Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction can seem to come out of nowhere. You may have started using prescription drugs to treat pain based on your doctor’s advice, or you may have experimented with prescription medications a few times to see what all the fuss was about. Now you find yourself with a prescription drug addiction you can’t shake.

Who Abuses Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drug addiction affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Abuse of prescribed medications is among the most common forms of drug abuse among the elderly. Older adults are prescribed medications about three times more often than the general population, and have poorer compliance with instructions for use, putting them at increased risk of prescription drug addiction.

Prescription drug abuse is also prevalent among teenagers. Because prescription pills are widely accessible, relatively inexpensive and easier to hide, teens are abusing prescription medications at an alarming rate. Many people assume prescription drugs are safer than illicit street drugs like heroin or cocaine because they can be prescribed by doctors for legitimate purposes. However, prescription drug addiction has proven many people wrong.

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Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

People abuse all kinds of prescription drugs. The following are some of the most popular drugs of abuse.

Opioids – Prescription Painkiller Abuse

People take opiate painkillers to relieve pain, Opioid prescription painkillers can be safe and effective when properly managed by a doctor and taken as directed.

Some of the most commonly abused prescription painkillers (narcotics) are:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • OxyContin - oxycodone
  • Darvon - propoxyphene
  • Vicodin - hydrocodone
  • Dilaudid - hydromorphone
  • Demerol - meperidine

Prescription painkillers are also administered to relieve severe diarrhea (Lomotil ) or severe coughs (codeine).

How do opioids work? Once ingested, prescription opiates attach to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract where they block pain messages from reaching the brain.

O pioid drugs can also affect parts of the brain that send signals of pleasure, resulting in the sense of euphoria that many opioids produce. Other effects of opiate abuse include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Depressed breathing

Taking a large dose of a prescription painkiller can  result in severe respiratory depression, overdose or death . Combining opiate drugs with alcohol or other drugs can also be life-threatening.

Withdrawal and Opiate Detox

Chronic opiate abuse can lead to opiate addiction and tolerance (when the user needs more of the drug to obtain the same initial effects). The human body is able to adapt to the presence of opiates to the point that stopping abruptly can produce withdrawal symptoms .

Symptoms of opiate withdrawal may include:

  • Insomnia or restlessness
  • Muscle pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Cold flashes
  • I nvoluntary leg movements.

Withdrawal symptoms can be minimized with medically assisted opiate detox. With the aid of methadone or Suboxone, opiate addicts can gradually wean off of prescription drugs comfortably and with fewer drug cravings. This increases the individual’s motivation and ability to participate in an opiate rehab program.

Treating Opiate Addiction

There are a number of options for effectively treating an addiction to prescription drugs :

Methadone, a a prescription painkiller that blocks the effects of heroin and other opiates, reduces withdrawal symptoms and relieves drug cravings. Methadone treatment has been used for over 30 years to help people addicted to opioids with short-term opiate detox and long-term methadone maintenance treatment.

Other helpful medications include naltrexone (a long acting opioid blocker) and

buprenorphine, another synthetic opioid .


Depressants are used by people struggling with anxiety or sleep disorders to slow down normal brain function and produce a drowsy, relaxed feeling. While different depressants act in different ways, all increase levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.

There are two main types of depressants:

  • Barbiturates – used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and tension. Examples include mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal) .
  • Benzodiazepines – used to treat stress, panic attacks, anxiety and sleep disorders. Examples include diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium) alprazolam (Xanax), triazolam (Halcion) and estazolam (ProSom) .

Depressants can be addictive if used other than as prescribed by a doctor. When depressants are used in conjunction with medications that cause sleepiness, such as prescription painkillers , some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications, or alcohol, breathing and heart rate may slow to dangerous – and even deadly – levels.

Abusing depressants for a prolonged period of time may result in withdrawal. Detox from depressants should be overseen by a physician as seizures and other health complications can arise.

Detox alone is rarely sufficient to combat addiction to depressants. Following detox, most addicts will need counseling and support in a residential or outpatient depressant addiction treatment center. Research has shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy is particularly effective for treating abuse of benzodiazepines. Cognitive-behavioral therapy combats addiction to benzodiazepines and barbiturates by altering negative thought and behavior patterns and developing healthier coping skills .

Because abuse of depressants often occurs alongside the abuse of other drugs, such as alcohol or cocaine, people who are addicted to benzos or barbiturates require treatment for polydrug abuse. Individuals who abuse multiple drugs typically require more intensive therapy and relapse prevention planning than other addicts.


Unlike depressants, s timulants enhance brain activity, producing increased energy, alertness and attention. Some of the effects of stimulant abuse include increased blood pressure and heart rate .

While stimulants were originally used to treat a number of respiratory, weight and neurological problems, their used became restricted as their potential for abuse and addiction became apparent. Currently, doctors prescribe stimulants for certain sleep disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.

Examples of stimulants include:

  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Amphetamines

Some of the effects of stimulant abuse include:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • High body temperature
  • Heart failure
  • Seizures
  • Paranoia

Stimulants take effect by increasing the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, producing a sense of euphoria. When people abuse stimulants, addiction is a common result.

Stimulants can be particularly dangerous when mixed with antidepressants or over-the-counter cold medicines containing decongestants. These drug combinations can cause irregular heart rates and dangerously high blood pressure .

Since there are no proven medications to treat stimulant addiction, therapy is the best way to treat addiction to stimulants. In many cases, managing withdrawal symptoms and quitting stimulants in detox is the first step in treating stimulant addiction. Following detox, individuals typically participate in an inpatient or outpatient drug rehab program. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, in particular, has proven effective in treating stimulant addiction, as have community support groups.

If you or someone close to you is addicted to prescription pain killers or other prescription drugs , there is hope. Call 866-323-5612for a confidential, free assessment and additional information about prescription drug addiction. A better life starts now.

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