Understanding the warning signs of prescription drug abuse is important for catching a drug problem early. If someone is abusing a prescription medication, he or she is putting their emotional and physical health at risk.

Approximately 52 million people have used a prescription medication for nonmedical purposes at least once in their lifetime.[1] This has become such a problem across America that prescription medications are the second most widely abused illicit substance after marijuana.

Despite the widespread use of prescriptions, there are many dangers associated with any kind of drug abuse. Moreover, the longer a person stays addicted and doesn’t seek help, the worse their condition will become. However, if you know what to look for and how to identify the warning signs of prescription drug abuse, you can intervene if a loved one is suffering.

What is Considered Drug Abuse?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription drug abuse is defined as the act of using a medication without a prescription, in a way that is different than as prescribed, or to achieve a high from the drug. To explain further, here are a few specific examples that outline people abusing medications.

  • Sarah has to stay up late studying and her friend is prescribed Adderall for ADHD. Sarah’s friend says Adderall will help her be more productive, so she takes one and stays up studying all night.
  • Bill is prescribed Xanax for panic attacks but he likes the way Xanax makes him feel – so he decides to take 2 pills instead of 1. He really likes the way 2 make him feel, so he does it again.
  • Jordan’s marijuana dealer just scored a Vicodin prescription and sells some of them to Jordan, who then takes the Vicodin that is not prescribed to them.
  • John was prescribed Oxycodone after knee surgery but he knows that the medicine will get him high if he snorts it. He crushes and snorts his Oxycodone, which is against his doctor’s advice.

Despite the varying circumstances, all of these examples depict different ways people abuse prescription medications.

Among the most commonly abused prescription medications include:[1]

  • Opioids – central nervous system depressants used to treat moderate to severe pain (Hydrocodone, oxycodone, Dilaudid, morphine, codeine, Percocet)
  • Benzodiazepines – central nervous system depressants used to treat anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and epilepsy (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin)
  • Stimulants – medications prescribed to treat narcolepsy and ADHD (Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, Concerta)

If you or a loved one are engaging in nonmedical use of any of these medications, you’re abusing them and it’s a warning sign that you need to seek professional treatment.

The Dangers of Prescription Drug Abuse

Medications such as opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines all offer great benefits when patients take them correctly. However, abusing a medication is just as dangerous and habit-forming as abusing an illegal drug. Since all medications are different, each type has different side effects. Furthermore, the effects and dangers of these drugs can be exacerbated if mixed with alcohol or other drugs. As a result, there are many dangers associated with nonmedical drug use.

People who abuse opioid prescriptions are not only at risk for addiction, but for accidental overdose as well. Nearly 130 people die from an opioid-related overdose each day and a large percentage of these deaths deal with a prescription opioid.[2] Additionally, opioid-related overdose deaths were 4 times higher in 2018 than they were in 1999 as a result of a widespread opioid epidemic.

Benzodiazepine abuse can lead to respiratory depression and accidental overdose when taken in high doses. People who abuse these drugs will also become physically dependent on them. The bad news is that the withdrawals from benzodiazepines are excruciatingly painful and can be life-threatening.

People who abuse or are addicted to stimulants, on the other hand, might notice increased symptoms of anxiety, paranoia, sleeplessness, and even seizures or heart failure. They are also susceptible to weight loss, malnutrition, and other devastating side effects.

In addition to the dangers associated with each type of medication, long-term prescription drug abuse is often a warning sign of addiction. Drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder, comes with a long list of additional dangers, including:

  • Increased risk of contracting and transmitting bloodborne illnesses like HIV and hepatitis
  • Greater risk of abscesses and other internal infections
  • More likely to engage in risky, impulsive, or erratic behaviors
  • Risk of overdose when engaging in polydrug use

Warning Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

Knowing the warning signs of prescription drug abuse can make the difference between life and death of yourself or a loved one. This includes behavioral and physical indications of nonmedical drug use. Some general warning signs that someone is abusing prescription drugs include:

  • Visiting multiple doctors to seek out multiple prescriptions
  • Running out of prescriptions too early
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they run out of their prescription
  • Lying to friends and family about substance use
  • Losing interest in things they once enjoyed
  • Severe mood swings and behavioral changes
  • Engaging in illegal activities
  • Having financial troubles due to drug use
  • Having trouble at home, school, or work due to drug abuse
  • Hiding prescription bottles or other kinds of drug paraphernalia

These signs apply to virtually any drug of abuse. However, there are physical signs that can help you identify which type of prescription a person might be abusing. These include:[3,4,5]

  • Physical symptoms of opioid abuse – constricted pupils, drowsiness, nodding off, slurred speech, nausea, itching skin, slowed breathing, and flushed or pale skin.
  • Physical symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse – shortened attention span, lack of coordination/motor skills, short-term memory problems, slowed reflexes, slurred speech, and impaired judgment.
  • Physical symptoms of stimulant abuse – increased energy and talkativeness, dilated pupils, loss of appetite, anxiety, sweating, hyperactivity, shaking, and impulsivity.

If you’ve noticed any of these behavioral or physical warning signs, it’s time to get help for prescription drug abuse as soon as possible.

Find Treatment for Drug Addiction Today

Most people who are addicted to prescription medications need inpatient detox and rehab services. Since withdrawal from medications can be difficult and even life-threatening, it’s important to never try and detox alone. Instead, let our drug rehab program in Palm Beach, Florida help.

Equipped with medication-assisted treatment, evidence-based therapies, and the most qualified addiction and mental health experts, Comprehensive Wellness Centers has all the tools needed to help you overcome your addiction. Contact us today to get started on the road to a better life.


  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rxreportfinalprint.pdf
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/prescription-drug-overdose/index.html
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/opioidmisuseandaddiction.html
  4. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants