Prescription Drug Abuse, & Addiction

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Prescription drug misuse is a serious public health issue that affects countless Americans and can lead to dependence and addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) approximately 5% (or an estimated 14.3 million) of people aged 12 or older in 2021 reported past-year misuse of any prescription psychotherapeutic drug. (1) Unfortunately, these drugs can be just as dangerous as illicit substances and are responsible for thousands of overdose deaths each year in the U.S. alone.

Guardian Recovery offers innovative treatment programs designed to help individuals struggling with the misuse of prescription medications, illicit drugs, and alcohol. Our team of experienced, compassionate addiction professionals provides personalized care to address the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of addiction. Contact us today to learn more about our holistic approach to sustaining long-lasting recovery.

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What Are Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs are medications that can only be obtained with a prescription from a licensed healthcare provider. They are intended to treat specific medical conditions and should only be used as instructed by a healthcare professional. Unfortunately, the misuse of prescription drugs can lead to addiction, overdose, and other serious health consequences.

Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs Include:

  • Opioids, e.g., oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Norco).
  • Benzodiazepines, e.g., alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan).
  • Stimulants, e.g., amphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin).
  • Sedatives and hypnotics, e.g., zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta).
  • Muscle relaxers, e.g., baclofen (Gablofen).
  • Gabapentinoids, e.g., gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).

Can Using Prescription Drugs as Prescribed Cause Dependence?

Yes, using prescription drugs as prescribed can cause dependence, especially if taken for a prolonged period or in relatively high doses. A good way to gauge which drugs may have the potential to lead to dependence is to determine if they are on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances. (2) Opioids and benzodiazepines are the most problematic in this regard. Both types of medications are generally indicated for short-term use only to prevent dependence from developing but may be used long-term in certain circumstances. For example, according to the American Psychiatric Association (AMA), an estimated 3% to 19% of people who use prescription pain medications develop an addiction. (3)

Causes & Risk Factors for Prescription Drug Misuse & Addiction Development

Prescription drug misuse and addiction have various causes and contributing factors. Many individuals who struggle with these issues have multiple risk factors that compound each other, making it more challenging overall for them to resist substance use.

Common Factors That Increase the Risk of Prescription Drug Misuse Include: 

  • A desire to achieve feelings of euphoria, and relaxation.
  • As self-medication to numb emotional pain, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
  • Peer pressure and a need to fit in or be accepted.
  • Lack of awareness and education about the potential risks and consequences of prescription drug misuse.
  • Easy availability and accessibility of addictive substances.
  • A personal or family history of substance misuse, including the use of alcohol or illicit drugs.
  • Presence of a co-occurring mental or physical health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or chronic pain.
  • A history of trauma or adverse life events, such as physical or emotional trauma, loss, or significant stressors.
  • Lack of a strong support system, social connections, or healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Unique individual factors, such as a genetic propensity toward reward-seeking or substance use.

The Effects of Prescription Drug Use on Mental Health

Prescription drug use can have adverse effects on mental health, particularly when it leads to dependence or addiction. By disrupting the brain’s natural balance of neurochemicals, it can worsen existing mental health issues, trigger new ones, or cause mood swings, anxiety, and depression. (4)

Furthermore, certain medications, such as benzodiazepines, can cause cognitive impairment, memory problems, and difficulties with concentration and attention. Others, including stimulants, can cause irritability and restlessness. Psychotic symptoms may occur in extreme cases and can include hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and altered perceptions.

What Demographics Are Most at Risk of Prescription Drug Misuse?

Any person, regardless of age, sex, or socioeconomic status, can misuse and become addicted to prescription drugs. However, there are some demographic groups that may be more at risk.

Groups at Special Risk for Prescription Drug Misuse Include:

  • Adolescents and young adults, due to peer pressure, curiosity, or impulsivity.
  • Older adults, due to risk factors such as having multiple chronic health conditions and requiring several medications as a result.
  • Individuals with a history of substance misuse, mental health disorders, or certain medical conditions.
  • Individuals who have experienced childhood neglect or abuse, who may use substances as a means of coping with emotional distress or managing symptoms associated with living with trauma.
  • Individuals with a family history of substance misuse, as genetic and shared environmental influences contribute to this increased vulnerability.

