Prescription drug addiction: The silent killer and how to tell if you’re addicted


”It’s difficult to see the picture when you’re in the frame,” explains Marc Myer, MD, an addiction specialist for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

In the above sentence, Myer refers to denial’s significant role in all addictions, including prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drug abuse

According to the Mayo Clinic, prescription drug abuse is prevalent globally.

The definition of prescribed drug abuse is the use of prescription medication in a manner not intended by the prescribing physician or doctor.

Substance abuse can be compulsive and chronic, despite the severity of the consequences involved.

Prescription drug abuse prevalence

Unfortunately, prescription drug abuse affects people of all age groups, including young adults and teenagers.

Identifying the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse early on can prevent people from becoming addicted, allowing them to receive proper intervention before things worsen.

What prescription drug abuse looks like

Addiction manifests differently for everyone.

However, prescription drug abuse may unfold in various ways, such as taking a partner’s prescription painkillers for a headache and injecting or snorting crushed-up pills to get high.


Studies show that the most common prescription drugs abused are:

  • Anti-anxiety medication
  • Sedatives
  • Opioid painkillers
  • Stimulants

Speaking to a medical professional

There is often a profound stigma attached to substance abuse and other forms of addiction.

However, you must seek guidance from your doctor if you think you have a problem with prescription drug abuse.

It would help if you remembered your doctor is there to take care of you, not ridicule or judge you. 

Therefore, you must speak with a professional about your drug abuse concerns.

Early intervention can prevent an addiction from developing, and reaching out as soon as you suspect you have a problem is imperative to your health.

Prescription drug abuse symptoms

Similar to how we experience addiction issues differently, the symptoms of prescription drug abuse depend significantly on the prescribed drug getting taken.

Commonly abused prescription drugs

When abused, some prescription drugs can produce a profound high for those using such drugs.

The following prescription drugs are the most commonly abused because of their mind-altering impact:

  • Sedatives and anti-anxiety medications: the most frequently used drugs are diazepam (known as Valium), alprazolam (known as Xanax), and zolpidem (known as Ambien). Such drugs get prescribed to treat sleep disorders and anxiety.
  • Opioids: involves medication that contains oxycodone, for instance, Percocet and OxyContin, and medicines containing hydrocodone – used to treat pain.
  • Stimulants: drugs include Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine, used to treat conditions like sleep disorders and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


The symptoms of prescription drug abuse vary according to the drug taken. They involve:

Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives

Symptoms include:

  • Imbalanced walking
  • A lack of concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Memory problems
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed breathing
  • Drowsiness and grogginess
  • Confusion


Symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • A lack of coordination
  • Nausea and feeling sick
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Using more of the drug to relieve pain
  • Slowed breathing
  • Sensitivity to pain or worsened pain, mainly when taking increased doses


Symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased alertness
  • A lack of appetite
  • High temperature
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling out of it or high
  • Feeling paranoid

The pathway to prescription drug addiction

According to Addiction specialist Marc Myer, substance abuse can be biological or genetically driven, but there is always some external force that triggers the process.

”When a person’s story starts with a legitimate prescription, for instance, pain medication, the story can sound familiar.”

Myer explains that people who go to their doctor for help with a physical injury, such as a back injury, may get prescribed certain painkillers like an opiate-based medication.


”If the pain doesn’t go away or worsens,” explains Myer, ”the person goes back to the doctor who prescribes a long-acting opioid.”

In the above instance, when taking such drugs occurs in the long term, an individual is dealing with pain management instead of addiction. 

People who find themselves in this situation need to be aware of the implications of chronic substance abuse and seek early intervention.

Risk factors

Studies show that prescription drug addiction can happen at any age but is more prevalent in teenagers and young adults.

Often, people worry that they may get addicted to prescription medication prescribed for medical purposes, such as painkillers prescribed post-surgery.

Avoiding drug misuse

The way to avoid getting addicted to prescription drugs is to follow your doctor’s advice carefully on how to take the medication prescribed.

Research shows many factors can cause someone to get addicted to substances like prescription drugs; they include:

  • Family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Peer pressure or being in an environment where drug abuse occurs
  • Having easy access to certain medications, for instance, prescription drugs getting stored in a home medicine cabinet
  • A history of substance abuse, past or present

Reasons why someone may get addicted to substances

There are various reasons why people abuse substances like prescription drugs; many factors are dependent on the age of the individual engaging in this form of drug misuse. 

Adults and teenagers typically abuse drugs for the following reasons:

  • To relieve tension or to relax
  • To experience a buzz or to get high
  • To conform to society’s pressures in the hopes of being accepted by peers
  • To prevent withdrawal
  • To experiment with certain drugs
  • To be more alert or to suppress one’s appetite

Implications of prescription drug abuse

There are countless dangers associated with abusing prescription drugs – such as overdose and death.

Such dangers increase when people combine other substances, such as taking alcohol with illegal drugs or combining prescription medications with certain over-the-counter medicines.

Prescription drug abuse in older age groups

Studies show that prescription drug abuse for people in older age groups has increased, which often involves simultaneously taking alcohol and prescription medications.

Those with multiple health issues are at high risk of addiction and misuse of drugs, particularly when taking various medications to control or alleviate symptoms.


Dependence and tolerance

Certain prescription drugs, such as prescription opioid drugs, activate the brain’s reward centre and put people at risk of physical dependence and addiction due to their effects.

  • Addiction: Those who abuse drugs can develop a physical dependence where they continue using substances and compulsively seek certain drugs despite the negative consequences of such behaviour.
  • Physical dependence: Often, people who abuse drugs in the long – term build up a tolerance to the drug where they require larger doses to get high. Those physically dependent on a drug may experience withdrawal symptoms, particularly when cutting out or stopping drug use.


Prescription drug addiction can be prevented, given suitable measures.

Addiction specialists have suggested several ways people on prescription medications can prevent and avoid prescription drug abuse. 

They include:

  • Not taking another person’s prescription medication: every one of us is affected by drugs differently. Even if you have the same condition as a loved one or family member, the medicine may not suit you.
  • Checking in regularly with your doctor or health care provider: You must have regular check-ins with your doctor to ensure you are taking the correct dose and that your medication is working.
  • Ensuring that you’re taking the proper medicines: Going over your symptoms with your doctor is vital to ensure that you take the appropriate medication for your condition. Discussing any alternative medications you might be taking like herbs or other supplements, and over – the counter – medicines, other prescriptions, and drug use (including alcohol) is critical.
  • Following advice and instructions carefully: You must take your medication exactly as prescribed. You must not stop or change the dosage of your medication without speaking with your physician.
  • Understanding your medicine and what it does: It is crucial to know what to expect, what your prescription medication is for, and its effects. Discuss your concerns or worries with your doctor if you are unsure or have concerns about taking your medication.

Further support

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, you must reach out to a professional who can help.

At Centres for Health and Healing, we specialise in treating various substance addictions and mental health disorders.

Please speak to a team member today to find out how we can help.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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