prescription drug dependence.

Why Are Prescription Drugs Abused?

Prescription drugs are given by a medical professional to address a pain-related condition, like recovering from an operation or a physical injury or to alleviate symptoms of a mental health disorder, like insomnia or anxiety.

The contrast between being in physical or psychological pain and being able to relax, feel peaceful and not experience the pain can be an intoxicating and addictive feeling. The reason why a prescription drug is abused will vary depending on the type of substance used, which is why we will explore the most common categories.

Opioid Painkillers

Opioid painkillers are one of the most common substances in cases of addiction. The scale of people falling into substance abuse because of them in the US and UK has led some medical experts to call the issue an “opioid epidemic”.

Opioid painkillers are abused because they produce a very powerful effect, calming a person’s nerves, inducing a strong feeling of relaxation, and even causing euphoria and other pleasant sensations. Furthermore, since they are perceived as an innocent and safe medicine, people don’t realise the potential danger and become more prone to take higher and more frequent doses.

Stimulant Medication

Stimulants, like Adderall, are often prescribed to treat mental health disorders like depression, ADHD, OCD, and other conditions. They can considerably alter brain chemistry by encouraging the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and other brain chemicals.

Unfortunately, many people go above the recommended dosage or take them off prescription altogether because of their effect or the false perception that consumption helps with studying or work. The intense feelings of euphoria, sudden bursts of energy and motivation make stimulants very alluring to people, and dependence can develop before they even know it.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, or “benzos” for short, are a type of depression drugs which creates a very strong feeling of relaxation, reducing stress, making the person feel peaceful and turning emotions more mellow.

Benzos are often prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health disorders, but their intense psychological effect can tempt a person to go against the prescription. Since the body naturally adapts and builds a tolerance, benzos need to be taken in higher and more frequent doses, which can increase the chance of addiction.

Prescription drugs have an addiction element, which is controlled under proper medical supervision, and when patients strictly follow their doctor’s instructions. Unfortunately, the strong psychological effect of those medications can be used as a coping mechanism for many discontents, struggles and sources of trauma in a person’s life much after their original purpose was fulfilled.

Difference between Symptoms of Addiction, Abuse and Physical Dependence

Confusion often arises around the terms used to describe a person’s issues with prescription drugs and other addictive substances. Knowing the difference is important to better understand treatment options and information about the condition and its nuances.

  1. Addiction : A mental disorder or a psychological state where prolonged substance use has caused differences in brain chemistry or even brain structure. As a result, the person experiences intense cravings for the substance and is often dismissive, ignorant, or unwilling to acknowledge an issue because that would limit their drug supply.
  2. Drug Abuse : A harmful set of actions where a person goes against their prescription and medical advice and uses a substance in unintended ways, often taking it long after recommended, mixing it with other substances, and consuming higher doses.
  3. Physical dependence : A physiological condition where a person’s body gets used to the substance and builds a tolerance. Consequently, the person must continue using the substance to feel “normal” and function adequately. Physical dependence usually leads to the need for higher doses, to receive the same “high” as before, and causes severe withdrawal symptoms if a person suddenly stops.

Physical Symptoms of Prescription Drug Dependence

Physical symptoms of prescription drug dependence are some of the most common and visible signs of addiction. They will occur daily, with varying severity depending on how serious the addiction is, and will cause disruptions in productivity, work quality, and life enjoyment.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may develop a prescription drug dependence, observe whether multiple of those symptoms persistently present and rule out other potential explanations.

Physical symptoms of prescription drugs dependence:

  • Sweating and clammy skin
  • Stomachaches
  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth
  • Slurred speech
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Forgetfulness and memory issues
  • Reduced heart rate and heart palpation
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue and lethargy

Psychological Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Just because they are not as visible doesn’t mean that psychological symptoms ought to be neglected. Prescription drugs, especially in high doses, can significantly alter the brain chemistry balance by causing wide divergences in how many endorphins, neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals are produced. Very often, the “high” a person gets from medication is followed by a “crash”, which can cause mental health issues.

Prescription drugs are not only directly harmful to a person’s mental health due to the symptoms they produce but can also exacerbate symptoms of other mental health disorders. For example, stimulants may be taken to treat ADHD, OCD, or ASD, but excessively high doses and prolonged unadvised use can make a person unable to function normally due to worsened symptoms.

