Recognising and overcoming prescription drug addiction

The last decade has seen a dramatic surge in prescription drug use worldwide, especially in countries like the US. Alarmingly, this trend has also led to a significant rise in addiction rates, with many people becoming unwittingly dependent on medications intended for their healing. This blog aims to shed light on the hidden dangers of prescription drugs, exploring how the line between treatment and dependency can blur, leading to unintended consequences for those seeking relief.

What prescription drugs are addictive?

Certain prescription drugs have a high potential for addiction due to their powerful effects on the brain’s reward system, altering the perception of pleasure and pain. These drugs can lead to physical dependence and addiction when used long-term or misused. Below, we take a closer look at three prescription drugs that could cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking them:


Benzodiazepines are a class of medications primarily used for treating anxiety, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms. They work by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA, which promotes calmness and relaxation. However, their potential for addiction stems from their ability to produce euphoria, particularly when taken in larger doses than prescribed.

Why do they have the potential for addiction?

  • Tolerance development: Over time, the user’s body requires higher doses to achieve the same effects, leading to increased usage.
  • Physical dependence: With prolonged use, the body becomes dependent on benzodiazepines to function normally, leading to withdrawal symptoms when usage is reduced or stopped.
  • Psychological dependence: Users may become dependent on the drug to deal with stress, anxiety or sleep problems, making it difficult to quit.

Common benzodiazepines you may have been prescribed


Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain relievers, synthetic opioids and heroin. Prescription opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain but have a high potential for addiction due to their ability to produce profound feelings of euphoria.

Why do they have the potential for addiction?

  • Euphoria: Opioids can produce intense feelings of well-being and pleasure, leading to their misuse.
  • Tolerance and dependence: Similar to benzodiazepines, users can quickly develop tolerance, necessitating higher doses for the same pain relief, which can lead to physical dependence.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Discontinuing opioids after prolonged use can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms, encouraging continued use to avoid discomfort.

Common benzodiazepines you may have been prescribed

SSRIs (Antidepressants)

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of drugs commonly prescribed for depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. They work by increasing the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, in the brain.

Unlike benzodiazepines and opioids, SSRIs are not considered addictive because they do not produce the euphoric highs that lead to substance abuse. However, discontinuing SSRIs abruptly after long-term use can lead to withdrawal symptoms, sometimes referred to as “SSRI discontinuation syndrome.”

Reasons why you may experience withdrawal symptoms

  • Neurochemical adjustment: SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain. Stopping them suddenly can cause a rapid drop in serotonin, leading to withdrawal symptoms.
  • Physical dependence: While not addictive, the body can become used to the presence of the SSRI. When the drug is suddenly removed, the body needs time to adjust to the absence, resulting in physical discomfort.
  • Psychological factors: In some cases, psychological dependence can occur, especially in individuals who associate taking their medication with feeling better. Suddenly stopping the medication without a doctor’s guidance can lead to a return or worsening of depression and anxiety symptoms.

It’s important to note that the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary based on the specific SSRI, the length of time it was used and the dosage.

Common SSRIs you may have been prescribed

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Citalopram (Celexa)

Am I showing signs of addiction to prescription medication?

While your doctor has most likely informed you of the dangers of addiction to these medications, it’s still worth checking in on the difference between normal use, as prescribed and problematic use from time to time. With there being so much information to digest, it can be difficult to remember the ‘dos and don’ts’ of prescription drug use. Below, we’ve put together three tables to show the distinct differences between ‘normal’ and problematic use.

Note: The tables below are general guidelines, and individual situations may vary under specific circumstances. If you have any queries or concerns about your prescription medication, it is important to contact your healthcare professional.


Aspect Normal, prescribed usage Problematic usage
Purpose To treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, muscle spasms Used for feelings of euphoria, to enhance the effects of other drugs or for reasons other than prescribed
Dosage According to the prescription, usually the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration necessary Taking higher doses than prescribed, taking doses more frequently
Duration Short-term use recommended due to risks of dependence and tolerance (usually weeks to a few months) Long-term use without medical advice, leading to dependence and tolerance
Doctor’s supervision Closely monitored by a healthcare provider for signs of tolerance, dependence and to manage withdrawal symptoms Lack of medical oversight, possibly obtaining the drug without a prescription or from non-medical sources
Source of ‘problematic usage’: (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)


Aspect Normal, prescribed usage Problematic usage
Purpose To manage moderate to severe pain, often after surgery or for cancer-related pain Used for euphoric effects or taken when not in pain
Dosage As prescribed, typically for a short duration to minimise the risk of addiction Taking higher doses than prescribed or taking more frequently than instructed
Duration Limited use, with the aim to switch to non-opioid pain management strategies as soon as possible Continued use beyond the prescribed period, even when pain has subsided
Doctor’s supervision Regular check-ins to assess pain levels, effectiveness and potential side effects Using opioids without a prescription or ‘doctor shopping’ (in certain countries) to obtain multiple prescriptions
Source of ‘problematic usage’: (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

Aspect Normal, prescribed usage Problematic usage
Purpose To treat depression, anxiety disorders and certain other mental health conditions Although not typically associated with “problematic usage” in a conventional sense, misuse can involve taking without a prescription or diagnosis
Dosage According to the prescription, adjusted based on therapeutic response and side effects Taking doses higher than recommended without consulting a healthcare provider
Duration Can be long-term, based on the healthcare provider’s assessment and the patient’s needs Stopping abruptly without consulting a healthcare provider, leading to withdrawal symptoms
Doctor’s supervision Regular monitoring for effectiveness and side effects, adjustments as necessary Lack of follow-up with a healthcare provider or not adhering to the prescribed treatment plan

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s experience with medications can be quite different. The symptoms and hurdles, including the struggle to stop using them, can be common across various drugs.

For example, a person might follow their benzodiazepines prescription to the letter but still find it hard to quit after the treatment period ends. This underscores the need for regular check-ins with your healthcare provider.

When to understand the need for help for prescription drug addiction

The above disclaimer shows exactly where drug addiction becomes ridiculously multifaceted and complicated. If you have reached this point of uncertainty, i.e., you’re unsure as to whether or not you have an addiction to prescription drugs, this would be the moment to reach out for extra help and assessment.

Remember, prescription drug addiction can happen to anyone, no matter their gender, race, age or economic status. This message isn’t meant to frighten you away from taking necessary medications but rather to encourage you to use them responsibly. If you find yourself struggling with any of your medications, it’s important to recognise when it’s time to reach out for support.

Getting help for a prescription drug addiction

People seeking treatment for prescription drug addiction can find comprehensive support at prescription drug rehab centres. These centres specialise in treating addiction through methods like tapering off, where the dosage is gradually reduced under medical supervision to ease withdrawal symptoms or detoxification. Detoxification is where the type of prescription drug is removed from the body.

Prescription drug addiction rehabilitation includes therapy sessions aimed at understanding the root causes of addiction and developing coping strategies. Additionally, relapse prevention techniques are taught to maintain long-term sobriety.

Through a blend of these approaches, prescription drug addiction treatment centres aim to guide individuals towards lasting recovery and a healthier lifestyle.

Reach out to UKAT today

If you or someone you love has formed an addiction to prescription drugs, know that UKAT is here to help. Our team of medical professionals are ready to guide you on your way to recovery from the clutches of prescription drug addiction.

Our comprehensive prescription drug treatment programme will help you reach the goal of sobriety that lasts long after you step out of our prescription drug rehabilitation centre. Reach out to us today to begin your prescription drug recovery journey.