Prescription Drug Addiction & Abuse

The causes, symptoms and signs of prescription drug addiction explained.

Prescription drug addiction occurs when you abuse or misuse medication intended for the treatment of medical conditions or diseases. Prolonged use of prescription drugs may lead to physical dependence, the primary contributing factor in the development of an addiction. Addiction might also stem from the recreational use of the drug. It is becoming easier to obtain prescription drugs illegally through online resources, which increases the potential for misuse and therefore, the likelihood of people developing addictions.

The kinds of prescription medications prone to misuse are those used by physicians for relief from acute or chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia and a number of other health conditions and disorders. When these medications are used in the absence of a doctor’s recommendation and guidance, prescription drug abuse can be as problematic and harmful as the use of illegal drugs.

What Types of Prescription Drugs Are Addictive?

The most addictive classes of prescription drugs are opioids, benzodiazepines, sleep medicines and stimulants. Opioids are prescribed to alleviate chronic pain associated with certain medical conditions. Benzodiazepines and sleeping pills, known collectively as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, manage anxiety and sleep disturbances by slowing activity in the brain. Stimulants, on the other hand, increase brain activity, alertness and attentiveness in the treatment of attention deficit disorders and narcolepsy (1).

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  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Percocet

Sleeping medicines

  • Lunesta
  • Ambien


  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Halcion


  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Ritalin

What Causes Prescription Drug Addiction?

Several risk factors are known to increase your vulnerability to developing prescription drug abuse and addiction. These factors may be environmental, social or genetic. Prolonged use or misuse of a drug prescribed for the treatment of a medical condition might also lead to drug tolerance, dependence and addiction. Addiction most often occurs as a result of several combined risk factors.

Environmental factors

Living in a household or spending time with a peer group in which frequent drug use occurs increases your likelihood of developing a prescription drug addiction. This is especially true of those particularly susceptible to influence and peer pressure, including adolescents and young adults. Ease of access to prescription drugs puts you at higher risk of abuse and addiction as well. The drug may be readily available if, for example, a relative or housemate uses prescription medication for a valid disease or condition (2).

Stress is also instrumental in the development of addiction, particularly with stimulants. Stimulant misuse and self-treatment have been found to occur among high school or college students, athletes, performers and professionals in high-stakes careers. These individuals use drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to increase cognitive function, alertness and performance in managing and coping with the stress of deadlines, expectations and responsibilities.

Genetic factors

Your genes might also put you at risk for prescription drug addiction. Drug addiction is heritable, meaning the development of addiction is more likely in someone with a family history of substance abuse. Though a family’s shared environment does play a role in this likelihood, research has discovered certain heritable genetic variations in those who experience an addiction (3). Variations may be passed from parent to child and include structural or functional abnormalities in certain message receptors in the brain, particularly dopamine receptors. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter primarily associated with drug abuse and addiction (4).

Changes in the expression of genes as a result of infection, stress or other biological or environmental influences might also lead to the development of addiction. The release of stress hormones stimulates an increase in the level of dopamine in the brain’s reward regions, producing the psychological and physiological pleasure craved in drug addiction (5).

Repeat exposure

Repeated or prolonged exposure to a prescription drug increases your risk of developing tolerance, dependence and, ultimately, an addiction. Tolerance occurs when the body adapts to a drug, necessitating the need to use more of the drug in order to achieve the desired results and prevent withdrawal. Tolerance most often results from misuse of the prescribed medication, including increasing the dosage or extending use.

Unaddressed tolerance leads to the body becoming physically dependent on a drug. This physical need is a primary factor in the development of addiction (5).

Prescription Drugs and Physical Dependence

Physical dependence develops when your body depends on the prescription drug in order to feel healthy and to avoid or counteract symptoms of withdrawal. It occurs as a result of prolonged use of a drug and the continuous development of dosage tolerance. A physician educated in prescription drug best practices understands the risks of tolerance and dependence and works diligently in balancing your well-being and symptom relief against these risks. The development of physical dependence often occurs in the absence of physician orders and guidance when you engage in self-treatment.

Physical dependence is particularly common in opioid, benzodiazepine and sleeping pill abuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

The signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction vary depending on the drug, though several commonalities exist.

Physical symptoms

  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Poor coordination

Stimulant abuse is also linked to an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and high body temperature.

Psychological signs and symptoms

  • Impaired decision-making and self-control
  • Poor judgement
  • Prioritisation of the addiction over health
  • Relationship and interpersonal difficulties
  • Agitation

Requesting early refills, ‘losing’ prescriptions, intentionally imitating symptoms and forging prescriptions are hallmark signs of an addiction. A person might seek prescriptions from multiple doctors, a behaviour known as ‘doctor shopping’ (6).

Getting Help for Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction is treatable, and lifelong recovery is possible. Getting help for your addiction begins by acknowledging and accepting that your misuse of the drug is causing you harm. If your addiction stems from the abuse of a drug prescribed for a valid medical condition, you might first address your concerns with your GP.

Several highly effective prescription drug treatment methods exist and include detox, psychotherapy, contingency management and support networks. You may receive treatment in an inpatient rehab centre or an outpatient programme. Deciding on which treatment approach and rehab centre is right for you is vital in ensuring your successful recovery.