Psychological symptoms of prescription drugs addiction:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability, frustration and anger issues
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Anxiety and increased sensitivity to stress
  • Significant fluctuations in energy levels – euphoria followed by crashes
  • Apathy and loss of motivation
  • Lack of interest in previously loved hobbies and passions
  • Paranoia and hallucinations

Behavioural and Social Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Physical and psychological symptoms of prescription drug abuse don’t exist in a vacuum. Very often, they affect a person’s everyday life, especially how they behave around and treat the people around them.

The very intense psychological effect and the subsequent development of physical dependence on the substance can make a person highly irrational and desperate to use the substance, even if it puts their health and that of others in danger.

Furthermore, the strong stigma against drug use can make confrontations hard and communication a one-sided effort to help a person who only grows more distant and defensive as time goes on.

Behavioural and social symptoms of prescription drug abuse:

  • Defensive and dismissive behaviour when confronted about the issue
  • Distancing and avoidance of social interactions and communication with loved ones
  • Doctor shopping and lying to medical professionals
  • Taking prescription drugs from friends and loved ones
  • Doing prescription drugs in dangerous situations, like when driving and working
  • Putting their consumption of prescription drugs above other essential needs

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How Does Prescription Drug Abuse Affect the Family?

Prescription drug abuse can significantly affect the mental health of family members. Very often, they desperately try to help but feel helpless, as if the person is slowly slipping away and distancing themselves from them. Furthermore, drug abuse often leads to more intense, emotional and hurtful interactions and communication, with one side being irrational and defensive due to the substance.

Even though they don’t quite understand what is happening, children can also be affected. Drug abuse front of them can normalise the consumption of such medications, and the conflicts and tensions that arise create a much more stressful environment, which can hinder personal growth, willingness to share, and their overall mental health.

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Overdose

Constant use of prescription drugs builds tolerance, which tempts a person to use more frequent and higher doses or to mix substances in pursuit of the same effect they felt initially. Over time, and especially if they tried to stop and experienced intense withdrawal symptoms, the chance of overdosing increases.

Stimulant overdose symptoms:

  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Muscle jerking and seizures
  • Anxiety and pain attacks
  • Chest pain

Opioid painkillers overdose symptoms:

  • Gurgling noises and vomiting
  • Pale and clammy skin
  • Body limpness
  • Inability to breathe
  • Chest pains
  • Anxiety and panic attack
  • Gurgling noises and vomiting
  • Pale and clammy skin
  • Body limpness
  • Inability to breathe
  • Chest pains
  • Anxiety and panic attack

Benzodiazepine overdose symptoms:

  • Central nervous system damage
  • Impaired motor function and dizziness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Amnesia
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Delirium and hallucinations

How Is Prescription Drug Dependence Treated

Prescription drug dependence is best treated with an inpatient programme in a rehabilitation centre to ensure an environment free of distractions, full of support and guidance from medical professionals, and fully dedicated to recovery.

Treatment includes a supervised and evidence-based detoxification process, various types of therapy to address mental health issues, learn coping mechanisms and how to control triggers. Furthermore, there are various other productive and helpful activities to improve overall well-being. Plans can be extended to include aftercare treatment as a way to stay accountable and have immediate access to help whenever needed.

Sources:

  • “Charting the Stimulant Overdose Crisis & the Influence of Fentanyl.” NIHCM, https://nihcm.org/publications/stimulant-drug-overdose-deaths-2022-update#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20stimulants%20were%20involved,either%20prescription%20opioids%20or%20heroin.
  • Mansoor M;McNeil R;Fleming T;Barker A;Vakharia S;Sue K;Ivsins A; “Characterizing Stimulant Overdose: A Qualitative Study on Perceptions and Experiences of ‘Overamping.’” The International Journal on Drug Policy, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35114520/.
  • “Overdose Death Rates.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 19 Dec. 2022, https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates.
  • Benzodiazepine Toxicity – Statpearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482238/.
Paul Spanjar, CEO

Paul is passionate about high-quality addiction treatment and truly believes that, with the right treatment, anyone can recover.

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