Prescription Drug Use Signs, Withdrawal Symptoms, & Side Effects

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Many prescription medications come with both benefits and dangers, especially those that have the potential for misuse. These drugs typically affect the brain and body in ways that make users vulnerable to addiction. (1) Some of the most common include opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines, psychostimulants, and sedatives. While frequent or excessive use of such drugs dramatically increases the risk of dependence, this can also occur in some cases even when the medication is taken exactly as prescribed.

At Guardian Recovery Network, we understand how challenging it can be to overcome prescription drug misuse and dependence. As a result, we’ve designed our innovative, evidence-based programs to reflect the unique needs of individuals struggling with addiction to prescription medications, illicit drugs, and alcohol. If you suspect you or a loved one needs professional help, contact us today to learn more about your treatment options and find out how we can help you achieve lasting recovery and rebuild your life.

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Physical & Psychological Side Effects of Using Addictive Prescription Drugs

All prescription medications have potential side effects, especially those with habit-forming properties. These side effects can differ in type and severity depending on factors such as the medication being taken, the dosage and frequency of use, the presence of other medications, and the individual’s overall health and metabolism. Some side effects occur in the short term with acute use, and they may subside with repeated therapeutic use or with dose adjustment. Still, some side effects are long-term and don’t occur until use has become chronic. Most side effects subside when use of the drug is discontinued, but some can persist long after.

Short-Term Effects of Addictive Prescription Drugs Include:

  • Euphoria and feelings of well-being.
  • Sedation and drowsiness.
  • Respiratory depression.
  • Mood swings.
  • Anxiety.
  • Dizziness.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Elevated blood pressure.
  • Constipation.

Long-Term Effects of Addictive Prescription Drugs Include:

  • Increased tolerance.
  • Physical and psychological dependence.
  • Addiction.
  • Memory issues.
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating.
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making.
  • New or worsened mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
  • Hormone imbalances and disruptions.
  • Damage to the gastrointestinal system and other vital organs.

Prescription Drug Withdrawal Symptoms Associated With Dependence & Addiction

After using a substance for a prolonged period, the individual’s body will become chemically dependent on it and require its presence to function normally. Substance addiction almost always includes the development of tolerance and dependence, although it is further hallmarked by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite the incurrence of negative consequences. 

If a substance-dependent user attempts to quit or significantly reduce their dose, highly unpleasant and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms can occur. The unpleasantness of withdrawal symptoms often compels the individual to continue using the drug. However, not all prescription drugs will cause withdrawal symptoms, and factors such as the substance being consumed, typical dosages, and frequency of use will determine their type and severity.

Opioids Withdrawal Timeline & Symptoms

For opioid withdrawal, symptoms onset within 24 hours after the last dose and are usually the most severe within 2–3 days. (2) Acute opioid discontinuation syndrome lasts approximately one week, although severe dependence can extend this timeline. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) can last several weeks or months and include psychological symptoms and emotional dysregulation. (3) Opioid withdrawal is very rarely fatal, but because symptoms can be extremely unpleasant, professional detox is strongly recommended.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
  • Muscle aches and hyperalgesia.
  • Anxiety and nervousness.
  • Agitation and irritability.
  • Restlessness.
  • Excess sweating.
  • Chills and goosebumps.
  • Excess tear production.
  • Runny nose.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Timeline & Symptoms

The timeline for benzodiazepine (benzo) withdrawal depends on whether the individual was taking a short- or long-acting benzo. Acute withdrawal symptoms associated with short-acting benzos (e.g., alprazolam) typically onset within a few hours after the last use and peak in intensity within the next few days. Longer-acting benzo (e.g., clonazepam) withdrawal symptoms can have a delayed onset of two days or longer after the last use. Some protracted symptoms of benzo withdrawal persist for a few weeks to a month, but they can sometimes last for several months. It is crucial to note that benzo withdrawal can be fatal. As such, attempting to detox from benzos without medical monitoring is not recommended.

Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Severe rebound anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Depression and feelings of sadness.
  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
  • Irritability and mood swings.
  • Agitation.
  • Uncontrollable tremors, shaking, and muscle spasms.
  • Muscle aches and stiffness.
  • Headaches.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Akathisia, or extreme psychomotor restlessness.
  • Seizures.

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Stimulant Withdrawal Timeline & Symptoms

Prescription stimulant withdrawal symptoms tend to be comparatively milder than those of opioids and benzos, although they can still be unpleasant enough to compel repeated use. Withdrawal symptoms can occur within 24 hours after the last use, and the most severe can persist for a week or longer. Post-acute withdrawal symptoms for prescription stimulants, such as depression, drug cravings, and fatigue, can persist for many weeks or months. (4)

Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Drug cravings.
  • Impulsiveness.
  • Drowsiness and hypersomnia.
  • Insomnia.
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares.
  • Severe fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Brain fog and inability to think clearly.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Confusion.
  • Irritability and agitation.
  • Headaches.
  • General achiness.
  • Malaise.
  • Memory issues.

What Symptoms Are Caused by an Overdose of Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drug overdoses can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the particular drug involved. An overdose is considered a medical emergency in all cases, so if you suspect you or someone else is overdosing, call 911 immediately.

Prescription Drug Overdose Symptoms May Include:

  • Extreme drowsiness.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Severe nausea and vomiting.
  • Severe abdominal or chest pains.
  • Seizures.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Extreme mood swings.
  • Slowed or weak pulse.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Slowed, irregular, or stopped breathing.
  • Bluish lips or fingertips.
  • Unresponsiveness.
  • Unconsciousness.
  • Coma.

Prescription Drug Misuse & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders 

The misuse of prescription drugs often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD. Individuals struggling with these disorders may misuse prescription substances to self-medicate. For this reason, simultaneously treating substance misuse and any co-occurring mental health issues is essential for fostering long-term recovery. (5)

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

Prescription drug addiction treatment should be comprehensive and composed of multiple treatment approaches that address the many dimensions of addiction.

Common Components of Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment Include:

  • Medical Detox—A medically-monitored detox allows individuals to rid their bodies of a substance. Medications can be administered to ensure safety and increase comfort throughout the withdrawal process.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—CBT is one the most common and effective therapy types used in addiction treatment. The goal of CBT is to help individuals uncover and alter the underlying thoughts and patterns of belief that motivate and contribute to substance misuse and addiction. CBT may also include a motivational interviewing component that seeks to motivate a person to change their behavior.
  • Support Groups—Support groups and 12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and SMART Recovery, help individuals establish a sense of fellowship in recovery and provide ongoing peer support and guidance.
  • Family Therapy—In family therapy, the client’s family members also participate to confront the challenging aspects of addiction and promote reconciliation and healthier familial relationships.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment—MAT incorporates the use of medications to mitigate lingering withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and promote long-lasting recovery. Common medications used in recovery include methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine.
  • Aftercare Planning—Addiction professionals work with clients to develop a plan to maintain sobriety and prevent relapse once rehab ends. Aftercare may include further therapy sessions, support group participation, regular check-ins, and other stress-management strategies.

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Contact Guardian Recovery Network for Help With Prescription Drug Use

The misuse of prescription medications can be every bit as dangerous as illicit drugs and can result in long-lasting physical and mental health issues and dependence. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that typically requires a comprehensive approach to treatment, including clinical strategies such as medical detox, individualized therapy, dual diagnosis treatment, and aftercare planning. We offer free, no-obligation health insurance benefits checks in addition to a simple, streamlined admissions process. If you or your loved one is ready to commit to long-term recovery and begin a wholly new way of life, contact us today.


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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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