How Do You Get Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

the hands of a doctor with a prescription pad writing a prescription

How Do You Get Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

It’s no doubt a ravaging addiction epidemic is plaguing both large cities and small rural towns across the country. In the past two decades alone, there has been an explosion of prescription drug misuse. Approximately 18 million Americans abuse their prescription medication, with 5,480 people initiating prescription pain reliever use each day. While many people assume that addiction refers to illicit substance use, more and more individuals are receiving their ‘fix’ directly from their doctor’s offices. How do people get addicted to prescription drugs? What are the symptoms and warning signs? How does someone seek help if they are struggling?

Understanding The Different Types of Prescription Drugs

There are different prescription drugs that people misuse. These medications fall into three categories: opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines. It should be noted that most people start by taking their medications as prescribed. People don’t choose to struggle with the perils of addiction. Instead, because of the powerful potency associated with these drugs, the risk for misuse continues to be an ongoing societal problem.

Prescription Opioids

Prescription opioids include:

Opioids act on opioid receptors in the brain. For many years, they have been prescribed as part of pain management. People may be prescribed opioids for acute conditions like injuries or surgery or long-term, chronic conditions like autoimmune diseases or cancer. Opioids relieve pain, but they also activate the reward regions in the brain. These regions are associated with a sense of pleasure and euphoria. When taken inappropriately, opioids can produce the feeling of being high. These positive associations can increase the chance of misuse and addiction. Opioids are often prescribed for short-term use (i.e., a few days after surgery). However, long-term use can result in dependence. When people become dependent on opioids, they need to take more than the original prescription to achieve the desired effects. This dependence can lead to risky behaviors (stealing medication, “doctor-shopping,” faking symptoms, taking other drugs like heroin). Opioids also produce withdrawal effects. When people stop taking their medication, they will experience some distressing symptoms. The severity of these symptoms vary, but they can become incredibly uncomfortable. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Increased sense of chronic pain
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Heightened cravings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Gooseflesh

Because withdrawal can be so daunting, many people continue abusing opioids to stave off the symptoms. Research shows that nearly 30% of individuals receiving opioids for pain management showed signs of a mild opioid use disorder. Of course, this figure may be higher. Many people downplay their use due to fear that their doctor will discontinue the prescription. A doctor looking at his patient's prescription bottle

Prescription Stimulants

Common prescription stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin)
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Zenzedi, ProCentra)
  • Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)

These medications are typically prescribed for ADHD, but they have also be used for narcolepsy, obesity, and neurological disorder treatment in the past. 11% of American children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and rates for diagnoses in adults continue to climb each year. Stimulants remain one of the most recommended treatment options for individuals with ADHD. Stimulants increase attention, wakefulness, and alertness. They act on the norepinephrine and dopamine brain neurotransmitters. When taken as prescribed, these medications can ease and reduce ADHD symptoms related to poor attention spans, interrupting, fidgeting, and hyperactivity. All stimulant medications have the potential for misuse. In recent years, there has been a concerning trend of young students and employees using stimulants for enhanced school and work performance. Indeed, research indicates that up to 16% of college students report misusing stimulants. In that same study, nearly 30% of students stated that it’s ‘somewhat’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain stimulants. Unfortunately, many people use stimulants for an increased sense of focus and alertness during study or work time. However, relying on these medications can have dangerous consequences, including:

  • Increased agitation and irritability
  • Paranoia and hypervigilance
  • Sleep problems
  • Appetite problems
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, distorted thinking, illogical behavior)


Common benzodiazepines include:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)

Benzodiazepines are part of the sedative class of drugs. They are typically prescribed for anxiety, seizures, and sleep problems. Benzodiazepines are recommended for controlled and short-term use. However, long-term use can lead to addiction and other adverse effects. Benzodiazepines act on the GABA neurotransmitter, which helps produce a tranquilizer and sedative effect. In cases of anxiety, this medication can reduce restless, hyperactive symptoms. Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming, and there is a high potential for misuse. Alcohol is also closely associated with benzodiazepine misuse. Research shows that alcohol was a factor in 25% of emergency department visits related to benzodiazepine misuse. This relationship can be a deadly one. Both benzodiazepines and alcohol can lead to seizures and overdose- both of which can be fatal. When people misuse benzodiazepines, they will experience withdrawal once stopping the substances. Withdrawal symptoms will range in severity depending on the length of use, individual’s health history, and the presence of polysubstance use.

