Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse

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Prescription drug addiction is a global public health concern due to its medical and social consequences. Prescription drug misuse is a complex issue as habit-forming prescription drugs are legal, and less stigmatised than party drugs, and those who have become addicted to prescription drugs have often been prescribed medications to treat recognised health conditions.

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What Are Prescription Drugs?

Some drugs for minor illnesses can be bought over the counter helping individuals treat themselves without needing to see a doctor. A prescription drug is a pharmaceutical drug that is only permitted to be sold to those with a prescription from a qualified health professional. This may be a GP, hospital doctor, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, optometrist, physiotherapist or podiatrist.

How Prescription Drug Addiction Develops

Prescription drug addiction is characterised by a group of behavioural, psychological and physiological phenomena that may develop after repeated use of pharmaceutical drugs, particularly when not as prescribed. Once someone has developed an addiction to a prescription drug, they experience a strong desire to take more of the drug than prescribed, loss of control over use, persistent use of a drug despite harmful consequences, preoccupation with the drug over other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and a physical withdrawal when drug use is discontinued.

Prescription Drug Addiction Can Be Just as Dangerous as Illicit Drug Addiction

We associate illicit drugs with the extremities of negative effects but abusing prescription medications can bring about consequences which are just as extreme and numerous. Prescription drugs can be especially dangerous, even leading to death, when taken in high doses, combined with other prescription medications, and when taken with alcohol or recreational drugs.

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

The classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused are opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants and central nervous stimulants.


Tramadol – also knowns as chill pills, trammies, and ultras – is a painkiller that has similar properties to other opioid drugs like morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl and is available by prescription to treat severe pain. Tramadol addiction can develop in relatively young and healthy people with no psychiatric or substance abuse history. This is largely due to those using tramadol underestimating its effects and many begin taking the drug believing it is not addictive.

Prescription Drug Addiction


Codeine – is commonly known for its presence in cough syrup. However, it’s also a widely prescribed opiate to treat mild to moderate pain. The body converts codeine into morphine, and once ingested produces feelings of pleasure. Street names for codeine include lean, captain Cody, little c, schoolboy, or syrup. According to the Global Information Network About Drugs, codeine is 8-12% as powerful as morphine. 


Benzodiazepines, or ‘benzos,’ are a class of psychoactive drugs and prescription sedative-hypnotic medications that are prescribed to treat conditions such as anxiety, epilepsy, and insomnia. Benzodiazepines are generally viewed as safe for short-term use. However, long-term use of benzodiazepines is associated with negative side effects and an increased risk of suicide and impulsivity. There are also concerns about long-term use decreasing effectiveness and increasing the risk of physical dependence.


Medicines called zaleplon, zolpidem and zopiclone are commonly called ‘Z drugs.’ Z drugs are not benzodiazepines but are another class of medicine referred to as nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics, however, they act on the brain in a similar way to benzodiazepines. Z-drugs are known to be useful in treating insomnia, owing to their quick onset and short duration of action. Long-term use of Z-drugs can lead to depression, and suicidal ideation, and increase the risk of physical injury in older adults. 


Pregabalin is used to treat epilepsy and pain management and, for those over 18, anxiety disorders. Pregabalin has a calming effect and when combined with other drugs such as methadone, pregabalin can induce feelings of euphoria. 

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Adderall, a brand name for the combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine, is a prescription medication that improves alertness, focus and productivity and is often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy. When taking non-medical doses of Adderall, the risk of developing a substance use disorder is considerable. Side effects include insomnia, fatigue, depression, aggression, hallucinations, and heart damage.


Ritalin is the generic name for methylphenidate, a prescription central nervous system stimulant, prescribed primarily for those with ADHD or narcolepsy. When Ritalin is taken in ways and doses other than those prescribed, the drug can induce a high or sense of euphoria that mimics the effects of cocaine. Long-term misuse of Ritalin can lead to the development of obsessive and compulsive behaviours, paranoia, hallucinations and violent tendencies.

