Prescription Drug Abuse and Treatment

Using prescription medication in a way that it was not intended by the doctor who prescribed it is classed as prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse can affect anyone, at any age, but it is more common in younger people and is an increasing problem.


Commonly abused prescription drugs

The most commonly abused prescription medications are opioids (intended for pain relief), central nervous system depressants (for anxiety and sleep disorders), and stimulants (prescribed for disorders like ADHD and narcolepsy).



Opioids and their brand names include:

hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (OxyContin®), propoxyphene (Darvon®), hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), meperidine (Demerol®), and diphenoxylate (Lomotil®).


Central nervous system depressants

Central nervous system depressants and their brand names include:

Barbiturates such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®), and benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanax®).



Stimulant medications and their brand names include:

dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®), methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®), and amphetamines (Adderall®).


Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse

Opioid painkillers

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Feeling high (euphoria)
  • Slowed breathing rate
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Poor coordination
  • More pain with higher doses

Sedatives and anti-anxiety  

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Unsteady walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with memory
  • Slowed breathing


  • Reduced appetite
  • Agitation
  • High body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

Other signs include:

  • Stealing, selling or forging prescriptions
  • Taking higher than recommended doses
  • Mood swings or hostility towards others
  • Changes to sleep patterns
  • Appearing to be high, energetic, or sedated
  • Obtaining prescriptions from multiple sources
prescription pills on table

Complications caused by prescription drug abuse

When taken in high doses, prescription drugs can be dangerous – even deadly – especially when used at the same time as other drugs or alcohol. Even over-the-counter medications can cause harmful side effect when used with prescription drugs.

In addition to the potential health risks associated with drug abuse, abruptly ceasing to use the medication can cause potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that include seizures and nervous system hyperactivity.


Physical dependence and addiction

Because most prescription drugs activate a part of the brain’s reward centre, it is quite easy for some people to become addicted and develop a physical dependence (or tolerance). This is the body’s response to sustained use over time.

Those who become physically dependent will need to take a continuously higher dose to achieve the desired effect and will be more susceptible to withdrawal symptoms when reducing or stooping use of the drug.

In addition to a physical dependence, the addictive nature of prescription drugs will mean that users compulsively seek and continue to use more of a drug despite the fact they are aware of the detrimental affect it is having on their lives.

Treatment of prescription drug addiction

Treatment of prescription drug addictions can vary according to the type of drug being abused and your individual circumstances and needs.

It may be necessary to perform a detoxification stage (withdrawal), prior to commencing a treatment programme that will likely include counselling, psychotherapy and recovery support – often with pharmacological assistance.

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Helping someone you care about

If you know someone who is affected by prescription drug abuse, it can be difficult and daunting to know how to approach them to discuss their situation. You may be concerned about creating conflict and causing friction in your relationship.

If you find yourself in a position where you can help someone, or feel you are close enough to them to do so, try to be understanding and patient, and let them know you are concerned for their well-being.

Try and encourage them to accept help and be honest about their drug abuse. This is always easier to do when you are someone they trust as they are more likely to respond to your ideas and give you feedback.

If they are still unable or unwilling to get help then it may be necessary to look at further intervention options, psychologists or mental health professionals.

An intervention is an opportunity to confront the person you are trying to help, discuss the consequences of the addiction, and look at directing them on a path towards treatment and recovery.


When to ask for help

Talk to a health professional if you think you or someone you know has a problem with prescription drug abuse. It’s not uncommon to feel embarrassed to talk about it but remember that healthcare professionals are not there to judge you – they are trained to help you!

The earlier you tackle the problem, the sooner you can put this episode of your life behind you and escape from destructive behaviours.