Signs & Symptoms of Prescription Drug Dependence

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll learn about the three main types of abused prescription drugs: opiates, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants. We'll look at the symptoms of drug dependence and the signs of abuse.

What Is Drug Dependence?

Imagine something you can't live without. You might be thinking of a beloved pet or family member, or maybe even something nostalgic from your childhood, favorite food, or an activity. These things all elicit healthy levels of chemicals in our brain called neurotransmitters, which let brain cells called neurons talk to each other. Different neurotransmitters make us feel different things. These loved things we can't live without make us happy and chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin are released when we experience them.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain that control how we feel

For some people, however, the one thing they can't live without is prescription drugs. Drug addiction is the process of using drugs outside the recommendation of a doctor, and needing more and more to function. Drug addiction can lead to drug dependence, where the body can no longer regulate the levels of neurotransmitters the drug works on. The body then needs the drug to function properly, or withdrawal symptoms set in.

Some people are genetically predisposed to abusing drugs, while others find themselves taking it for a legitimate use, like a broken leg, but quickly find their need spiraling out of control. For these people, their brain no longer finds pleasure in regular activities like exercise or sex. The only thing that makes their brain release the right chemicals are the drugs. Soon, they can't feel even a baseline level of happiness without them.

There are three main prescription drugs, or drugs that are prescribed or administered from a doctor only, that are addictive: opiates, anti-anxiety medications, and stimulants.


Opiates are painkillers. Normally, our bodies produce opiate-like chemicals when we are in pain to help us keep functioning. However, during opiate abuse, the body is flooded with synthetic opiates makes us feel better than we ever could naturally. It's easy to see how these drugs can become addicting.

People abusing opiates will have a decreased perception of pain, euphoria, and are often sleepy and confused. Breathing will be slower than normal, and they will have a decreased reaction rate to stimuli in the environment. Users have constricted pupils and may feel itchy, nauseous or have episodes of vomiting. Constipation is common with opiate use, so users might be found searching for remedies such as laxatives.

Side effects of oxycodone use
side effects of oxycodone

Vicodin and oxycodone are commonly abused medications and have a similar high to heroin. Often times, prescription drug addicts will turn to heroin to get a more intense experience as their tolerance grows or when their supply of pills runs out.

Anti-anxiety Medication

Anti-anxiety medications, or benzodiazepines, like Valium and Xanax, are prescribed to ease anxiety, help people sleep, or prevent panic attacks. They have a sedative effect, creating a sense of calmness and drowsiness. People abusing benzodiazepines may seem confused, have slow breathing, poor memory, and seem uncoordinated.

Valium is a type of benzodiazepines that can be abused

As benzodiazepines are highly addictive; physical and psychological dependence can happen quickly. When the medication is stopped, withdrawal symptoms occur. Irritability, depression, increased anxiety, and trouble sleeping can all result from benzodiazepine withdrawal.


Staying up all night to cram for a test? Hopefully, you're doing it the right way with a cup of coffee and some sugary snacks. However, some students succumb to the lure of prescription stimulants, like Ritalin and Adderall, which heighten activity in the central nervous system and increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. These medications are normally used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and increase focus, energy and concentration. Thus, you can see why some see them as excellent study aids. However, like other prescription drugs of abuse, there are consequences.

Ritalin is a commonly abused stimulant

Since these drugs stimulate the nervous system, common symptoms are irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, nervousness, irritability, and increased body temperature and weight loss. Symptoms of stimulant abuse might include taking more of a prescription than was recommended by a doctor, trouble sleeping, anxiety and paranoia. Not everyone that uses prescription stimulants will become addicted, but some do, which can result in drug dependence.

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