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Prescription Drug Abuse: Causes, Symptoms, and How To Get Help

By Taylor Weeks
Learn what constitutes prescription drug abuse and why it’s on the rise today.

Most people will take a prescription medication at some point in their life. But when used incorrectly, these medications can be harmful or lead to prescription drug abuse. 

Common Causes of Prescription Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that prescription drug abuse is becoming more and more common. In 2017, they estimated that 18 million people in the United States had abused prescription medication that past year. According to the institute, the types of medications most commonly abused are:

  • Opioids such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet) which are used to treat pain
  • Central nervous system depressants such as benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium) and some sleep medications (Ambien and Lunesta) that are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Stimulants such as amphetamine salts (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) that are primarily used to treat ADHD

One reason that increasing numbers of people are abusing prescription drugs is that these drugs are more available than others. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, many of these medications are prescribed much more often today than they were three decades ago. In addition, there is a common misconception that these prescription medications are less harmful than “street drugs” and that abusing them is not likely to lead to addiction.

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

When prescription medications are taken in any way that is different from what was prescribed, it is considered prescription drug abuse. This could mean:

  • Taking a medication prescribed to someone else (even if you're taking it for a medical reason, like pain)
  • Taking a higher dose of a medication than your doctor prescribed
  • Taking medication in a different way (like crushing and snorting a pill)
  • Taking a prescription medication to get high

Bankole Johnson, DSc, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction researcher, tells WebMD Connect to Care that if you think a loved one may be abusing prescription medications, there are several symptoms you can look out for. 

According to Johnson, you may notice changes in behavior caused by drug use. For stimulants, this could mean being overly talkative or having much more energy than usual. For opioids or benzodiazepines, they may be uncoordinated or sleepy, and start to nod off during normal activities.

Johnson explains that certain changes in behavior could also point to prescription drug abuse. If you notice that your medications are going missing, or if your loved one is leaving the house at odd hours, missing work or school, or neglecting responsibilities and personal care, it is possible that they may be abusing prescription medications.

Recovery from any type of addiction is possible, and there are different treatment options available depending on the type of prescription drug being abused. 

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

Treatment & Resources: General Information