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5 Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse You Should Know

By Neha Kashyap
Learning to recognize the warning signs of prescription drug abuse could be key to helping you or a loved one.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates 18 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2017. Prescription drug abuse means taking drugs other than how they were prescribed. Prescription drug abuse can lead to addiction and an increased risk of overdose, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. The most misused drugs are:

  • Opioid painkillers, like oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, including tranquilizers like benzodiazepines and anti-anxiety medications like alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax)
  • Stimulants, like the amphetamines Adderall and Ritalin, which are commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

The following are signs of prescription drug abuse.

Physical Changes

Juan Velez, MSN, PMHNP-BC, director of licensed professionals at Sierra Tucson treatment facility in Arizona, tells WebMD Connect to Care that physical signs of prescription drug abuse depend on the type of drug being taken. Symptoms of opioid abuse include: 

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Pain that can’t be relieved with high doses

Symptoms of central nervous system depressant abuse include: 

  • Slow breathing
  • Memory loss
  • Dizziness
  • Poor concentration
  • Slow speech
  • Walking unsteadily

Symptoms of stimulant abuse include:  

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Trouble sleeping

Behavioral Changes

Prescription drug abuse can lead to mood swings, irritability or neglecting responsibilities like school or work. According to Velez, other odd behaviors might include:

  • Requesting early refills
  • Seeing multiple doctors for the same issue
  • Frequent bathroom breaks
  • Constantly changing work schedules
  • Leaving home at odd hours
  • Changing regular routines

Relationship Problems

A drug problem can drive someone to isolate themselves or lash out at loved ones, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). If communicating with a loved one about their prescription drug use proves difficult, you might need to speak to a professional.

“Denial and anger are very common reactions that can further damage the relationship with the person,” Velez says. “It may be more effective to seek the help of a mental health professional in advance of your conversation.”

Money Issues

Spending large amounts of money to buy drugs is also a sign of drug abuse, according to the Mayo Clinic. Someone with a prescription drug problem might also have to steal or borrow to support their habit.


Withdrawal is the body’s reaction to functioning without a substance it’s dependent on. It’s not always a sign of abuse—people using drugs as directed can also experience withdrawal. However, severe withdrawal symptoms could indicate a problem and could be life threatening, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Seek help if you or a loved one experience intense withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling tired
  • Sweating
  • Body aches
  • Shakiness
  • Appearing pale
  • Goosebumps
  • Yawning

Central nervous system depressant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever 
  • Sweating
  • Hallucinations

Stimulant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems

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