Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction is a major issue across the globe, affecting tens of millions of people worldwide. While addiction to illicit drugs often takes all the headlines, prescription drug addiction can be equally as devastating with catastrophes like the American Opioid Crisis showing just how dangerous these medications can be. Prescription drug addiction can be particularly insidious, often evolving from legitimate medicinal use and impacting every facet of a person’s life. Recognising the signs of addiction and knowing where to seek prescription drug addiction help is therefore vital for the safe and effective use of potentially dangerous medications.

What are prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs are medications that a healthcare professional legally prescribes to treat and manage different health conditions. A country’s authorities regulate them because they are powerful, have potential side effects and/or pose a risk for abuse or dependence.

Prescription drugs are generally classified into several types including:

  • Opioids for pain relief
  • Benzodiazepines for anxiety
  • Antidepressants for mood disorders
  • Stimulants for conditions like ADHD

The concept of prescription medication has evolved, with modern regulations far stricter than those even a few decades ago when many potentially addictive and harmful drugs were freely available. The requirement for a prescription serves as a control mechanism to ensure that these potent substances are used safely and effectively under medical supervision with serious consequences for illegal supply, distribution or production.

What is prescription drug addiction?

Prescription drug addiction is a complex physical and mental health condition where a person keeps taking medication even though it is obviously harming them in some way. It typically begins when the person either overuses their prescribed medication beyond the prescribed dose, uses medication for non-medical reasons or takes it for a recreational “high”.

The progression from use to addiction involves changes in brain chemistry, particularly in how the brain perceives pleasure and pain. Over time, the brain begins to rely on the drug to stimulate pleasure centres or relieve pain while natural chemical balances become disrupted by the substance’s constant presence. This dependency then compels the person to continue taking the drug to feel “normal” and avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms which emerge if they try to quit.

However, prescription drug addiction is not just a physical dependency but a psychological one, too. Once addicted, individuals may feel they cannot cope with whatever is going on in their lives without the medication, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and complicating attempts to quit without professional help.

Prescription drug addiction in the UK

Prescription drug addiction in the United Kingdom has been a significant public health issue for many years. While prescribing practices in the UK are generally more regulated than in other places in the world, there are still people who become addicted to prescription medications, particularly opioids and benzodiazepines.

Prescription opioid addiction is a particular concern as, while fatalities have not come anywhere close to those in North America, opioids and opiates are still the single biggest cause of drug-related deaths in the UK. In 2022 alone, prescription drug addiction statistics show there were 2,261 deaths due to opioid poisoning, which, to put into perspective, was almost half the total fatalities linked to drug use in England and Wales. This includes a range of prescription opioids as well as illicit drugs like heroin.

Potentially addictive prescription drugs

The spectrum of prescription medications that can lead to addiction is broad, encompassing several classes of drugs, each with unique effects and potential for abuse:

Anticonvulsant addiction
Anticonvulsants are mostly prescribed to manage seizure disorders but can also be used for bipolar disorder and neuropathic (nerve) pain. Despite their benefits, anticonvulsants can lead to psychol…

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Antidepressants addiction
While less commonly associated with dependency, certain antidepressants can cause withdrawal symptoms and psychological dependency when used inappropriately. This can lead to a cycle where individu…

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Benzodiazepine addiction
Benzodiazepines are often used to treat anxiety, insomnia and other conditions, but they are among the most highly addictive prescription medications. They can quickly lead to physical and psycholo…

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Opioid addiction
Opioids are also among the most addictive prescription medications and are usually prescribed for pain relief. They carry a high risk of dependency due to their powerful euphoric effects, leading t…

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Painkiller addiction
This category often overlaps with opioids but also includes non-opioid painkillers that can be potentially addictive. Individuals may begin using these medications for legitimate pain but find them…

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Sleeping pill addiction
Medications for insomnia, including some benzodiazepines and newer “Z-drugs”, can lead to dependence. Users may quickly find they are unable to sleep or even cope with everyday life without the…

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Stimulants addiction
Stimulants such as those used for treating ADHD can be highly addictive. They enhance alertness, attention and energy and are often misused for their performance-enhancing effects, leading to psych…

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Signs and symptoms of a prescription drug addiction

Recognising the signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction can be particularly challenging when the drugs are initially used for a genuine medical reason. However, early detection is key for preventing the escalation of addiction and getting help as soon as possible.

