Recognising the signs of prescription drug addiction

Recognising the signs of prescription drug addiction

Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

People take prescription medicines in good faith for legitimate health reasons. We trust their efficacy, so why should we worry about addiction? After all, prescription meds aren’t street drugs, are they? 

Most people balk at the idea that addiction could happen to them and mistakenly believe becoming an addict comes down to moral principles.

Unfortunately, not many understand the dangers of prescription medications and are entirely unaware of their addictive nature. Prescription drug addiction is a growing concern worldwide, and a great many people slip into physical dependence without realising it is happening.

Recognising the signs of prescription drug addiction early on can make a difference in seeking help, achieving recovery, and preventing a more serious problem. This blog explains how addiction to prescription drugs occurs and how to identify the signs of addiction in yourself or a loved one.

What types of medicines can be addictive?

Certain prescription drugs, like opioids (pain killers), benzodiazepines (sedatives or tranquillisers), and stimulants, are the most common types of drugs that have the potential for addiction. 

These types of drugs are often prescribed by medical professionals to offer short-term pain relief following an accident, injury, or operation or to help with other health problems and medical conditions, like depression, anxiety, or ADHD.

How does addiction to prescription drugs occur?

Some medicines can cause feelings of peacefulness or euphoria and improve mood. Certain types of drugs make you feel good by activating the brain’s reward centre, which can create a powerful urge to repeat them. 

Also, tolerance to medications can increase the longer a person is taking them. Over time, higher doses are needed to get the same effect, and a person may experience withdrawal symptoms if they cut down the dosage or stop taking the medication abruptly. Often, a person needs larger doses of a drug to feel normal, and thus, a physical dependency is created.

According to statistics in the U.S., prescription drug abuse is most common among 18- to 25-year-olds. At the same time, elderly medicated patients can be at heightened risk of developing addiction due to the number and variety of drugs they take for health reasons.1

There’s no way to tell who will get hooked on prescription medications. One person can take prescription drugs without any issues, while others can quickly become addicted to them. The important thing to know is that ordinary use can very quickly turn into a compulsion.

Addiction is a complex disease and lots of factors can pre-empt it. For example, certain people can be more open to addiction, especially if there is a family history of it. 

Also, anyone with a mental illness, like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, can more easily become addicted to the medications they have been prescribed to help with their condition. 

In such cases, it’s usually because the medications ease distress and block emotional pain. It can be tempting for people to want to carry on taking these medications even when they no longer need them. Epidemiological and clinical data indicate high comorbidity between depression and drug dependence.2

Withdrawal of long-term medication

For those suffering from complex health mental problems, medication is often necessary for a prolonged period. In these cases, drug dependency doesn’t occur in the classic sense of addiction, but studies on decreasing doses, discontinuing, or switching psychotropic medications have uncovered withdrawal syndromes.3 

Sudden cessation of antidepressant medication, for example, can produce flu-like symptoms, insomnia, nausea, imbalance, sensory disturbances, and hyperarousal.4

What are the physical signs of prescription drug addiction?

Addiction to prescription medication can be hard to spot. Firstly, there is nothing conspicuous about a person taking prescribed medications. Secondly, it is easy for the signs of addiction to be confused with either a person’s health condition or seen as side effects from the drug(s).

However, there are a few common physical signals to watch out for. These are:

Increased tolerance

Needing higher doses of medication to achieve the same effect/relief can be an early sign of addiction, especially if the person increases the dose without consulting their medical doctor

Withdrawal symptoms

Symptoms like nausea and vomiting, muscle and joint aches and pains, dizziness, loss of appetite, excessive perspiration, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased temperature, insomnia, and tremors can indicate drug withdrawal. 

A combination of some or all of these physical symptoms will likely appear if there is an addiction and the dose of the medication is severely reduced or withdrawn altogether.

Changes in physical appearance

Substance misuse, including that of prescription medications, can impact physical appearance in subtle and drastic ways. Skin can suffer from the appearance of dark spots, lesions, spots and acne, dryness, rashes, etc.

The physical structure of hair can be changed by medications, making it dull, weak, and damaged. Dental issues can also arise. Increased anxiety, a physiological side effect of prescription drug addiction, can cause people to clench their teeth, which in turn can cause some dental problems.

Bloodshot eyes and larger or smaller pupil size can also indicate drug abuse.

Also, a person with addiction issues may not be spending as much attention on personal care.