Not All Prescription Drugs Are Dangerous

All prescription medications are regulated which means they must be prescribed and have their use monitored by a medical professional. However, not all prescription drugs are habit-forming and lead to addiction. Taking antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection or insulin to treat diabetes is not associated with the negative consequences of addiction. However, individuals must always follow medical advice when taking prescription medication. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction?

There is a risk of developing an addiction when taking habit-forming prescription drugs regularly over time, for medical purposes or recreationally. The signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction vary from person to person and depend on the drug being taken, length of use, co-occurring disorders, and personality traits.

Some of the main signs and symptoms include:

  • deceptive behaviour such as stealing drugs or money for drugs
  • ordering prescription medications online illegally
  • an uncharacteristic lack or excessive amount of energy
  • impulsive or risk-taking behaviours
  • aggressive behaviour particularly when challenged with drug use
  • isolation or gravitation towards groups that normalise drug misuse
  • visiting multiple doctors for the same condition to obtain multiple prescriptions
  • taking non-medical doses of prescription medication 
  • pretending to lose prescriptions and frequently requesting replacements
  • finding it impossible to stop taking prescription drugs
  • preoccupation with when, where and how prescription drugs will be obtained
  • neglecting personal responsibilities and self-care
  • poor performance and/or attendance at work or school

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Continued intentional misuse of prescription drugs can lead to negative physical, psychological, and behavioural consequences.

Physical Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Taking non-medical doses of prescription drugs releases a large amount of dopamine in the brain which may create the desired effect of euphoria. This chemical reaction can also cause unwanted physical side effects such as raised blood pressure, sweating, skin problems, jitters, decreased appetite and weight loss, rapid heartbeat, increased sweating, headaches, nausea and vomiting, muscle aches, and slurred speech. 

Psychological Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction not only affects the body but also affects the mind beyond the pleasurable feelings of euphoria. Those misusing prescription drugs may also experience unwanted depression and anxiety, swings in mood, hyperfocus, aggressiveness, paranoia, unpleasant hallucinations or delusions, confusion, and impaired cognition.

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Co-occurring Disorders With Prescription Drugs Addiction

Co-occurring disorders, formerly called dual diagnosis, describe the condition of having two kinds of disorders, most commonly referring to individuals who are suffering from the illness of addiction and a mental health disorder concurrently. Co-occurring disorders are complex and there is no single treatment option as each individual’s case is unique. 

It can be difficult to delineate between the symptoms of addiction and mental health disorders as there is often significant overlap. As such, addiction teams will usually wait until an individual has been clean and sober for a period of time before looking to diagnose a co-occurring disorder.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Prescription Drug Addiction?

Like any addiction that goes untreated for a significant period of time, prescription drug addiction can lead to long-term negative effects and complications. Depending on the drug being misused, these complications might include organ damage, drug dependence, uncontrollable cravings, anxiety and depression, decreased cognitive function, loss of employment, estrangement from family and friends, and even death. Addiction can be a deadly illness if not treated early. 

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment Options

At Smarmore Castle we treat those struggling with prescription drug addiction through a prescription drug treatment plan which includes consultant psychiatric care, detox, medical treatment, addiction therapies and complementary therapies, in line with the 12-step treatment model.

If someone’s addiction stemmed from the use of painkillers to treat chronic pain, our chronic pain management programme helps that person to resume a drug-free life, managing their condition without the use of addictive drugs.


Detoxification is a set of interventions which aim to initiate abstinence, manage the safe withdrawal from drugs and any associated complications, and prepare individuals to enter treatment post-detox. 

Detox involves the clearing of toxins from the body and is a process that looks to minimise the physical harm caused by the abuse of substances. On average, the detox process lasts for seven to 10 days depending on how much alcohol/drugs someone may have been consuming, the length of time they have been using, and the severity of their withdrawal symptoms associated with the substances in their system.

