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Prescription Drug Addiction

What Is Addiction to Prescription Pills?

Many people rely on prescription drugs to help manage physical or mental health conditions. Although they’re meant to be helpful, it’s possible to develop a physical dependence on these drugs after prolonged use.

Some people who are addicted to prescription drugs often become hooked by taking pills that aren’t prescribed to them. Teenagers are especially at risk for prescription drug addictions, as pills are often easily found in a parent’s medicine cabinet.

Commonly abused prescription drugs include painkillers such as:

  • oxycodone (Oxycontin)
  • oxycodone and acetaminophen (Percocet)
  • morphine
  • stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) or dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)

Although prescription drug addiction may not seem as serious as alcohol or illegal drug abuse, it can develop and progress to a dangerous stage just as rapidly. In many cases, taking drugs that the body doesn’t need, or taking them at higher than safe amounts, can be life threatening.

Symptoms and Signs

A prescription drug addiction may not be apparent to an outsider. But a person who is actually prescribed a necessary drug could be abusing the substance by taking more than is necessary, or by using it for a longer period of time than is appropriate. The addict will likely hide their use out of shame and fear.

Symptoms will vary depending on the type of drug being abused. If an addiction is present, some or all of these behaviors may be present:

  • having the inability to function in daily life without the drug
  • lying or stealing in order to obtain the drug
  • attempting to hide the behavior, such as going to the bathroom to take a pill or hiding the drug in secret places
  • faking symptoms to doctors in order to get a prescription
  • gradually or rapidly increasing use or dosage
  • having sudden changes in behavior or mood swings as a result of taking or not taking the drug
  • relying on the drug to deal with emotional problems or feeling that it’s the "cure" to life’s problems

Treatment Options

Treating a prescription drug addiction can be challenging. Like all addictions, the person must want treatment. Forcing someone to get help usually gets nowhere. Often, the person with the addiction will have to "hit bottom" before they think about getting help. This could cause problems with family and friends who are close to the person and want to see them get better.

Many people with an addiction are embarrassed to admit that they have a problem. They’ll find it especially hard to tell to their doctors that they have been lying or stealing to get the drug. They may justify their addiction with the excuse that the drugs are legal. However, all addictions — regardless of the drug of choice — tend to warrant similar types of treatments.

Inpatient Rehabilitation Program

An inpatient program is often helpful for a person with a prescription drug addiction. Inpatient means they’ll stay in a hospital and/or rehab facility. In this setting, they’ll be monitored for potential withdrawal symptoms and will typically have access to both individual and group therapy sessions. Time spent in a program like this can range from a few weeks to a year.

Outpatient Rehabilitation Program

An outpatient program may work for a prescription drug addict as well. In this setting, patients attend weekly or daily classes at a treatment facility but continue to live at home. Some addicts transition from inpatient to outpatient rehab after a period of time.

12-Step Programs

Programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Drug Addicts Anonymous (DAA) provide a recovery program method that follows the same 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. These meetings give people with addictions a place of support and a way to meet other people with similar struggles.

Other support groups can be equally helpful. These programs may start when the addict is in treatment and continue throughout their life.

Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

An addict may also benefit from individual therapy. Drug addiction often coincides with significant emotional or psyciatric issues that need to be dealt with in order to change destructive patterns. On the other hand, addiction can also cause emotional problems that can be helped by therapy.


In some cases, medication is necessary to reset chemical imbalances caused by prescription drug abuse, or to help manage coexisting mental health disorders. Carefully weighing the risks and benefits of medication is challenging in the care of any addiction. However, some prescriptions have a very low risk of addiction and can assist with side effects like depression and anxiety.

What to Expect

Outcomes for prescription drug addicts vary, depending on a variety of factors. The sooner the addiction is treated, the better. It may produce more severe effects the longer it goes on.

A long-term addiction may be more challenging, especially if the drug abuse has altered brain functions or created significant health problems for the user. People who are addicted to prescription narcotics frequently transition to heroin when their access to prescription meds is lost or jeopardized. This is especially true when the drug of choice was an opiate like oxycodone, as heroin offers a stronger and cheaper alternative.

If addiction is present, the user may also need to be careful with other substances, such as alcohol. One drug may trigger a craving for another and could cause a relapse.

Genetics can increase your risk of addiction. If addiction runs in the family, it’s important to tell your doctor before getting prescriptions for any type of condition. It’s easy to become dependent on certain drugs, even if they appear safe or are commonly used.

Additional Resources

As prescription drug abuse is a fairly common problem, there are many resources for people seeking information and treatment. You can start by talking with your doctor.

The following organizations may also be helpful:

Content licensed from:

Written by: Mara Tyler
Medically reviewed on: Jul 14, 2014: George Krucik, MD, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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