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Visible Signs Someone May Be Addicted to Prescription Drugs

Some visible signs that someone may be addicted to prescription drugs include changes in behavior, such as becoming more secretive or isolated, and physical symptoms like drowsiness. Identifying the signs of prescription drug addiction can be challenging, as they can vary depending on the individual and the specific medication being misused. However, there are some visible signs and behavioral changes that may indicate someone is struggling with prescription drug addiction.

Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction Include:

  • Changes in appearance, such as weight fluctuations, bloodshot or glazed eyes, dilated or constricted pupils, a flushed or pale complexion, appearing tired or fatigued, or poor personal hygiene.
  • Neglecting responsibilities and commitments, such as work, school, or household duties.
  • Social withdrawal from social activities, hobbies, and loved ones.
  • Increased secrecy and deceptive behavior, such as lying about drug use or prescriptions and engaging in self-imposed isolation.
  • Adverse changes in behavior and mood, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and mood swings.
  • Financial difficulties, as evidenced by borrowing money, selling personal belongings, or engaging in illegal activities.
  • Doctor shopping, visiting multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions for the same or similar medications, or prescription forgery.
  • Compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite having experienced negative consequences as a result of addiction.

Common Symptoms & Side Effects of Prescription Drug Dependence

Prescription drug dependence can lead to various physical and mental symptoms and side effects. These can vary depending on the specific medication, dosage, duration of use, and individual factors.

Physical Symptoms & Side Effects Include:

  • Slurred speech.
  • Coordination and motor function issues, including unsteady gait, poor balance, or clumsiness.
  • Drowsiness, fatigue, or sedation.
  • Sweating and flushing.
  • Changes in vital signs, such as slowed breathing, and reduced or elevated heart rate or blood pressure.
  • Digestive issues, including nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or changes in appetite.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as muscle aches, restlessness, agitation, insomnia, chills, and flu-like symptoms.

Psychological Symptoms & Side Effects Include:

  • Cravings and obsessive thoughts regarding drug obtainment and use.
  • Mood swings and emotional instability.
  • Cognitive impairments, leading to difficulties with judgment, decision-making, problem-solving, and the performance of everyday tasks.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety disorders, hallucinations, and paranoia.
  • Social and interpersonal difficulties, including strained relationships with loved ones.
  • Psychological dependence and addiction.

What To Do if Someone Overdoses on Prescription Drugs

If you suspect someone is overdosing on prescription drugs, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room. It is also important to provide as much information as possible about the type and amount of drug ingested, as well as any other relevant medical history. In some cases, administering naloxone (an opioid overdose reversal medication) may be necessary.

Prescription Drug Overdose Statistics

Overall, the number of overdoses related to all drugs has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Most prescription drug-related overdose deaths involve the use of opioids, benzodiazepines, or other sedatives. However, many overdoses are associated with the use of multiple substances, such as various prescription and illicit drugs, including psychostimulants.

According to NIDA, in 2021, the number of reported overdose fatalities involving prescription opioids totaled 16,706. Also, from 1999 to 2021, drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines rose from 1,135 to 12,499. During this same time, fatalities involving psychostimulants with addictive potential increased from 547 in 1999 to 32,537 in 2021. (5)

Treatment Options Available for Prescription Drug Addiction

Treatment options for prescription drug addiction typically involve a combination of approaches, tailored to the individual’s needs and the specific substances involved.

Common Treatment Options Include:

  • Medical detox, to assist with managing withdrawal symptoms.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), to help reduce cravings, relieve withdrawal symptoms, or block the effects of opioids.
  • Behavioral therapies, to address the underlying causes of addiction and promote positive behavioral changes, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and family therapy.
  • Peer support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or SMART Recovery.
  • Residential and outpatient treatment programs.
  • Aftercare and relapse prevention strategies, such as outpatient counseling and other ongoing methods of monitoring and support.

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Contact Us for Help With Prescription Drug Misuse & Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with the use of prescription or illicit drugs or alcohol, you may have a substance use disorder and would benefit from receiving comprehensive, evidence-based treatment. At Guardian Recovery, we offer integrated, customized treatment programs designed to meet the unique needs of each individual. Reach out to us to learn more about our streamlined admissions process and receive a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check. Don’t wait any longer to take the first step towards a better, more fulfilling future—contact us today.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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