Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

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An awareness of the signs of prescription drug abuse can mean the difference between ongoing addiction or engaging with treatment and embracing sober living.

While many people associate drug addiction (substance use disorder) with illicit narcotics like cocaine or heroin, 3.5 million U.S. adults abused prescription drugs in 2020.

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Although the opioid epidemic continues to garner most press, prescription drug abuse frequently involves CNS depressants like benzodiazepines and stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin (medications used to treat ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).

What are the signs of prescription drug abuse, then?

What are the Early Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse?

The following scenarios all constitute prescription drug abuse: 

  1. Taking more of a prescribed medication than directed.
  2. Using a third-party prescription to obtain prescription drugs.
  3. Exceeding the prescribed dosage.
  4. Using a route of delivery other than as directed – snorting or injecting tablets, for instance.
  5. All non-medical uses of prescription medications.

While the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse vary according to the substance – more on this below – the following are common early warning signs of prescription drug abuse: 

  • Pronounced mood swings
  • Hostility
  • Aggression
  • Stealing prescriptions
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Requesting early prescriptions
  • Claiming to lose prescriptions
  • Doctor shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Impaired decision making
  • Taking more of the medication than directed
  • Over-sedation
  • Increased energy levels
An image of a woman showing signs of prescription drug abuse

Physical Signs

The physical signs of prescription drug abuse differ depending on the substance of abuse. 

These are the most abused prescription drugs in the United States: 

  • Opioid painkillers: Since the late 1990s, physicians have increasingly prescribed opioid painkillers for the treatment of chronic pain. When used long-term, opioids are fiercely addictive.
  • CNS depressants: This category of prescription medications includes benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and non-benzo sleep aids known as Z-drugs. All CNS depressants can trigger abuse and addiction.
  • Stimulants: Stimulants are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Many people abuse stimulants for their supposed ability to increase focus. Regrettably, this does not occur when stimulants are abused for non-medical purposes, and abuse can easily spiral into addiction in the form of stimulant use disorder.

These are the most common physical signs of opioid abuse:

  • Confusion
  • Euphoria
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Slow breathing
  • Impaired coordination
  • More opioids required for pain relief
  • Hyperalgesia (enhanced sensitivity to pain with increased doses)

These are the most common physical signs of stimulant abuse:

  • High body temperature
  • High blood pressure
  • Feeling high
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite loss
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased alertness
  • Paranoia

These are the most common physical signs of CNS depressant abuse: 

  • Poor concentration
  • Slowed breathing
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Unsteady gait
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech

Behavioral Signs

Abusing any type of prescription drug can cause the following behavioral changes: 

  • Disruption to routine
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Hostility
  • Aggression
  • Problems in personal and professional life
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Seeing multiple doctors for the same condition
  • Requesting early prescription refills

What to Do When You Notice the Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

An awareness of the signs of prescription drug abuse can help you to avoid the following negative outcomes: 

  1. Opioid abuse can slow breathing to the extent it stops completely. Opioid overdose can also be life-threatening.
  2. CNS depressant overdose is associated with potentially fatal coma. Abruptly discontinuing use can cause withdrawal symptoms that trigger seizure.
  3. Stimulant abuse can induce extremely high body temperature, cardiovascular problems, and ongoing paranoia.

Abusing any prescription medication is liable to cause tolerance and physical dependence to develop. This can easily lead to substance use disorder, a chronic and relapsing condition that requires treatment and continuous attention. 

If you feel you are addicted to a prescription drug, you should first consult your prescribing doctor. Voice your concerns and request a referral to a mental health professional. 

Fortunately, addiction to prescription drugs typically respond positively to personalized and evidence-based treatment. We can guide you from detox to discharge and beyond here at California Detox.

image of woman on beach representing phases of recovery

Help at California Detox

Regardless of how you started using or abusing prescription drugs, you can choose a treatment program at our luxury Laguna Beach rehab to kickstart your recovery. 

Choose from the following prescription drug addiction treatment programs: 

  • Virtual IOP (remote rehab)
  • Outpatient program
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)
  • Inpatient program (residential rehab)
  • Dual diagnosis treatment program (for addictions with co-occurring mental health disorders)
  • Medical detox

Your treatment team will help you detox from prescription medications as comfortably and safely as possible. They may administer medications or a tapered reduction in dosage as appropriate. 

Following detox, you will transition into an appropriate treatment program from the above options. Whatever level of treatment intensity you require, you will have access to a combination of evidence-based treatment and holistic therapies here at California Detox. MAT (medication-assisted treatment) can be effective in ongoing treatment for opioid addiction. Additionally, you will engage with counseling (individual and group sessions), psychotherapy – typically CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). 

Choose a life unconstrained by prescription drug abuse by initiating your recovery at California Detox. Call 949.567.8790 for immediate assistance and a supervised medical detox from any type of prescription drug.


NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports that the most abused prescription drugs are: benzodiazepines, prescription opioid painkillers, and stimulants.
Some people begin by abusing prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, specifically for their rewarding effects. Others begin using these medications with a valid prescription. Tolerance can build, along with physical dependence. As the effects of the medication diminish, more of the drug is required to deliver comparable effects. This often triggers a cycle of ongoing abuse leading to addiction.


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