Withdrawal effects can include:

  • Increased anxiety or panic
  • Insomnia
  • Muscles spasms and body tension
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Blurred visions
  • Difficulty with focus and concentration
  • Mood swings
  • Intense cravings

These withdrawal symptoms can last for several days, and they tend to peak around the second week. Depending on the individual, symptoms can last a few days up to several months. A young man thinking about his prescription drug addiction

What Causes Some People To Get Addicted To Prescription Drugs?

Not everyone who takes prescription drugs becomes addicted to them. Thousands of patients take medication every day as prescribed without any habit-forming consequences. While there is not a definitive culprit determining who does (or does not) develop an addiction, there are some significant variables to consider:

  • History of addiction: People who have struggled with addiction in the past (regardless of the substance abused) may have a higher chance of misusing prescription medication.
  • Family history of addiction: Individuals with addiction tend to have family members who also have a history of addiction.
  • Co-occurring disorders: People with mental disorders (depression, anxiety, PTSD) may self-medicate their symptoms by misusing their prescription medication.
  • History of trauma: Research highlights a strong relationship between drug or alcohol misuse and reported histories of trauma.

That said, anyone is susceptible to addiction. Unfortunately, many patients receiving medication do not understand the side effects associated with their prescription. Until recently, some medical professionals did not even thoroughly understand the risks. As a result, a percentage of individuals struggling with prescription misuse “stumbled” into their problem unknowingly. Some people use prescription drugs, concurrently with other substances. For example, someone taking meth may take opioids to “come down” from the stimulating effects. Likewise, people using heroin often take benzodiazepines, like Xanax. These individuals may receive their prescriptions legally from a physician or psychiatrist. However, they may also purchase them illicitly on the streets or through a black market.

Treating Prescription Drug Addiction

Despite some misconceptions, prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as illicit substances. The statistics are harrowing. Fatal poisonings involving opioids have tripled between 1999 and 2006, and the figures only appear to be arising. In 2017, nearly 15,000 people died from natural or semisynthetic opioids, and approximately 30,000 died from synthetic opioids other than methadone (such as fentanyl). In comparison, about 15,000 people died from heroin overdoses. Every day, more than 100 people die from drug overdoses. Most of these deaths can be attributed to prescription medications. Today, in most parts of the country, people have a higher chance of dying from a drug-related overdose than a motor vehicle accident.

Seeking Detox

Most people struggling with addiction will need medical detox. Detox provides a safe and structured environment in supporting someone from acute intoxication to full stabilization. Clients receive on-site medical services and close monitoring throughout their care. Because withdrawal symptoms can be so dangerous, it is not recommended that individuals detox cold-turkey. It is better (and safer) to receive a comprehensive medical evaluation during this time. Detox alone is not treatment. However, comprehensive detox programs provide aftercare support referring to long-term care. Most people will need structured treatment upon completing treatment.

Addiction Treatment

After completing detox, most clients benefit from addiction treatment. The type of treatment will vary depending on the individual’s needs, mental health status, and addiction history. The standard levels of treatment are inpatient (often known as ‘residential), partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient care. Treatment provides individuals with extensive support for their addiction including:

  • Relapse prevention
  • Trauma education and healing
  • Individual, couples, and family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Holistic therapies (nutrition, fitness, meditation)
  • Aftercare and alumni support
  • Case management
  • Assistance with legal, financial, and housing stressors

Are you struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs? Don’t suffer another day. We’re here 24/7 to speak to you. Contact us today at (866) 957-7298 to learn more about our admissions process.