Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction

Although drug addiction (substance use disorder) is normally associated with illicit drugs like cocaine, meth, and heroin, addiction to prescription drugs also raises cause for concern.

Data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) indicate that 3.5 million U.S. adults misused prescription medications in 2020.

This guide explores how addiction to prescription drugs develops and highlights the most addictive prescription medications. You can also discover how to get help to tackle substance use disorder, a chronic and relapsing condition.

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated:


Prescription Drug Abuse Defined

Using any type of prescription medication for purposes other than as prescribed is considered prescription drug abuse. This includes:

  1. Using someone else’s prescription.

  2. Taking more of a medication than directed.

  3. Using an alternative route of administration – dissolving tablets to inject or snort nasally, for example).

  4. Taking a prescription medication more frequently than directed.

  5. Using prescription medications for recreational and nonclinical purposes.

The adverse effects of using prescription medicine and drug abuse will differ depending on the medication, and may include addiction in the form of substance use disorder.

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Are Prescription Drugs Addictive?

Any prescription drug misuse or medication abuse may lead to the formation of physical tolerance and dependence. When tolerance forms, you will need to use more of the prescription medication or to increase the frequency of doses to achieve the initial effects. Tolerance is a diagnostic criterion for addiction and often creates physical dependency on the prescription medication.

If you become dependent on a medication, you will experience intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you moderate or discontinue use. Withdrawal is also a DSM-5-TR symptom of addiction.

All prescription medications that are abused activate the reward center of the brain. Sustained drug use also brings on functional and structural brain changes, potentially leading to addiction, a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by the compulsive use of drugs regardless of negative consequences.

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Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction

The signs of prescription drug abuse differ from substance to substance – more on these medications below. That said, these are all early indicators of serious prescription drug use and abuse:

  • Requesting early refills

  • Pretending to lose prescriptions

  • Stealing prescriptions

  • Obtaining more than one prescription by doctor shopping

  • Forging prescriptions

  • Impaired decision making

  • Disrupted sleep patterns

  • Over-sedation

  • Increased energy levels

  • Taking more of the drug than prescribed

Abusing prescription drugs may also cause behavioral changes, including:

  • Dramatic mood swings

  • Aggression

  • Hostility

  • Irritability

  • Disruption to routine

  • Neglecting commitments

  • Problems in personal or professional life

Most common signs of prescription opioid abuse

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Constipation

  • Euphoria

  • Confusion

  • Drowsiness

  • Impaired coordination

  • Slow breathing

  • Tolerance forming so more opioids are required for pain relief

  • Enhanced sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia)

Common signs of prescription stimulant abuse

  • High blood pressure

  • Raised body temperature

  • Feeling high

  • Agitation

  • Anxiety

  • Appetite loss

  • Insomnia

  • Increased alertness

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Paranoia

Common signs of prescription CNS depressant abuse

  • Drowsiness

  • Confusion

  • Slowed breathing

  • Poor concentration

  • Memory loss

  • Unsteadiness

  • Dizziness

  • Slurred speech

Am I Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

Consider these questions that may help you establish if you are addicted to prescription drugs:

 Prescription drug addiction questionnaire

  • Have you taken more of the drug than directed or used the drug for longer than prescribed?

  • Have you tried and failed to moderate or discontinue use of the medication?

  • Do withdrawal symptoms present when you attempt to stop using the drug?

  • Are you continuing to use the drug even though it is triggering negative consequences like financial stress, legal problems, or relationship issues?

  • Does your use of the prescription drug interfere with your personal or professional life?

  • Do you believe that you require the prescription drug to function normally?

If you responded positively to more than one of the above questions, you may be dealing with an addiction to prescription medication. It’s essential to seek help from a professional healthcare provider or addiction specialist. With an accurate diagnosis, you can then explore addiction treatment options.

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Fight Back Against Prescription Drug Addiction

Get evidence-based treatment to overcome prescription drug addiction at Renaissance Recovery. Call our team now to learn more about the process.

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Prescription Drugs that Lead to Addiction

There are many prescription drugs that have the potential to lead to addiction, especially if they are not taken as prescribed or abused. Here are some examples:

Habit-Forming Prescription Drugs

  • Opioids: Prescription opioids are powerful painkillers that include drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine. Some of the most common brands of opioids include Vicodin, Demerol and OxyContin. All opioids are highly addictive and can provoke the development of tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms.

  • Benzodiazepines: Benzos are tranquilizers that are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and sleep disorders. Common examples of benzos include drugs like Klonopin, Xanax, and Valium. Benzodiazepines are powerfully addictive and can trigger dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.

  • Stimulants: Prescription stimulants are drugs that are indicated for the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy. They include drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse. Stimulants can be addictive, causing dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal.

  • Barbiturates: These are drugs that are used as sedatives and hypnotics – phenobarbital or secobarbital, for instance. Barbiturates are highly addictive and have now been largely replaced by benzos in the United States.

  • Antidepressants: Although these drugs are not typically considered addictive, some people may develop a dependence on them. Withdrawal symptoms can occur when someone stops taking antidepressants abruptly.

Not everyone who takes the above prescription drugs will become addicted. That said, you should only take these and other drugs, as prescribed. Consult your prescribing physician if you have any concerns about their use.

What Are The Three Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs?

