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What Factors Play a Role in Whether Someone Becomes Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

By Stefanie Sandler Billette, MS, ACE-CHC
Prescription drug addiction is a growing epidemic. Find out if you have the risk factors to become addicted to prescription drugs.

About 50 million Americans over age 12 have abused prescription medications at some point in their lives, according to American Addiction Centers. Several factors can make you more likely to develop a prescription drug addiction.

What Makes Prescription Drugs So Addictive?

Many people who become addicted to prescription medications start out using them for a medical reason, such as pain management or increased mental focus. All drugs can have an effect on your brain. Prescription drugs can overstimulate your brain’s reward circuitry or imitate your brain’s natural chemical messengers.

“A patient who continues to request or be given narcotic pain pills over an extended period of time is more likely to become addicted,” Barbara Bergin, MD, orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “But in some patients, addiction can occur with a day's use of narcotics, indicating some predisposition to this addiction.”

Students are often prescribed stimulants that increase attention for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A 2019 study published in Einstein (Sao Paolo) found that about 6% of undergraduate students in both the U.S. and Brazil use methylphenidate, better known by the name brand Ritalin. Ritalin can create a euphoric feeling that has the potential to lead to a compulsion to take it, regardless of medical need.

Who is Most At Risk?

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community showed that adolescent use of cigarettes and alcohol is linked to prescription drug abuse in young adulthood.

“It is for this reason that I recommend parents not give their children pain medications for minor injuries,” Bergin says. “It reinforces the behavior of requiring pain medications, as opposed to using our inherent ability to deal with pain.”

Cali Estes, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Addictions Coach in Los Angeles, tells WebMD Connect to Care: “The biggest issue with prescription medication is that doctors do not fully disclose how quickly someone will get addicted—as early as three days for opioids.”

Opioids are particularly addictive. According to a 2019 article published in Pain Research and Management, 4 out of 5 patients who undergo surgery use opioids as their main source of pain management.

“Most at risk are young adults and older adults, aged 65-plus,” Estes says. “Both of these groups will be more likely to go to a doctor and take medication without full research or questioning what will happen.”

A 2020 study published in PLoS ONEshowed that those without a four-year degree, those without a steady job and non-homeowners showed increased risk of becoming addicted to opioids.

“Addiction to other substances, such as recreational drugs or alcohol, can increase the likelihood of addiction to prescription medications,” Bergin says.

If you cannot stop using a prescription drug regardless of how much harm the drug causes, you may have a prescription drug addiction

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 for Prescription Drugs