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 American Society of Addiction Medicine American Society of Addiction Medicine

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Prescription Drug Addiction Symptoms and Effects

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse and addiction is one of the most poorly recognized types of chemical dependency, particularly in women. A prescription drug is any medicine regulated by law to require a doctor's prescription before it can be obtained. Prescription drugs generally work by either suppressing or promoting chemical reactions in the brain.

Three different classes of prescriptions are most susceptible to abuse:

  • Stimulants: most commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Opiates: most often prescribed to treat severe or chronic pain
  • Tranquilizers / sedatives: frequently prescribed to treat anxiety disorders or sleep disorders

Drug-seeking behaviors are the primary warning signs of prescription drug abuse, regardless of the chemical make up of the medication. These behaviors include:

  • Frequent requests for refills from physicians
  • Losing prescriptions and requesting replacements regularly
  • Crushing or breaking pills
  • Stealing or borrowing prescription medications from family members, friends, or co-workers
  • Consuming prescriptions much faster than indicated
  • Visiting multiple doctors for similar conditions
  • Inconsistent answers to questions about prescription usage
  • Stealing or forging prescriptions
  • Consumption of over-the-counter drugs for the same conditions that a doctor has prescribed other medication
  • Ordering prescription medications over the internet

Several other behavior patterns often accompany the emergence of prescription drug addiction. They should also be considered signs of a progressing addictive disease process:

  • Noticeable mood swings corresponding to availability or absence of prescription drugs
  • Changing sleep patterns
  • Increasing irritability, especially when prescriptions are unavailable
  • More frequent alcohol consumption

Prescription drug abuse symptoms vary based on the class of drug.

Symptoms of Sedative or Tranquilizer Addiction

A person abusing tranquilizers or sedatives may or may not be conscious of how it impacts their appearance and/or behavior. The most visible symptoms of sedative abuse or addiction may include:

  • Drowsy or Intoxicated appearance
  • Confusion about surroundings or time
  • Unsteady movements and/or mannerisms
  • Involuntary gestures, movements or tics
  • Rapid, involuntary eye movement
  • Poor judgment and decision-making
  • Difficulty with memory
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Symptoms of Stimulant Abuse

Symptoms of the abuse of prescription stimulants may include:

  • Extreme agitation or irritability
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated body temperatures not explained by environment or physical activity
  • Seizures
  • Cardiovascular failure
  • Increasing hostility
  • Feelings of paranoia
  • Insomnia, which may persist for days at a time
  • Unexplained weight loss (which can also indicate an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia)

Symptoms of Opiate Abuse

Opiate painkillers are prescribed millions of times per year for legal purposes. Some opiate abusers continue using opiates following a legal prescription for a medical condition, while others seek out painkillers either for medical or psychiatric relief. As a result, abuse and addiction can progress very differently in different people. Common symptoms of the abuse of prescription painkillers may include:

  • Depression
  • Rapid decrease in blood pressure not explained by other medical conditions
  • Disorientation or confusion in familiar surroundings
  • Constipation or other digestive irregularities
  • Shortness of breath

Abuse of opiates and painkillers may be equally distinguishable by the withdrawal symptoms a user experiences when they attempt to stop using the drugs. These symptoms indicate the potential for serious medical complications and should be taken very seriously:

  • Cold flashes, regardless of environment
  • Involuntary leg movements ("kicking")
  • Restlessness
  • Sharp bone and muscle pains
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures

An addiction to other drugs or alcohol can also coexist with prescription drug abuse. Many people have been found to mix alcohol with prescription medications to accentuate the feeling of euphoria. This mixture is often referred to as a cocktail. The risk of overdose in this situation is quite high.

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What Are the Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse?

If prescription drugs are taken for emotional problems without the supervision of a medical professional, the only result of the drugs will be to mask or numb the upset feelings. Although a person may not experience her depression for a period of time or she may be temporarily able to stop obsessing about a certain problem, in most cases, the problem is just made worse as the person is not learning how to effectively cope with the particular feelings and issues at hand.

The abuse of prescription drugs often results in negative effects on personal relationships, employment difficulties and job loss, financial difficulties, legal issues, and psychological problems.

Prescription drug abuse and addiction are serious medical conditions that require treatment by chemical dependency specialists. Reducing one's use of certain prescriptions can involve serious medical complications, including death. Detoxification from prescription drugs should not be attempted at home or without direction and supervision from a medical doctor. If you or your loved one are concerned you may be experiencing prescription drug withdrawal symptoms, call 911 for emergency assistance.

What are the Causes of Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction?

Prescription drugs are more controlled than over-the-counter medications, which can be purchased without a prescription. Generally, only a licensed medical doctor, dentist, optometrist, or veterinarian may write the prescription. Registered nurses, medical assistants, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives, emergency medical technicians, psychologists, and social workers as examples, do not have the authority to prescribe drugs.

Most people take medicines only in the manner in which their doctors prescribe them. However a significant amount of people are predisposed to become addicted when they start to abuse prescription drugs after a legitimate prescription was written for them by their doctor. The prescription may have been written due to chronic pain, injury, surgery or depression.

Prescription drug abuse is increasing. The availability of drugs is probably one reason. Doctors are prescribing more drugs for more health problems. The growing numbers of online pharmacies can make it easier to get prescription drugs without a prescription.

Most individuals don't begin taking prescription drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. Many individuals take the medication to gain some relief from their pain. Another effect of the prescription drug is that many provide a pleasurable feeling. In an attempt to reduce the pain even further and enhance the feeling of pleasure, individuals begin to take more medication. A tolerance to the prescription drug is gradually developed, so now more and more is required to produce the initial effect.

Many prescription drugs have the potential to become physically or psychologically addictive. To abruptly discontinue prescription medications could result in serious medical complications, like seizures or convulsions. Withdrawal from prescription drugs should be attempted only under medical supervision. Withdrawal from sedative medications, in particular, can be life-threatening without appropriate medical monitoring.

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Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center is a leading rehab and recovery center for women and adolescent girls suffering with prescription drug abuse as well as other addictions, eating disorders and co-occurring disorders. Call us today or read more about our prescription drug addiction treatment program.

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