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Prescription Drug Abuse Symptoms – Everything You Need to Know

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Medication is developed to help people cope with disorders, ease pain, and recover from illnesses. Chemists and manufacturers have made incredible medical breakthroughs that have improved the health and life of millions of people. However, many types of medications come with warnings about the consequences of misuse. Prescription drugs, while legal in some cases, can result in psychological and physiological addictions that can be extremely damaging to a person’s health. In the U.S. alone, a reported 54 million people over the age of twelve have abused prescription drugs during their lifetime. Prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused type of drug after marijuana. Worse yet, prescription drugs are the leading cause of drug-related overdose, beating out dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin, and illegal amphetamines. Abuse of prescription drugs is characterized by using the medication in ways other than prescribed, taking a medication that was not prescribed to you, or using a prescription for non-medical reasons. While anyone who uses prescription drugs can be at risk of abuse and addiction, it is most common in young and middle-aged adults. Are you asking yourself, “Am I addicted to prescription drugs?” Or do you believe that a loved one may be addicted? Have you misused prescription drugs or continue to abuse your medication on a regular basis? Before you or a loved one can seek prescription drug abuse treatment, it’s important to understand the symptoms associated with each drug. In this article, we will take a look at the most commonly abused classes of prescription drugs and the symptoms associated with the abuse of these medications.


Opioids, also known as narcotics and prescription painkillers, are one of the most common, and most deadly, abused prescription drugs. About 21 – 29% of patients that are prescribed opioids misuse their medication, which can lead to serious health problems or a drug use disorder. Prescription opioids also often beget illegal drug use. In fact, 80% of heroin users’ addictions began with prescription opioid use. Opioids are prescribed as a medication to treat severe chronic pain, such as that from bodily trauma or surgery. While the medication was originally derived from the opium plant, chemists are now able to mass produce synthetic drugs, making opioids readily available for medical use. During the 1990’s drug developers sold opioids to medical offices with the promise that opioids were less addictive than other narcotics. This was a promise that quickly proved to be untrue, as the abuse of opioids has dramatically increased since the introduction of synthetic opioids to the market. Among the most commonly abused types of opioids are codeine and oxycodone. The beginning of an opioid addiction often comes from the pleasurable effects of the drug, such as relaxation and euphoria when taken in high doses. Opioids affect particular receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract, all of which can lead to relief of physical and emotional pain. These drugs prey on the reward sensors in the brain. As the user begins to develop a tolerance to the drug, the reward sensors demand higher doses to achieve the same levels of relief or euphoria once experienced. With prolonged use, this psychological addiction can become a biological addiction and the person is unable to function normally without the drug. Next, we will take a deeper look into each of these particular strains of opioids and learn about the symptoms of prescription drug abuse for each.


Codeine is an analgesic that is prescribed for short-term relief from mild to moderate pain. It is commonly recognized as a chief ingredient in prescription cough syrup, but can also be used to treat gastronomical symptoms such as diarrhea. The pain-relieving effects of codeine are supposed to last only a few hours and the drugs are normally used to treat illnesses, not chronic pain. Because codeine is an opioid, it comes with a high risk of developing a dependence on the drug. Long-term addiction to codeine can lead to a wide variety of side effects, including, but not limited to:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Depressive disorder
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Muscle spasms
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Symptoms of Codeine Abuse

The signs and symptoms of codeine abuse can differ from person to person. Some people may exhibit many of the symptoms or just a few. Take a look at the person whom you suspect has an addiction problem, even if this person is yourself. Some of the earliest signs of drug addiction include changes in mood, such as depression, withdrawing from friends or family, and an increase in episodes of anxiety. Other behavioral symptoms that may point to codeine misuse include:  

  • A preoccupation with the drug
  • Requiring higher and higher doses of the drug
  • Indifference to once important things, such as a job, school, or loved ones
  • Engaging in illegal behavior to get the drug
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Lying or suspicious behavior
  • Apathy
  • Fraud

In addition to these signs of addiction, there are also physical symptoms that can be associated with an abuse of codeine. These may include:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Constipation
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Itching
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased sex drive

Many of these symptoms are present with other types of opioid use. Let’s take a look at another commonly abused opioid and signs of its abuse.


Oxycodone is also a member of the synthetic opioid family. Unlike codeine, oxycodone is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and often for longer periods of time. Oxycodone comes in a solution, tablets, capsules, and extended-release forms. Addiction to oxycodone occurs in the same way as other opioid addictions. With prolonged use of the drug, the reward receptors in the brain become corrupted and they are rewired to need more of the drug to either experience euphoria or carry out daily functions without symptoms of withdrawal.

Symptoms of Oxycodone Abuse

One of the first indicators of abuse is changes in behavior or mood. If you exhibit the following symptoms, you may have an addiction to oxycodone.

