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Here's What Happens If Your Prescription Drug Addiction Goes Untreated

By  Ali Pantony
From physical withdrawal to dangerous "doctor shopping," this is what happens when a prescription drug addiction goes untreated – and how treatment can help.

Prescription drug abuse occurs when you take a medication in a manner or dose other than that which was prescribed by your doctor. Left untreated, prescription drug abuse can lead to serious medical, interpersonal, and financial problems.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the three most commonly abused classes of medication are:

  • Opioid painkillers, such as codeine, hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone.
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants used to treat anxiety disorders and sleep issues, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics.
  • Stimulants most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as dextroamphetamine.

"When left untreated, prescription drug abuse can damage nearly every area of your life⁠— your health, relationships, and finances chief among them," Dr. Natalie Feinblatt, Psychologist and Addiction and Trauma Therapist in California, says.

These are some of the consequences of untreated prescription drug addiction, and how treatment can help.

Side effects and overdose

Depending on the type of drug being abused, prescription drug addiction can have dangerous or deadly effects:

  • Opioids can cause low blood pressure, slowed breathing rate, potential for breathing to stop, or a coma. Overdose has a significant risk of death.
  • Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives can cause memory problems, low blood pressure and slowed breathing. Overdose can cause coma or death.
  • Stimulants can cause dangerously high body temperature, heart problems, high blood pressure, seizures or tremors, hallucinations, aggressiveness, and paranoia.

High tolerance and withdrawal

"Almost all prescription drugs will cause you to build a tolerance, meaning you will need more and more of them to get the same result," Dr. Feinblatt says. "And tolerance means withdrawal. When you stop taking the drug, your body will start to exhibit very unpleasant and possibly painful withdrawal symptoms."

The withdrawal symptoms depend on the drug being misused, but in general, withdrawal symptoms are often the opposite of intoxication symptoms.

"Prescription opiates can lead to withdrawal involving physical pain, diarrhea, and insomnia," Dr. Feinblatt says. "Withdrawal from prescription benzodiazepines can include high anxiety, insomnia, and the possibility of seizures or heart attack. Amphetamine withdrawal can involve hypersomnia and depression."

Denial

"You will rationalize that you're not an addict because you take prescription drugs," Dr. Feinblatt says.

"Just because you are using drugs that come from the pharmacy, and not from a drug dealer, doesn't mean you're not an addict. And the longer you stay in denial about your addiction, the longer it will go on and the harder it will be to recover from."

Relationship damage

Prescription drug addiction can wreak havoc on interpersonal relationships. "Those abusing prescription drugs are rarely fully present for any of their relationships," Dr. Feinblatt says. "They are either intoxicated from the effect of their medication, or focused on how they will obtain more pills. No healthy relationship can withstand such emotional availability for very long."

Risky behavior

You will eventually run out of doctors to get prescriptions from⁠—known as "doctor shopping"⁠—which means you are more likely to put yourself in harm's way.

"Most states now have online systems designed to prevent people from getting prescriptions for addictive medications from multiple doctors at the same time," Dr. Feinblatt says. "This means that eventually you will have to start buying them illegally from a dealer, which is both unsafe and very expensive."

Help is available

Research has shown that substance use disorders are brain disorders that can be treated effectively. Treatment may need to incorporate several components, such as detoxification, counseling, and/or medication.

If you think a family member or close friend is abusing prescription drugs, you can talk to a WebMD Connect to Care Advisory TODAY and get started on the road to recovery.