drug addiction

Prescription Drug Addiction. A more common addiction than you might think.

When we think of someone who is addicted to drugs, we usually think first of illegal street drugs. However, a great many people have a prescription drug addiction or an addiction to over-the-counter medicine.

Some people become addicted to pain medications, often after a bout of illness or accident where strong painkillers are needed. Usually a physician will help the patient to wean off the stronger medication so that, although pain is controlled, the withdrawal symptoms are tolerable.

Unfortunately, some folks like the effects of pain meds, so much so that they go round to different doctors to get prescriptions long after a real need has passed. Whatever the reason for the original prescription drug addiction, the effects and the withdrawal is similar to that of the street counterparts.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) divides prescription drug addiction - that is drugs that are likely to be abused - into three groups:

The first group are the things mentioned above - pain relievers/narcotics/opioids.

Among the compounds that fall within this class are

  • Hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin),
  • Oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin which is an oral, controlled-release form of the drug),
  • Morphine,
  • Fentanyl,
  • Codeine, and related medications.
Morphine and fentanyl are often used to alleviate severe pain, while codeine is used for milder pain. Other examples of opioids that can be prescribed to relieve pain include
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
  • Meperidine (Demerol), (now used less often because of its side effects).
In addition to their effective pain-relieving properties, some of these medications can be used to relieve severe diarrhea (for example, Lomotil, also known as diphenoxylate) or severe coughs (codeine). (NIDA)

The second group are Central Nervous System depressants, known as CNS depressants or tranquilizers.

These medications are sedatives and their purpose is to slow brain function. These CNS depressants fall into three groups themselves,

  • Barbiturates such as Nembutal, used as a pre -anesthetic.
  • Benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax or ProSom which are used for panic attacks, sleep disorders and acute stress.
  • The newer sleep aids such as Ambien, Sonata or Lunesta. According to NIDA these medications have a lower risk of addiction.

The third group are the stimulant drugs.

These are the amphetamines (Adderal, Dexedrine) or methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, which has been heavily prescribed for ADHD. These drugs increase the levels of various chemicals in the brain. They will also increases blood pressure and heart rate, cause increased alertness, energy, and can produce a sense of euphoria. Taken in high doses they can cause high body temperature seizures and paranoia and hostility. Even though these drugs have been used in the past for asthma and ADHD, their addictive properties have made other drugs better choices.

I am also including Antidepressants in this list, not because they are truly addictive, but if you try and stop them suddenly, you get very bad withdrawal symptoms. This causes many people to stay on them, just as if they were addicted. As I have had personal experience with the class of drugs called SSRI's. You can go to antidepressant addiction to read about this.

Aside from prescription medications there are some over the counter medications which can be misused. In particular cough and cold medicines containing dextromethorphan are a risk especially for young people and if taken in excessive quantities. At doses of four or more ounces, dextromethorphan produces dissociative effects similar to those of PCP and ketamine. Using cough medicine for a 'high' is becoming more popular among young people. Most likely because it is easy to purchase or often found in the family medicine cabinet, or that as it is an over-the-counter medicine, it is assumed to be safe.

Getting free from prescription drug addiction

Regardless of the reasons for addiction to prescription medication, getting off the medication needs the same kind of dedication and help that getting away from street drugs requires. First to acknowledge that you have a problem, and second to plan how to deal with getting - and staying - off.

Here are some issues to think about, depending on what particular medication you are using.

Pain control. If you have been prescribed any kind of narcotic (Morphine or Oxycontin for example) obviously you needed it for pain control. Are you still in a great deal of pain? There are some other ways to deal with pain, other than continual medication. You may need to experiment and use several different methods. Some things work better than others for some people.

Also, stress and depression make pain worse, therefore, finding ways to combat both will help your pain level. Pain can cause depression which in turn make the pain worse, so you will need to break the cycle in order to deal with this.

Suggestions for alternative, non-drug therapies for getting away from prescription drug addiction.

  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, known as a TENS unit (For pain relief)
  • Relaxation
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Exercise
  • EFT
  • Yoga
  • Physical Therapy
  • Laughter
  • Changes in diet.
  • Weight loss
  • Hypnosis/subliminal messaging
  • Biofeedback
  • Hydrotherapy and/or Swimming

There are also some drugs used to help wean users from their prescription drug addiction. These are only used under the supervision of a physician. This is particularly important as some can give severe withdrawal symptoms if used along with the addictive substance.

Going Cold Turkey. It is never a good idea to stop any drug suddenly. The effects of withdrawal can be severe, if not life-threatening. Withdrawal can be extremely painful and unpleasant and can include pain in muscles and bones, diarrhea, vomiting, chills, twitching and generalized restlessness.

If you are trying to do this alone, or if you are trying to help a family member to get away from a prescription drug addiction, then slowly reduce the dose over a period of weeks. This is definitely a time for support. A support person can help monitor the dosage of the drugs and watch for any severe withdrawal symptoms which may need professional intervention.

Dangers of prescription Drug Addiction.

Just because a drug is a prescription medication meant for human consumption, does not mean that it is safe for a particular person or that it can be combined with any other substance safely.

As with street drugs, addiction to prescription drugs may cause many unwanted side effects and also long term problems such a liver damage.

Because the dosage may not be regulated, overdose can occur.

If drugs are bought on the street, they may not actually be the drugs that they are supposed to be.

Narcotics in particular, given their relationship to Heroin, are just as hard to get free from.

CNS depressants are usually taken by mouth but can be crushed and injected. This is a very unsafe practice as the fillers in the tablets can damage the blood vessels.


Never assume that because someone has a prescription drug addiction, that it is not a serious addiction. It is just as serious, and with as many long term effects as street drugs. Dealing with the addiction and getting free, demands a plan, support, determination and persistence, just as much as recovery from Methamphetamine or Cocaine. For those who are severely addicted, an inpatient detox or rehab may be a needed first step. One of the hardest things is to perhaps convince a family member that they do indeed have an addiction problem. They will most likely be in denial and it may take a family intervention to show them the danger they are in and the problems it is causing.




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This page updated 2013