When Does the Use of Prescription Drugs Become a Problem?

Addictions Content Team Info icon
Calendar icon Last Updated: 04/8/2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The use of prescription drugs is a staple of western medicine. When you are sick and/or injured, you go to a doctor and you get care that often comes with a prescription. You know to take all of the medication, if specified, and not to share it with anyone. You also know not to take more than you need.

But, even though we all know these rules, it can be hard to keep them in mind when it comes to prescription drugs.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines opioids as those that “reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus.” Drugs which are abused include:


Central nervous system depressants/sedatives:


Signs of Addiction

Despite the validity of their use in specific circumstances, there are types of use that can signal a problem:

  • Use without a prescription
  • Use of a prescription that was not written for you
  • Use for a reason other than that for which it was prescribed
  • Use in amounts other than those prescribed
  • Use for recreation or the feeling that results

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

The abuse of different drugs will result in different symptoms. Accordingly, look out for the signs dependent on the medication. The Mayo Clinic identifies the following symptoms:

Opioid painkillers

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Euphoria
  • Slowed breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Poor coordination
  • Lessened response to pain

Central nervous system depressants/sedatives

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Unsteady walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Problems with memory


  • Reduced appetite
  • Agitation
  • High body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

The Mayo Clinic also identifies the following behavioral symptoms

  • Stealing, forging or selling prescriptions
  • Excessive mood swings or hostility
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Poor decision-making
  • Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or revved up, or sedated
  • Continually “losing” prescriptions, so more prescriptions must be written
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor

If you or someone you love are exhibiting these behaviors, it is likely time to admit there is a problem.

Steps You Can Take

Physicians and pharmacists will keep an eye out for the signs of prescription drug abuse, but there are steps you can take as well. The NIDA recommends:

  • Always follow the prescribed directions
  • Be aware of potential interactions with other drugs
  • Never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with a healthcare provider, and never use another person’s prescription.
  • Inform healthcare professionals of all the prescriptions, OTC medicines, and dietary and herbal supplements being taken before they obtain any other medications
  • Unused or expired medications should be properly discarded per U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines or at U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration collection sites


When you have acknowledged a problem, it is time to get help. There are two main types of prescription drug abuse treatment: behavioral and pharmacological. Learning strategies that help you function without drugs, deal with a relapse, control cravings, and avoid situations that may lead to drug use fall under behavioral treatment. These strategies can be learned via counseling, therapy, support groups, and other behavior focused care.

Particularly with opioid abuse, treatment with medication may be advisable. By countering the effect of the drugs on the brain, pharmacological treatments can lessen cravings, treat overdose, and ease withdrawal symptoms.

If your use of your prescriptions has become habitual and you no longer have control over it, you likely have an addiction and the time to treat it is now. You can beat it and return to the live you deserve.