Common prescription drug addiction symptoms include:

  • Increased tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms and cravings
  • Uncontrolled usage
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down
  • An obsession with acquiring more of the drug
  • Social withdrawal
  • Continued prescription drug use despite obvious harms
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Lying to loved ones about prescription drug use

Typical causes of a prescription drug addiction

While many prescription drugs have the chemical potential to create a physical dependency, developing a full-blown prescription drug addiction often results from a mix of underlying risk factors. Understanding these factors can help highlight who is most in danger of becoming addicted to prescription drugs and needs to be the most cautious:

  • Genetic predisposition: People with a family history of addiction are at higher risk of developing similar issues.
  • Psychological factors: Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can drive some people to self-medicate with prescription drugs, increasing the risk of addiction.
  • Social influences: Peer pressure or living in an environment where drug use is common can make someone more likely to misuse drugs.
  • Chronic pain: Patients prescribed medications for long-term pain management may develop tolerance and a resulting prescription drug addiction, even when using the medication as directed.
  • Inadequate guidance: Lack of proper monitoring by your doctor and a misunderstanding of the risks can contribute to unintentional prescription drug misuse.
  • Past or current substance abuse: Those with a history of substance abuse are more susceptible to developing an addiction to other substances, including prescription medications.

Each of these factors alone can be significant, but often, it is the combination of several that leads to the development of prescription drug addiction.

The dangerous side effects of a prescription drug addiction

Prescription drug addiction can affect a person’s health and well-being and also damage their relationships, career and prospects.

Some of the most harmful effects include:

Physical health effects

  • Withdrawal symptoms: Depending on what kind of prescription drug a person takes, withdrawal symptoms can include nausea, anxiety, depression and even potentially fatal seizures.
  • Risk of overdose: Increasing dosages can lead to overdose (also potentially fatal), especially with opioids and benzodiazepines.
  • Organ damage: Long-term prescription drug use can harm the liver, kidneys, heart and other organs, especially when medications are taken in higher doses than prescribed.

Mental health effects

  • Cognitive impairment: Long-term prescription abuse can cause problems with memory, concentration and decision-making.
  • Mood disorders: Chronic prescription drug users may experience mood swings, depression and anxiety, which may persist even when they quit.

Social effects

  • Relationship issues: Addiction often causes isolation from friends and family, which leaves the person alone to suffer.
  • Financial problems: The money needed to feed a prescription drug addiction and the effects it can have on a person’s career prospects can cause enormous financial strain.
  • Legal issues: Possession or use of prescription drugs without a prescription can lead to legal consequences. In the UK, the penalties depend on the specific medication, but many prescription opioids and benzodiazepines carry long prison sentences for illegal supply in particular.

Is there treatment available for prescription drug addiction?

Fortunately, treatment options for prescription drug addiction in the UK are both accessible and effective, offering hope and a pathway to recovery for those struggling. The first step in treatment usually involves detox, where the individual discontinues the drug under medical supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms safely.

Following detox, prescription drug rehab treatment addresses the psychological aspects of addiction through various therapies. The goal of prescription drug rehab is to help individuals understand the root causes of their addiction, learn new ways of coping with the challenges of life and prevent a return to drug use.

After that, many rehab centres provide ongoing support to help the transition back to everyday life. This often involves aftercare programmes that help maintain sobriety and prevent relapse.

Seek help today

If you or someone you know is struggling with prescription drug addiction, it is crucial to seek help immediately. There are many dedicated addiction treatment centres across the UK that offer comprehensive care for prescription drug addiction. These centres provide the necessary tools and support to overcome addiction and regain control of your life. Call us today and let us guide you through the process of picking the right rehab centre for you.

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(Click here to see works cited)

  • Carter, Alan, and Brian Krans. “9 of the Most Addictive Prescription Drugs on the Market.” Healthline, 2021, Accessed 9 May 2024.
  • UK Addiction Treatment Centres. “Prescription Drug Addiction: Understanding Abuse | UKAT.” UK Addiction Treatment Centres, 5 December 2023, Accessed 9 May 2024.
  • NIDA. “How can prescription drug addiction be treated?.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9 Mar. 2023, Accessed 9 May 2024.