Prescription drug addiction is an addiction to drugs that are normally and legally prescribed by physicians. We usually perceive prescription drugs as effective, helpful and safe, with extensive medical benefits and they are recommended and prescribed for diverse psychological and physical health conditions. However, certain types of prescription drugs are highly addictive.

Prescription drug addiction may be the result of abusing the drug: going off the recommended schedule, taking a drug for reasons other than the original prescription intended, or taking larger doses than prescribed. In other cases, even strictly following instructions, taking the drug as prescribed may result in addiction: some drugs are just addictive.


The problem is not rare: according to some estimates, close to fifty million people in the U.S. have, at one time or another, abused prescription drugs. As a major health problem, prescription drug addiction is practically front-page news.

The National Institute for Drug Abuse, an arm of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has identified the following classes of medicines currently in everyday use as the drugs most likely to become addiction problems:

  • Stimulants, used mainly for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and some forms of sleep disorder (for example, Ritalin (R), and amphetamines, e.g. Dexedrine (R) or Adderall (R));
  • Opiates, sometimes also referred to as narcotics (morphine, Codeine (R), OxyContyn (R), Percocet(R)) generally used for pain management;
  • Central nervous system depressants, that is, sedatives and tranquilizers, most commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders (barbiturates such as Nembutal (R), Seconal (R), etc.)

Prescription drug addiction is a particularly insidious addiction in that is relatively easy to mask, or to hide. Taking painkillers or minor tranquilizers is completely unremarkable, is done “in public”, and there is no stigma attached to it.

Many physicians and pharmacies do not warn patients that the drug being prescribed is addictive. Indeed, many general practitioners have little or no training in the area of drug addiction.

Given this state of affairs, it is easy for prescription drug addicts to hide in plain sight. In addition, it can be very difficult to make the general population aware of prescription drug addiction as the serious public health problem it has become.

Nevertheless, it is possible to spot signs of prescription drug addiction. The following changes in drugtaking behavior and activity are warning signals:

  • Increased use of prescription drugs: since overuse of many drugs leads to drug tolerance, addicts will need progressively larger or more frequent doses to achieve the same effect;
  • Extended drug use: addicts or potential addicts will keep on taking the drug after they stop needing it, often against physicians orders;
  • Establishing multiple sources: prescription drug addicts will often go to several pharmacists and physicians to receive or fill prescriptions, may turn to illegal, “street” suppliers, or begin asking for, or taking, medications meant for a relative or acquaintance

A useful, expanded overview of the various factors involved in prescription drug addiction can be found on this site:

In the section below, some further effects of prescription drug addiction are summarized. Other symptoms of addiction involving general behavioral changes are:

  • Addicts will withdraw more and more from social life as prescription drug addiction takes over and becomes the addicts’ central focus — they will spend less time with social contacts and in family activities;
  • Most prescription drug addicts will exhibit very defensive behavior when their activities are challenged or noticed – a casual mention of their drug-related behavior may often result in an aggressive, defensive explosion

The health effects of prescription drug addiction are severely destructive. The drugs noted above act on the brain and the nervous system and change some of its internal structure. As a result, prescription drug addicts will experience extreme changes of mood, significant problems in concentrating, or a marked reduction in energy level.

In general, addicts suffer significant changes in physical health as well. Depending on the drugs involved, prescription drug addicts exhibit symptoms such as increased tiredness, or noticeable change in body weight (gain or loss). The body’s ability to to take or use nourishment properly becomes impaired, and other significant problems of major organs will ensue.

There is, in fact, danger of death, even without significant health problems, when prescription drug addiction involves multiple drugs, or drugs and other substances such as alcohol. Combining tranquilizers with opiates for example, leads to potentially fatal slowing of one’s breathing and heart rate.