What are the Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse?

When prescription drugs are used in ways other than those prescribed directly by a physician, this is called prescription drug abuse. Prescription drugs can only be obtained under a physician’s supervision because they carry risks. These drugs may be dangerous when not taken as directed. Prescribed drugs also carry the risk for addiction.

Prevalence of Prescription Drug Abuse

According to statistics provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), nearly 16 million people in the United States have used prescription drugs for purposes other than prescribed in the past year. An article on WebMD quotes statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse showing that 48 million people in the United States, or about 20 percent of the U.S. population, have admitted to abusing a prescription drug at some point during their lifetimes.

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Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Symptoms of prescription drug abuse vary by the choice of drug. Different drugs have different side effects and each user reacts differently. However, there are some symptoms that those who abuse prescription drugs commonly exhibit, no matter which type of prescription drug is being abused. 

General symptoms of prescription drug abuse may include any or all of the following:

  • Stealing prescriptions from pharmacies, friends, family members, or others
  • Forging prescriptions to obtain drugs illegally
  • Selling prescription medication
  • Purchasing prescription medication from non-pharmacy sources
  • Taking medications in amounts other than those prescribed
  • Change in mood, irritability, or aggression
  • Sleep disturbances leading to more or less sleep 
  • Behavioral changes
  • Appearing high, energized, or under sedation
  • Fake illness on behalf of children or pets to obtain prescriptions
  • Frequently faking lost or stolen prescriptions in an attempt to obtain more
  • Doctor-shopping, or seeing more than one doctor or medical facility in an attempt to gain more prescriptions

Which Prescription Drugs are Most Abused?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most commonly abused prescription medications can be included into three main categories: opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. Opioids are prescription narcotic pain relievers that are typically prescribed by a doctor for moderate to severe pain. Depressants include sedatives and anti-anxiety medications designed to reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and to help with sleep. Stimulants that are abused generally are those prescribed to treat symptoms of ADD and ADHD.

Reasons for Abuse of Opioids

Opioids, or narcotic pain relievers, are the most frequently abused prescription medication. These drugs block pain receptors directly to help reduce the feeling of pain in the body. Opioids also indirectly cause the release of a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the brain. Dopamine influences how we feel pleasure, so the increase in this neurotransmitter by the use of opioids leads to a feeling of euphoria.

Reasons for Abuse of Central Nervous System Depressants

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants work on the brain by reducing its activity. This helps to promote a feeling of calmness, relaxation, and overall well-being. Reduced anxiety and sedation effects are often desired by those who feel frequently stressed. Similar in effect to alcohol use, central nervous system depressants are known to lower inhibitions in users as well. 

Reasons for Abuse of Stimulants

Stimulants cause an intense increase of dopamine in the brain. This results in the feelings of a rush or high. Stimulants cause an increase of activity in the brain which leads to increased energy levels, greater alertness, improved mental clarity and focus, and feelings of exhilaration. Many people abuse stimulants for one of the potential side effects, which is that of weight loss.

According to SAMHSA, prescription drug abuse is second only to marijuana use as the nation’s most commonly used substance, including illicit drugs.

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse 

Although prescription drug abuse typically shares some general symptoms, there are specific symptoms and side effects caused by each of these groups of drugs. 

Prescription Opioids

    • Constipation
    • Drowsiness and dizziness
    • Lack of coordination
    • Confusion
    • Slower breathing and heart rate
    • Coma or death

Central Nervous System Depressants

  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Poor judgment
  • Slower breathing and heart rate
  • Respiratory distress
  • Death

Prescription Stimulants

  • Increased breathing and heart rate
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

In today’s drug-oriented society, we should all become familiar with the above symptoms.  This knowledge could help save a life.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the United States, but it is not just due to those actually receiving medication prescriptions. According to information provided by the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, Inc. (NASADAD), only about 17% of those who abused a prescription drug were the ones actually prescribed these medications. The majority of those who abuse prescription drugs, 55%, receive them for free from friends or family members. 

If you would like more information about prescription drug abuse and addiction treatment programs, contact us at our toll-free number today. Our representatives are available 24/7 to take your call.


  1. samhsa.gov – Non-Medical Use of Prescription-Type Drugs
  2. webmd.com – Prescription Drug Abuse
  3. mayoclinic.org – Prescription Drug Abuse

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