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Prescription Drug Withdrawal: Know the Signs

By Neha Kashyap
Learn the signs of prescription drug withdrawal for yourself or a loved one.

It is normal for your body to become dependent on certain prescription drugs, even when taking them as prescribed. Withdrawal, the body’s response to not having a substance after regular use, is a common sign of physical drug dependence. For some, withdrawal symptoms can be a sign of prescription drug misuse or addiction. 

“Addiction is more properly called ‘psychological dependence’ to avoid confusion with physical dependence,” Bennet Davis, MD, director of pain recovery at the Sierra Tucson treatment facility in Arizona, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 18 million Americans have misused prescription drugs, and this misuse can increase the chances of addiction or overdose. Misusing can include not taking prescriptions as prescribed or using others’ prescriptions. Knowing the symptoms of prescription drug withdrawal is key to taking prescriptions safely or preventing further misuse.

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Withdrawal

The most misused and addictive prescription drugs are:

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

Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability
  • Shakiness
  • Pallor
  • Increased heart rate
  • Goosebumps
  • Yawning

The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends mostly on the amount of opioid taken per day, also to some degree, on which opioid is taken,” Davis says.

Withdrawing from opioid drugs can be done with the help of medications that manage withdrawal symptoms. If you’re taking your medications as directed and are healthy overall, tapering off of them could “theoretically” be done at home, Davis says. But for those with an opioid use disorder, quitting at home might not address the problem if they are in need of addiction treatment.

“Becoming sober is only a small part of treating opioid addiction. Stopping opioids is a requirement for successful treatment, but it is not sufficient by itself,” Davis says.

Central nervous system depressant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Shakiness
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever with sweating
  • Hallucinations

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, withdrawing from central nervous system depressants can be life-threatening, and it’s best done under medical supervision.

Withdrawal symptoms of prescription stimulants include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that long-term prescription stimulant misuse can also increase the risk of:

  • Psychosis
  • Anger
  • Paranoia
  • Heart, nerve and stomach problems
  • Overdose

While opioids cause the most drug overdose deaths in the U.S., the number of prescription stimulant overdoses has been rapidly increasing

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