Inpatient Treatment

Following a detox treatment as an inpatient at Smarmore Castle can begin. Inpatient treatment involves staying with us for a number of weeks in a safe, calm, and confidential environment where people can focus solely on healing from addiction. Treatment includes individual therapy, group therapy, and twelve-step meetings.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment for prescription drug addiction may be possible at our sister clinic CATCH Recovery in London for those who don’t require a concentrated level of care. Outpatient treatment involves staying at home and travelling to CATCH Recovery during the day for therapy, group work and other services that mirror inpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment doesn’t provide people with the same kind of protection from triggers and access to drugs that may lead to relapse. The risk of relapse is immeasurably greater when seeking recovery on an outpatient basis.

What Are the Effects of Prescription Drug Withdrawal?

Prescription drug withdrawal can lead to challenging physical and psychological symptoms which vary from drug to drug

Physical symptoms that may be experienced when prescription drug use is stopped abruptly include muscle and joint pain, digestive disturbances and loss of appetite, dizziness, sweating, flu-like symptoms, heart issues, and insomnia. Severe physical prescription drug withdrawal symptoms can cause coma and death. 

Psychologically symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety and depression, panic attacks, brain fog, confusion, anger, paranoia, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. Suicidality and self-harm can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.

Why Some People May Struggle to Understand Prescription Drug Addiction

We often associated drug addiction with illegal substances and, due to the prevalence of bias, discrimination and lack of understanding, many have a misguided image of what an individual struggling with an addiction looks like. As such, if someone is taking prescription medication for a recognised illness, they may not think of themselves as suffering from the disease of addiction, and problematic behaviour can easily be minimised or dismissed. However, the illness of addiction does not discriminate and anyone taking habit-forming substances, such as certain prescription medications, can develop an addiction.

Seeking Help for Prescription Drug Addiction

If you think you may have a problem with prescription drugs, just admitting this takes huge courage and is the first step in finding freedom. The next step is to reach out for support. Here at Smarmore Castle, our admissions team is available 24/7 to hear your story and advise on how we can help.

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  • How to Access Rehab With Health Insurance

    For those experiencing existing mental health conditions in Ireland, there are private medical insurers who can help you cover treatment. As addiction experts, we know that receiving the appropriate care and support when you have a mental health disorder is pivotal to attaining long-lasting recovery. Below, we will go through the various health insurance options to help you understand your options when it comes to seeking private residential care for substance abuse. Please note that there is no guarantee that you can be covered for all addiction problems as policies are always assessed on a case-by-case basis. Find Out More

  • My Loved One Doesn’t Want Help, What Do I Do?

    You can’t force someone to go to rehab. At the end of the day, it needs to be their decision because they are the ones that need to be open to turning their lives around. There are ways in which you can encourage someone to enter treatment, one of these ways is via an intervention with a trained interventionist, who facilitates an honest discussion between family members and the addict. This is something Smarmore Castle can arrange – contact us today.

  • Which Drugs Does Smarmore Castle Detox From?

    We can detox people from any drugs whether they are illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ketamine; or prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines or zopiclone, oxycodone, zolpidem, klonopin, methadone, cannabis; and legal drugs such as alcohol.

  • How Long Is the Treatment Programme?

    Our treatment programme starts at 4 weeks and is flexible in length, giving you the opportunity to extend for a longer period if you need it.

  • Do You Treat Dual Diagnosis?

    All patients are reviewed by a consultant psychiatrist in the first week and we can diagnose and provide treatment for a number of co-occurring mental health conditions.

  • Do I Need to Be Abstinent Before Admission?

    Our medically managed detoxification with 24/7 medical cover means that we can perform complete and complex detoxes at Smarmore Castle. You don’t need to be abstinent before arrival.

  • How Do I Get To Rehab Safely?

    Smarmore Castle is one hour north of Dublin international airport and we can arrange a driver to collect you and bring you straight to us for free.

    We can also arrange a ‘sober transport’ service with a trusted driver, from anywhere in Ireland or Northern Ireland, at an additional cost.

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