Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Pacific Grove Hospital is a nationally recognized 68-bed acute psychiatric and chemical dependency treatment center offering inpatient & outpatient services for psychiatric illnesses, addictions & co-occurring disorders.

Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction

Learn about prescription drug and substance abuse

Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in such a way not intended by the prescribing physician. This can include taking another person’s prescription medication, taking more than prescribed, using for longer than prescribed, or crushing and injecting pills to get high. This type of drug abuse may continue despite the negative consequences that are occurring in a person’s life. The most common types of prescription drugs that are abused include painkillers, CNS depressants, and stimulants. Since these drugs are prescribed by a physician and regulated by the FDA, many people are under the misconception that they are safe to take. This couldn’t be further from the truth, in fact, prescription drugs act the same way as illegal drugs do and can lead to very serious consequences.


Prescription drug addiction statistics

In 2010, about 7 million people (or 2.7% of the United States population) were current users of psychotherapeutic drugs taken for non-medical purposes.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for prescription drug addiction

Most researchers believe that addiction is caused by a number of risk factors working together to lead to the development of a prescription drug addiction. The most commonly recognized causes for prescription drug abuse include:

Genetic: People who have first-degree relatives, such as a parent or sibling, who struggle with addiction are at a greater risk for developing an addiction as opposed to people who do not have a similar history.

Physical: People who struggle with chronic health conditions such as pain-related conditions or mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, are at greater risk for developing addiction to prescription drugs.

Environmental: Environmental stressors often play a large part in the development of addiction. People who began to abuse drugs and alcohol early in their youth are at greater risk for developing an addiction later in life. Additionally, a peer group or circle of friends who abuse drugs may influence someone to begin abusing prescription medication.

Risk Factors:

  • Addiction to other substances
  • Younger age – between the teen years and early 20s
  • Existence of mental health disorders
  • Easy access to prescription drugs, such as working in a hospital or doctor’s office
  • Lack of knowledge about prescription drugs

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction

The symptoms experienced from prescription drug abuse will vary depending upon the type of drug abused, use of other drugs, individual genetic makeup, frequency of use, amount of drug used, and length of drug abuse. The most common symptoms of prescription drug abuse include:

Prescription Painkiller Abuse Symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Hypotension
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Impaired coordination

Sedatives and Anti-Anxiety Agent Abuse:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Unsteady gait
  • Poor judgment
  • Nystagmus – involuntary, rapid movement of eyeball
  • Dizziness

Stimulant Abuse:

  • Weight loss
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Restlessness
  • Impulsive behaviors

Other Symptoms:

  • Drug-seeking behavior
  • Continuing use against medical advice
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor
  • Appearing unusually high, intoxicated, or amped up
  • Poor decision making
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed more often than intended
  • Lying to others about drug use
  • Stashing drugs in various places around home, work, and car
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Inability to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Withdrawing from once-enjoyed activities
  • Changes in behavior
  • Sudden need for money – may borrow or steal from others
  • Frequent doctor visits


Effects of prescription drug addiction

Long-term abuse of prescription drugs can lead to a wide variety of unpleasant complications that affect every aspect of an addict’s life. The effects are most notable when people abuse several drugs at once. The most common complications of prescription drug abuse include:

Prescription Painkiller Effects:

  • Increased risk of aspiration and choking
  • Hypotension
  • Slowed respiration rate
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma

Anxiolytic Effects:

  • Impaired memory
  • Needing more medication to achieve the same effects
  • Loss of normal coping abilities; relying upon medication to deal with unpleasant emotions
  • Hypotension

Stimulant Effects:

  • Dangerous hyperthermia
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Hypertension
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Aggressiveness
  • Paranoia

Other Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse:

  • Job loss
  • Homelessness
  • Poverty
  • Worsening mental health
  • Addiction
  • Incarceration
  • Organ system damage
  • Organ system failure
  • Seizures
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Coma
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Death

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of prescription drug withdrawal & overdose

Taking medications in a way they are not prescribed can lead to dangerous consequences, especially when mixed with other drugs and alcohol. This can very easily lead to overdose. If you suspect someone you love is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Common symptoms of overdose on prescription medications include:

Prescription Painkiller Overdose Symptoms:

  • Awake but unable to talk
  • Limp body
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Cyanosis
  • Slow, erratic heartbeat
  • Choking sounds
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory collapse
  • Coma
  • Death

Anxiolytic Overdose Symptoms:

  • Falling
  • Confusion
  • Stupor
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulant Overdose Symptoms:

  • Tachycardia
  • Rapid respiration rate
  • Chest pain
  • Large pupils
  • Seizures
  • Muscle cramping
  • Dizziness
  • Coma

Once an individual becomes physically dependent upon a prescription medication, they will experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug abuse is discontinued. Due to possible complications, withdrawal should always take place under the supervision and help of a doctor and trained medical staff. The most common symptoms of withdrawal include:

Prescription Medication Withdrawal:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal cramping and diarrhea
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea and vomiting

Anxiolytic Withdrawal:

  • Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome
  • Tachypnea
  • Tachycardia
  • Tremors
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulant Withdrawal:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or agitation
  • Increased appetite
  • Vivid, unpleasant dreams
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Everyone at Pacific Grove Hospital, from my assigned physician to the social workers were absolutely wonderful to work with. Groups were informative and useful- I learned and reinforced a lot of different coping skills.

– Brooke C.
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