Recognising the signs of prescription drug dependency

When we think of drug addiction, we may automatically think about the use of and dependency on illicit substances. That means that the language around addiction frequently conjures images of cocaine, heroin, and other class-A substances. However, this understanding of addiction leaves out a big part of the picture: the prevalence of dependency on clinically prescribed medications. As a community, we are facing a high treatment need for prescription drug addiction rehabilitation. 


But with 1.18 billion medications given on prescription in England between 2023 and 2024, we can see that bringing attention to the risks around prescription drug dependency is perhaps a critical part of responsible healthcare. 

Prescription drug dependency: What is it?

A 2023 paper claims that ‘the misuse of prescription medications is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States of America.’ There have been similar concerns around the rise of risky use of prescription drugs in the UK, particularly around the use of benzodiazepines, opioids, stimulants and specific types of antidepressant medications. Nearly ‘70% of the United Kingdom population has received one or more prescriptions.’ Among these, there is a growing number of individuals receiving prescriptions for 5 or more drugs.

Prescription drug dependency occurs when someone becomes physiologically and/or psychologically reliant on a specific type of medication. This can happen in several ways:

  • An individual becomes dependent on a specific medication that is prescribed to them by a healthcare practitioner or
  • An individual becomes dependent on a specific medication that they have acquired either from a friend or family member, or through an illicit (non-prescription) channel 

The use of prescription medications turns into dependency when someone builds a tolerance or otherwise becomes reliant on a substance to function ‘as usual.’  This is typically linked to ‘unsafe’ or ‘risky’ use of prescription medications. 

This can look like:

  • Taking too much of a drug at once
  • Taking several drugs at once 
  • Taking drugs more often than recommended
  • Mixing drugs with illicit drugs and/or alcohol 

Common misconceptions 

Whilst, as a society, we may be getting more acclimated to the concept of addiction, there is still lots of misinformation around prescription drug addiction in particular. This includes the myths that:

  • Prescription medications are safer to use than illicit medications 
  • There are no repercussions for sharing prescription medications (legal or otherwise)
  • Prescription medications purchased online or on the street are the same as the medications accessed through a medical professional 
  • Prescription medication can’t lead to addiction 
  • Prescription medication can’t cause harm 
  • Using prescription medication in risky ways in order to ‘manage’ is normal

All of these above statements are false. Risky use of prescription medication can be very dangerous. Abusing prescription medications can have a range of life-altering effects and can be the first step on the slippery slope to addiction. This type of addiction can be particularly serious and, in most cases, can warrant support in the context of prescription drug addiction treatment. 

Prescription drug addiction symptoms and effects

All medications carry the risk of their own unique side effects. These can range from quite mild to severe. In the case of dependency, as use becomes heavier or more frequent, these symptoms can be amplified. Alongside these drug-specific symptoms, you may also encounter a range of sensations we might think of as prescription drug addiction side effects.

It is important to note that the effects that you may experience will depend on lots of different factors, such as:

  • your body mass
  • your general physical health 
  • your general mental health 
  • your history with drugs and medicines 
  • the duration of use 
  • the specific medication you are using 
  • the strength of the medication you are using 
  • the way in which you take your medication (capsules, tablets, injections, etc)

However, there can be some key trends in the symptoms of prescription drug abuse. These can be broken down into physical, psychological and behavioural effects. 

Physical effects 

  • significant changes in sleep pattern
  • significant changes in weight 
  • appearing unusually energetic or unusually lethargic 
  • involuntary muscle movements (tremors or spasms)
  • damage to the renal system (liver and/or kidney damage)
  • damage to the cardiovascular system (brain and/or heart damage)
  • intense headaches
  • nausea and sickness
  • feeling generally under the weather
  • clamminess 
  • difficulty maintaining temperature 
  • heart palpitations 
  • strain on heart
  • respiratory depression 
  • risk of stroke
  • risk of seizures
  • risk of coma 
  • risk of overdose 

Psychological effects 

  • anxiety 
  • depression
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • feeling drowsy
  • euphoria (unusually high mood)
  • mood swings 
  • paranoia 
  • development of hypochondria 
  • denial 

Behavioural effects 

  • being aggressive 
  • being deceitful 
  • hiding drug use 
  • minimising the effects of drug use 
  • social withdrawal 
  • difficulties at work or school
  • difficulties maintaining personal care
  • difficulties with finances
  • more frequent trips to the doctors
  • seeing multiple medical professionals concurrently 
  • asking multiple medical professionals for prescriptions 
  • seeking prescription medications online 
  • exaggerating symptoms in order to obtain prescriptions 
  • requesting repeat prescriptions sooner than is expected 
  • stealing or forging prescriptions 
  • asking others to share their prescription medications with you [5]

Types of drugs linked with prescription drug addiction 

Many types of medications prescribed by medical professionals have some kind of addiction potential. However, three key types of drugs are associated with higher rates of misuse. These are:

  1. Opioids
  2. Benzodiazepines
  3. Stimulants 


Opioids are analgesics or painkillers. These are typically prescribed to help people manage instances of intense pain. These drugs can be used as a way of managing chronic pain, as well as to quell more acute symptoms. Opioids are notoriously recognised for their addiction potential. 

A study indicates that between 2014 and 2015, 5.4% of adults (between 16 and 59) misused a prescription painkiller that was not prescribed to them. Opioids are frequently associated with accidental overdose, as well as with polydrug use. In comparison to 1999, 6 times more people died from an opioid overdose in 2021. Almost half of fatal drug poisonings in 2021 involved an opiate. 


Common examples of prescription opioids include:

  • Buprenorphine 
  • Codeine 
  • Dihydrocodeine
  • Hydrocodone 
  • Fentanyl 
  • Morphine 
  • Methadone 
  • Oxycodone 
  • Pethidine 
  • Tramadol 
  • Vicodin 


Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative (or hypnotic drug). They are typically prescribed to individuals dealing with high levels of anxiety or sleep disorders. They can sometimes be prescribed to individuals who experience specific kinds of seizures. 


In the UK, 11,490 people were in treatment for an addiction to benzodiazepines between 2021 and 2022. 4,859 deaths due to drug poisoning were registered in England and Wales in 2021. 538 of these deaths were linked to benzodiazepines. This is a 13% increase in the number of benzodiazepine-related deaths in 2020. 


Common examples of prescription benzodiazepines include:

  • Ativan 
  • Halcion 
  • Klonopin 
  • Librium 
  • Mogadon 
  • Temazepam
  • Valium 
  • Xanax 



The term stimulants refers to any drug that works to excite specific neurons in the brain. These can be used to treat a range of conditions, such as depression, ADHD and narcolepsy. In the US, 6.6% of adults use stimulants. Of these, only 4.5% of users take these medications without misuse. 

Common examples of prescription stimulants include:

  • Methylphenidate 
  • Lisdexamfetamine 
  • Dexamfetamine
  • Atomoxetine
  • Guanfacine
  • Escitalopram
  • Paroxetine 
  • Sertraline 
  • Agomelatine 
  • Mirtazapine 

Prescription drug addiction recovery 

The symptoms of prescription drug dependency can dramatically impact your life. For some people, the idea of reaching out can be particularly daunting. We offer specialist help for prescription drug addiction at UKAT’s Primrose Lodge. By accessing treatments for prescription drug addiction, you can begin to take back control of your life, one step at a time. To access confidential, judgement-free support, you can contact us to find out what you can expect at Primrose Lodge. Our centres give you the chance to loosen the grip of prescription drug addiction and move toward a life free from dependency.

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