Warning signs: Prescription drug addiction

Millions of prescriptions are dispensed every year in the UK for a range of conditions, including anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and mood disorders. The drugs used to treat these conditions have allowed many people to manage these conditions and live happier, more fulfilled lives – but there is a thin line, which is easily blurred, between medical use and misuse. A complex interplay of factors influences the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate use of these medications.

Prescription drug addiction is often misunderstood and misunderstood, but it can be as dangerous as illicit drug addiction. We’re going to examine some of the early warning signs of prescription drug addiction, risk factors and what to do if your prescription drug use has slipped beyond your control.


Recent Office of National Statistics data do not differentiate between prescription and nonprescription drug fatalities, but as of 2010, worrying data was emerging. In that year, the ONS reported that 14% of drug-related death certificates issued in England and Wales recorded a mention of antidepressants, 11% reported consumption of benzodiazepines, and 2% mentioned zopiclone or zolpidem.

Welsh data on non-fatal overdoses also found that nearly a quarter of all 999 calls reporting a drug overdose mentioned the presence of prescribed medications.

Older people are especially at risk of both prescription drug dependence and harm, as they are prescribed far more drugs than any other age group, symptoms of drug misuse are often mistaken as normal signs of ageing rather than prescription drug addiction side effects, and their frailty makes them more vulnerable to overdose.

Commonly abused prescription drugs

While some drugs are more abused than others, there are reports of a wide range of drugs being abused – including ones that we would not immediately think of.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are sedatives (benzodiazepines, Z-drugs) , stimulants (ADHD medication such as methylphenidate, lisdexamfetamine and dexamfetamine) and opioids.

However, there are reports of many other prescription drugs being abused. Pregabalin, which is prescribed for nerve pain, anxiety and epilepsy in the UK, is known to be addictive. Anabolic steroids are commonly abused in the fitness community and are available via prescription in the UK. There are even reports of antidepressant addiction.

The addictive properties of prescription drugs and their impact on the body

Drawing parallels between very different kinds of prescription drugs, such as sedatives or stimulants, is difficult. Very broadly, drugs with addictive properties will increase dopamine in the brain and trigger adaptations in our reward system, which manifests as habit. Some drugs, such as benzodiazepines, work on GABA as well as dopamine. Put very simply, these drugs will trigger the release of certain chemicals in our brain, and this release eventually becomes habit-forming.

As with illicit drugs, there are significant downsides to misuse. While individual drugs will have their own symptoms, prescription drug addiction symptoms and effects include:

  • Mood swings
  • Sleeping less or more
  • Poor decision-making
  • Altered energy levels – being revved up or drowsy.

No matter the substance, it is important only to take prescription medication as directed by a doctor.

Risk factors

A US study found that being older, being in poor health and being a daily alcohol drinker were all risk factors. Prescription drug abuse was also found to be more common in women.
Regardless, prescription drug addiction cuts across all ages, cultures, health statuses and classes, and can happen to anyone from any background.

Many risk factors are shared with those for nonprescription drug abuse, such as:

  • Physical and mental health issues
  • Greater susceptibility to a euphoric reaction
  • A personal or family history of substance abuse
  • Exposure to social environments with drug abuse.

Good prescription drug addiction treatment will take these factors into account, addressing underlying issues and family background to ensure the most effective treatment possible.

The distinction between medical use and misuse – warning signs of dependency

The desired effects for people misusing prescription medications may differ between people. For instance, some people may misuse ADHD medication to obtain a high, while others may abuse it to lose weight or for some extra focus at work or studying. However, no matter the motivation, dependency can occur from using medication inappropriately.

One definition of misuse is taking a drug for a purpose other than the one it was prescribed for. This includes taking it too much, too often, or too long.

It can be difficult to define a line between appropriate use of prescribed drugs and inappropriate, as many drugs, such as opioids, stimulants and sedatives, are known to be habit-forming. Some drugs, such as benzodiazepines, are sometimes prescribed for far longer than recommended, which can lead to addiction.

The DSM-V criteria for drug misuse offers a thorough criteria, and people using prescription drugs should be alert for any of the following warning signs:

  • Taking your prescription in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to
  • Wanting to cut down or stop but being unable to
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
  • Cravings and urges
  • Failing to fulfil obligations and responsibilities
  • Continuing to use, despite it causing relationship problems
  • Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
  • Using substances repeatedly, even when it puts you in danger
  • Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the drug
  • Development of tolerance
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms.

For prescription medication, some warning signs are very clear. They are:

  • Altering how you take the medication for different effects, such as crushing and snorting medication so it enters your system faster or dissolving it in water so it lasts longer
  • Taking someone else’s prescription medication
  • Mixing your prescription with other substances, such as combining your prescription with over-the-counter medication, alcohol or illicit drugs.

If any of these warning signs are present, this is a strong indicator that it’s time to get help for prescription drug addiction.

Prescription drug addiction recovery

Treatments for prescription drug addiction address the person as well as the addiction. Inpatient treatments such as detox are just the first part of the journey. Prescription drug addiction rehabilitation is the next phase, giving longer-term tools to beat your addiction.

Prescription drug addiction treatment centres like UKAT will lead you throughout the process with counselling, therapy and aftercare to ensure your journey to recovery is supported at every step of the way.