Other health issues

When a person becomes dependent on medication, it can affect the body’s normal functioning. Many conventional medications are toxic to the body if taken in excess or over a long period. 

Different drugs affect the body in various ways. Prescription drugs can affect any of the major organs and lead to other health issues in the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems. For example, America’s National Kidney Foundation states that thousands of Americans have damaged their kidneys by using over-the-counter medicines regularly for too long.5

Other physical symptoms to look out for that are commonly observed in individuals with prescription drug addiction include:

  • Headaches
  • Constipation
  • Stomach problems
  • Heart palpitations
  • High body temperature
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness and coordination problems

What are the behavioural signs of prescription drug addiction?

Drugs can affect the body’s central nervous system and impact the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Common behaviours observed in people addicted to prescription medications include:

Frequently changing doctor

Doctor shopping is common when someone is addicted to prescription medication as they will try to obtain more prescriptions. A person may also resort to borrowing medication from other people (friends and family) or might buy the drugs from an unofficial source online.

Increasing dosage and frequency of meds

The person may start to take higher doses of their medication than prescribed. It is especially concerning if someone does this without consulting their medical practitioner.

Social withdrawal

Pulling away from friends and family, losing interest in activities previously enjoyed, regularly cancelling social engagements, and becoming isolated are significant behavioural changes that could indicate addiction.

Neglecting responsibilities

Failing to meet obligations at school, college, work, or home can be a strong indicator of addiction. This could include skipping social obligations, missing work, an adverse change in work performance or studies, or neglecting domestic duties.

Risky behaviours

Using prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescriber (for example, varying the dose or context of use) may indicate addiction. Mixing prescription drugs with alcohol and then driving is one risky behaviour commonly displayed by people with an addiction.


To hide the addiction, some people will lie about the issue and may even stash prescription drugs in various places around the house. They may feel shame about this, but the easiest way for them to combat it is to lie about what is happening.

Always remember that this is an indication of suffering. It can be hard to understand how someone previously honest can become caught up in a web of lies.

A person may also make up vague symptoms to try and get more medication from their practitioner.

What are the psychological signs of prescription drug addiction?


Denying or downplaying the extent of drug use is common in those struggling with addiction despite clear evidence to the contrary. Denial is a psychological defence mechanism. It is common for a person not to want to admit the problem to themselves, so they can appear very convincing in their denial.

Mood swings and emotional outbursts

There are many reasons for mood swings, but they can be a sign that someone is struggling with addiction. Sudden and conspicuous changes to a person’s mood are something to watch out for. 

Certain drugs can alter mood, and withdrawal can also trigger mood swings. Someone with an addiction will want to constantly seek the relief or high that they feel from their medication. They may become hostile, volatile, agitated or anxious when they don’t get it.

Obsessive thinking

People who are dependent on medications may find that their drug regime becomes more important than other activities in their lives.

Seeking help for prescription drug addiction at CALDA

Addiction to prescription medications, just like addiction to alcohol or illegal substances, can wreck relationships and tear families apart.

Recognising there’s a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. Seeking help from a professional is advisable to ensure withdrawal symptoms are carefully managed, preventing relapse, and the behavioural aspects of drug addiction are appropriately addressed.

At CALDA, we understand that addictive behaviour has nothing to do with weakness of character or lack of discipline. Addiction to or dependence on prescription medication is an uncontrollably powerful craving for a particular substance associated with temporary satisfaction, relief, or dampening of deep-seated negative feelings.

We use a multimodal approach in the treatment of dependence. Rigorous diagnostics are used to pinpoint any underlying chemical imbalances, which we address through nutrition and supplementation.

In 70 per cent of all cases, addictive disorders are combined with post-traumatic stress disorder or adjustment disorder, so we address this aspect through psychiatry and psychotherapy.

To learn more about our programs, please get in touch with us. We will gladly provide you with information and explain the next steps.


  1. National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics. [Accessed online 10 June 2024].
  2. Markou A, Kosten TR, & Koob GF. Neurobiological similarities in depression and drug dependence: a self-medication hypothesis. Neuropsychopharmacology. 1998 Mar;18(3):135-74.
  3. Tondo L, & Baldessarini RJ. Discontinuing psychotropic drug treatment. BJPsych Open. 2020 Feb 19;6(2):e24.
  4. Gabriel M, & Sharma V. Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. CMAJ. 2017 May 29;189(21):E747.
  5. National Kidney Foundation. Which Drugs are Harmful to Your Kidneys? [Accessed online 10 June 2024].