Inpatient prescription drug rehab

Inpatient rehabilitation is often necessary in cases in which addiction has become all-consuming or life-threatening. You might decide that the services provided at an inpatient rehab facility better suit your recovery journey. Inpatient rehab is immersive, allowing you to focus entirely on your health and well-being in the absence of any environmental or social triggers contributing to your addiction.

Inpatient treatment centres, such as Sanctuary Lodge, administer supervised prescription drug detox. Detoxing alleviates physical dependence to a drug by gradually decreasing the dosage or by administering a substitute drug that can be managed and tapered (7). The primary benefit of medical detox is the management and relief of the potentially uncomfortable side effects of withdrawal. Your inpatient care team will support and monitor your well-being, comfort and safety throughout the entire process. A medicated detox is not a necessary step; our dedicated, licensed psychotherapist will first assess your situation and health and then decide if you are indeed in need of a medicated detox.

As part of the continued treatment, you will also take part in psychotherapy, or talk therapy, in an inpatient treatment programme. Traditional psychotherapies and innovative holistic ones are the best combinations for the optimal chance of successful rehabilitation.

Individual therapies and aftercare

Individual cognitive behavioural therapy is often favoured in approaching, responding to and coping with triggering emotions, stressors and different feelings in healthy and productive ways. You might also participate in 12-step group therapy sessions in which you and others recovering from drug addiction work through a series of steps designed to change harmful thinking and behavioural patterns.

Aftercare is vital in preventing relapse and promoting a healthy life free of addiction. Aftercare programmes are designed to keep you accountable following your time at a treatment centre, providing you tools, resources and ongoing support to aid you in your continued recovery.

Outpatient NHS services

Outpatient programmes offer a less immersive alternative to inpatient rehab. Outpatient treatment may be recommended for less developed cases of addiction, particularly if you have a strong support system at home. Outpatient centres typically use a matrix model of treatment that combines detox, therapy, drug testing and contingency management. Contingency management, used in both inpatient and outpatient rehabs, refers to a method of positive reinforcement that awards vouchers to patients who test drug-free in regular screenings.

The decision to attend an outpatient or an inpatient treatment programme depends on a variety of factors. These include the progression of your addiction, your overall health and your home environment. There are pros and cons to attending an outpatient programme that you must carefully consider before making your decision.


  • Minimal interruption to your life, job or education


  • Less immersive treatment and support
  • Potential exposure to situations or triggers that contribute to your addiction
  • Less medical supervision, particularly during detox
  • Waiting lists

The value of support groups

A reliable support system is vital in keeping you on track and committed to your recovery. In addition to family and friends, a support group dedicated to addiction and rehabilitation may be particularly beneficial to your recovery. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a support group designed for those living with or recovering from drug addiction. NA meetings are open to anyone, regardless of where they are in their addiction or recovery, and maybe attended in person or online.

Support groups in the UK

Most support groups, including NA, are not facilitated by mental health care professionals. The role of a support group is to help you to understand that you are not alone in your addiction or recovery and to provide you with the opportunity to speak freely and share your story in a judgement-free environment. The friendliness, acceptance and support found among those with shared experiences is often an especially inspiring source of encouragement.

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Prescription Drug Addiction FAQ

What are the dangers of prescription drugs?
Misuse of or self-treatment with prescription drugs may lead to tolerance, physical dependence and, ultimately, addiction. Recreational, non-medical use or prolonged, excessive use of a prescription drug can result in a host of harmful side effects and symptoms. Taken without a physician’s guidance, prescription drugs are as dangerous as illegal drugs (6).
How do you become addicted to prescription drugs?
Prescription drug addiction develops as a result of medical, environmental, social and genetic factors. Misuse of a legitimately prescribed drug for a medical condition may lead to addiction through the development of tolerance and physical dependence on the drug. You also put yourself at risk for developing an addiction through recreational use of a prescription drug, in the same manner, an addiction to an illegal drug develops (2).
Which prescription drugs are addictive?
The misuse or abuse of opioids (Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet), benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Halcion), sleeping pills (Lunesta, Ambien) or stimulants (Dexedrine, Adderall, Ritalin) is most likely to develop into an addiction. However, this is valid for all tolerance-forming medications. These drugs carry a high likelihood of creating physical dependence in the body, the primary risk factor of addiction. Opioids and stimulants, too, may produce addictive pleasurable or desirable side effects (1).
What is the best way to treat prescription drug addiction?
Each prescription drug addiction is different, and successful rehabilitation relies on an individualised treatment plan to meet your unique needs. Medically assisted detoxification is vital in eliminating physical dependence safely and comfortably, and therapy is crucial in addressing harmful thoughts, habits, behaviours and coping mechanisms. A structured aftercare programme, too, is necessary for supporting a healthy, productive and drug-free lifestyle.
Understanding your options and making an informed decision on where to receive treatment is essential, also. You may decide that an outpatient programme best meets your needs, or you may choose to immerse yourself in your health and recovery in an inpatient rehab programme. At Sanctuary Lodge, we can provide a safe, comfortable environment in which you can recover from your prescription drug addiction.
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