The effects of prescription drug abuse vary by substance. Each drug will affect the user in different ways according to its own specific nature.

Three of the most routinely abused classes of prescription drugs are:

  1. Benzodiazepines

  2. Opioids

  3. Barbiturates 

Click each type of prescription medicines in the drop down menu below to learn more. 


Benzos are typically indicated for the short-term treatment of anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and insomnia. Common examples of benzos are Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium.


Using benzos long-term will cause physical tolerance to build, especially if you use higher doses of benzos than directed. Many people who start taking more benzos to counter tolerance become physically dependent on the prescription drug.

Detoxing From Benzos

Abruptly discontinuing use is inadvisable and potentially dangerous, shocking the CNS (central nervous system). Benzodiazepine withdrawal is potentially life-threatening, although these risks can be mitigated with a supervised medical detox and a tapered reduction in dosage.


SAMHSA reports that prescription painkillers are the second-most abused substance in the U.S.

Opioids are fiercely addictive Schedule II controlled substances with a strong potential for abuse and addiction. Millions of U.S. adults became physically dependent on opioid painkillers over the counter drugs, when pharmaceutical companies started encouraging physicians to prescribe opioids such as OxyContin for chronic pain.

If opioids are taken as directed, these painkillers can manage chronic pain, safely and effectively. Opioid use disorder (opioid addiction) rarely develops if you take opioids short-term and as prescribed.

Long Term Opioid Use

Using opioid long-term or abusing this prescription medication, on the other hand, may lead to increased tolerance and the rapid development of physical dependence. This can occur within a few weeks of initiating opioid therapy. If you try to stop using the medication, this can trigger the presentation of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

If addiction develops in the form of opioid use disorder, professional treatment is typically required – normally medication-assisted treatment combined with psychotherapy.

Any abuse of opioids increases the serious risk factors of overdose. Even one large dose can bring on life-threatening respiratory depression. Risks are heightened further if you combine opioids with alcohol or sedatives.

Additionally, abusing prescription opioid drugs  can be a risk factor for heroin abuse. Almost one-third of U.S. adults using illicit drugs for the first time started by using prescription drugs.


Barbiturates (sedative-hypnotics) are prescribed for acute and chronic pain, the treatment of insomnia, seizures, and anxiety. Although barbiturates are not as common since benzodiazepines were introduced as a supposedly safer alternative. Popular barbiturates include:

  • Solfoton (phenobarbital)

  • Nembutal (pentobarbital)

  • Seconal (secobarbital)

Barbiturates may be dangerous when abused as they can trigger breathing problems, particularly if combined with alcohol – this can be life-threatening if untreated.

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What to Do When You Notice the Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

If you familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of prescription medication abuse, this can help you prevent these adverse outcomes:

  • Overdosing on CNS depressants is linked to life-threatening coma. If you suddenly stop using this class of medication, it can trigger withdrawal symptoms that include seizures.

  • Abusing opioids can slow or stop breathing. Respiratory depression can be life-threatening without intervention. The opioid antagonist Narcan (naloxone) can reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

  • Stimulant abuse can bring about elevated core body temperature, cardiovascular complications, and ongoing episodes of paranoia.

The sustained use of any type of prescription medication is liable to trigger the development of tolerance and physical dependence. While dependence is not synonymous with addiction, substance use disorder often manifests and requires ongoing treatment to address the psychological component of addiction.

Seek Treatment for Prescription Drug Abuse

If you believe that you are addicted to a prescription medication, first schedule an appointment with your prescribing physician. They may provide a referral to a mental health expert or rehab center.

Luckily, most addictions to prescription drugs respond favorably to individualized and science-backed treatment. We can help you from detox to discharge and beyond at Renaissance Recovery Center in Huntington Beach.

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Get Help for Prescription Drug Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

At Renaissance Recovery, we specialize in treating all types of addictions and mental health conditions at Renaissance Recovery in an outpatient setting. This allows you to address your prescription drug addiction while remaining anchored to your everyday life.

Our Admissions Process for Prescription Drug Abuse

We determine the levels of care needed for each individual based on each persons specific substance abuse history. Factors we take into consideration before recommending a treatment protocol includes the type of drug being used, length of use, and any existing mental and physical health concerns.

After we identify these factors, a clinical assessment is done to determine if you or your loved one are a good candidate for our treatment services. Then, we will determine your appropriate levels of care and you can begin treatment with us.

Levels of Care

At Renaissance Recovery we offer the following programs to ensure the addiction is being treated from the mind, body, and spirit:

  • Detox

  • Residential/Inpatient treatment

  • PHPs (partial hospitalization programs)

  • IOPs (intensive outpatient programs)

  • Dual diagnosis treatment programs (for co-occurring disorders)

All treatment programs at our facility provide access to these interventions to provide a safe and comfortable treatment from prescription drug abuse.

 Medication-assisted treatment

  • Psychotherapy

  • Individual counseling

  • Group therapy

  • Family therapy

  • Holistic therapies

  • Aftercare 


At Renaissance Recovery, we treat individuals struggling to overcome addiction with compassionate and evidence-based care.

Our team of professional addiction specialists and therapists will give you the proper treatment you need to achieve lasting recovery. Take the first vital step to recovery by calling admissions today at 866.330.9449.

Our Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment Programs

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

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