  • Using oxycodone other than prescribed or recreationally
  • Craving the drug when you don’t have it
  • Using oxycodone to deal with personal problems
  • Prioritizing the drug above family, friends, work, or other things that once brought joy
  • Allowing relationships to suffer in favor of the drug
  • Endangering yourself or others in relation to oxycodone
  • Paranoia, mood swings, or rage

A dependence on oxycodone exhibits many of the symptoms discussed during our look at codeine addiction. Physical symptoms of oxycodone abuse may include:

  • Severe stomach pain
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Drowsiness
  • Shallow or difficultly breathing
  • Numbness to pain
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Dilated pupils  


Following opioids, stimulants are one of the most frequently abused types of prescription drugs. While originally developed as a medication for disorders like depression and senility, stimulants are now more frequently used as a treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Two common types of prescription stimulants are dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate. Stimulants began to be abused as early as their introduction into the market due to their ability to improve concentration, heighten energy, and increase productiveness. Today, 67% of those who abuse this type of drug are college students who consider them “study drugs” as they use them to increase focus and decrease the need to sleep. Stimulants work by increasing levels of the norepinephrine and dopamine while blocking other kinds of transporters that can remove these neurotransmitters. When prolonged abuse of prescription stimulants occurs, the individual is no longer able to produce normal levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain. This drives them to use more and more of the stimulant to achieve normal levels of dopamine and norepinephrine as well as experience the desired recreational effects of the drug.

Methylphenidate and Dextroamphetamine Abuse

Since dextroamphetamine is an isolate of methylphenidate, we will be discussing the two types of prescription stimulants together. Dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate are prescribed to improve alertness, better focus, and decrease impulsivity in patients. Recognizable brands such as Adderall and Ritalin fall under these two categories. Improper use of these stimulants can cause serious health problems such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Cardiovascular damage
  • High body temperature
  • Blood glucose spikes
  • Infertility
  • Constriction of blood vessels
  • Stroke
  • Seizures

And last but not least, misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to drug addiction disorder.

Symptoms of Stimulant Abuse

Behavioral symptoms of stimulant abuse can be similar to other types of drug addictions. This includes risky behavior associated with the drug, such as illegally obtaining the drug, taking dangerous doses, and prioritizing the drug over all else. If you exhibit the behaviors discussed under the opioid abuse section in regards to stimulants, you may have an addiction to the drug. To recap, these types of behaviors include:

  • Requiring higher doses to achieve the effects of the drug
  • Using stimulants other than prescribed and/or recreationally
  • Using the drug to cope with painful situations or emotions
  • Sacrificing your health or the health of your relationships in favor of the drug
  • Engaging in dangerous behavior due to stimulants
  • Paranoia, hostility, and irritability

Physical signs of prescription stimulant abuse may include:

  • Restlessness and hyperactivity
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Decrease of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased blood pressure


Depressants are a type of drug that can slow brain function. Because of this, these drugs are prescribed to treat a variety of mental disorders, such as anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and insomnia. Prescription depressants increase activity in the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which in turn can decrease unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or stress. Those who abuse this drug are often seeking feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and lessened inhibitions. Tranquilizers and sedatives are included in the depressant class and together are abused by about 2.5 million people. Commonly abused types of depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications. Barbiturates are prescribed to treat headaches, insomnia, and seizures, whereas benzodiazepines are used to treat more severe disorders such as PTSD, panic attacks, and epileptic seizures. Sleep medications provide short-term relief to sleep disorders. All three types of depressants present a risk of dependence with prolonged use as well as:

  • Memory issues
  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Sexual problems
  • Coma
  • Overdose

Symptoms of Prescription Depressant Abuse

As the user develops an addiction to prescription depressants, he or she will need higher doses to achieve the same effects. This is particularly dangerous because depressants lower blood pressure, heart rate, and slow breathing, which can result in an overdose. Depressant overdoses can decrease the amount of oxygen to the brain and even cause users to stop breathing entirely, which can lead to brain damage or death. Don’t allow depressant addiction to get to this point by learning how to recognize the symptoms of drug abuse disorder before irreversible damage happens. Behavioral symptoms of depressant abuse may include:

  • A reliance on the drug to sleep or perform regular activities
  • Reckless behavior related to use of the drug
  • Obtaining the drug illegally
  • Allowing depressants to negatively affect daily activities
  • Decreased memory function
  • Severe drowsiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion

In addition to these signs of depressant abuse, a user may display a combination of physical symptoms that can reveal an addiction. These symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Slowed or slurred speech
  • Unsteady walking
  • Slowed breathing
  • Disorientation
  • Depression
  • Dry mouth
  • Dilated pupils

When to Consult a Doctor

If you fear you may have developed a dependence on prescription drugs, it’s imperative that you contact your doctor as soon as possible. The sooner you are able to address your addiction, the sooner you can start on a path to recovery and avoid the complications that come with long-term drug abuse. Helping a friend or a family member break an addiction habit can prove more tricky. The best thing you can do is offer support and limit your judgment when speaking to a loved one about their prescription drug abuse problem. Prescription drug abuse is a common problem in the U.S. and you are not alone. Seek support, therapy, and medical intervention for your problem, as there are plenty of people out there to help. Please contact us today if you have any more questions about how to overcome prescription drug abuse. References  

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