Prescription drug addiction involves people building a dependence on prescription pharmaceutical medications. In many cases, prescription drug misuse occurs due to a voluntary pursuit of the euphoric feeling that some medications provide people.

When people seek the effects of these drugs, they often misuse them by taking higher doses than what’s recommended to treat pain or sickness. Consistently taking the drug over a long period of time or increasing dosage often creates a tolerance for the effects and the substance’s presence in a person’s system. A tolerance often minimizes the effects of the drug and reduces the euphoric feeling from taking it at lower doses, requiring a larger amount to achieve the same high.

When a tolerance is built, resisting taking the drug becomes more difficult for people. The dependence on the drug is built through increasing dosage and the body’s central nervous system getting used to the drug’s presence and the help it provides the brain while performing certain functions.

Once addiction sets in, misuse becomes compulsive and difficult to overcome. Additionally, addiction to prescription drugs can cause severe long-term consequences, including physical injury and mental illness while also affecting personal and professional relationships. Fortunately, there is a way for people to remove addiction from their lives and overcome prescription drug misuse. This positive resolution is often achieved through a rehabilitation program at a reputable medical facility, such as The Recovery Village.

What Are Prescription Drugs?

The label of prescription drugs — interchangeable with prescription medication — refers to any form of pharmaceutical drugs that cannot be legally sold without a medical prescription issued by a licensed physician or doctor. Prescription drugs are different from over-the-counter drugs, as the latter can be obtained without a prescription.

Since prescription drugs require a doctor’s signature to attain, they can be misused in a few different ways, including:

  • Receiving them from a friend or family member who has a prescription
  • Taking larger doses than the doctor recommends
  • Refilling the prescription without a doctor’s order

Those are some of the most common ways that people misuse prescription drugs, which can then lead them to develop a prescription drug addiction. Some prescription medications are not misused as often as others are due to the associated effects of each drug. Psychoactive prescription drugs are classified in specific groups, each with their  own appeal to someone seeking to misuse the drug or wanting treatment for pain or sickness.


Opioid painkillers are prescription drugs which act on the opioid receptors in the body’s nervous system in order to reduce pain. Opioids are available in various forms: tablets, capsules and liquids.

Since opioids can be highly addictive, many of them require a prescription to take and are not included in over-the-counter offerings. Some of the most common opioid prescription drugs (with their most common brand names noted after) include:

  • Oxycodone – Percocet, Percodan and OxyContin
  • Diphenoxylate – Lomotil
  • Hydrocodone – Lortab, Lorcet, Vicodin
  • Morphine – Avinza, Kadian and MS Contin
  • Fentanyl – Duragesic
  • Codeine – Tylenol with Codeine, Vopac
  • Hydromorphone – Dilaudid
  • Propoxyphene – Darvon
  • Methadone – Dolphine
  • Meperidine – Demerol

When taken according to a doctor’s prescription, opioids are extremely effective pain-relief medications. They can improve the quality of life for people suffering from chronic pain, including after surgery and during cancer treatment.

However, tolerance and a dependence on opioids develops quickly and addiction can form within two weeks a substance is taken regularly. If people increase their doses too much, people may experience severe side effects and be in danger of extreme injury, including death.


Stimulant prescription drugs work similar to cocaine. They increase energy and alertness, while some also elevate blood pressure or suppress appetite. Many people take stimulants to treat for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition with symptoms such as inattentiveness, feeling impulsive, and hyperactivity.

Stimulant prescription drugs often are in pill form, but some can be taken as a skin patch or as a liquid. Some stimulants differ on how long they are effective, with three classifications: short-acting, intermediate-acting and long-acting. The most common short-acting stimulant prescription drugs include:

  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Focalin
  • ProCentra
  • Ritalin
  • Zenzedi

Intermediate-acting stimulant drugs last longer than short-acting ones but still require regular dosage to effectively work. The most common ones include:

  • Evekeo
  • Metadate ER
  • Methylin ER
  • Ritalin SR

Long-acting stimulants do not require regular dosage and can stay effective for hours, even days, while increasing alertness for people. The most popular ones include:

  • Adzenys XR-ODT
  • Adderall XR
  • Concerta
  • Daytrana
  • Focalin XR
  • Metadate CD
  • Mydayis
  • Quillivant XR
  • Quillichew ER
  • Ritalin LA
  • Vyvanse

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

Similar to marijuana or alcohol, central nervous system depressants slow down brain activity similar to sedatives or tranquilizers. They are often referred to as “downers” to distinguish them from “uppers,” a common nickname for narcotics and stimulants like Adderall and cocaine. Most depressants work by controlling the secretion of the brain neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid. This causes a decrease in brain activity, leading to a feeling of calmness and drowsiness.

Depressants are often prescribed to people suffering from sleep issues or anxiety disorders. The most commonly prescribed central nervous system depressants include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications
  • Barbiturates

Some of the most popular benzodiazepines are diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), triazolam (Halcion), and estazolam (ProSom). These are often prescribed to treat acute stress reactions, panic attacks and severe stress reactions. However, if taken regularly, people can develop a dependence, tolerance and addiction.

Non-benzodiazepine sleep medicines include eszopiclone (Lunesta), zalepon (Sonata) and zolpidem (Ambien). They act on the same receptors as benzodiazepines but have a lower risk of dependence.

Barbiturates include phenobarbital (Luminal Sodium), mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal). They are prescribed less often compared to other sedatives because they pose a higher risk of overdose.


Antipsychotics are prescription drugs that can treat psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or issues stemming from bipolar disorder. There are two classes of antipsychotic drugs:

  • Typical, older
  • Atypical, newer

Older antipsychotics were discovered in the 1950s and include flupentixol, chlorpromazine, levomepromazine, haloperidol, perphenazine and pericyazine. Newer antipsychotic medications are recently created and include clozapine, aripiprazole, amisulpride, olanzapine, risperidone and quetiapine.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Most prescription drug addiction comes from either opioids, for pain relief, or from those taken to treat psychological conditions. Prescription drug abuse often stems from either reinforcing or reducing some functions in the body. Over time, the person needs to take the drug for the body to properly function. This is one of the major withdrawal symptoms associated to drug addiction.

Some people are more likely to become addicted to a prescription drug than others due to several factors, including:

  • Height, weight and other personal characteristics
  • The drug they are taking
  • Whether they are treating a disorder or chronic pain

However, anyone can become addicted to a prescription drug over time if they misuse the substance for long enough.

While there are examples of people who have become addicted even when taking the drug as ordered by a doctor, this is much less common than misuse. That’s why taking the drug as advised by medical professionals is important for safety reasons and a healthy lifestyle.

Prescription Drug Abuse & Addiction Statistics

Addiction to prescription drugs is most common among young adults, between the ages 18 and 24. Some of the most glaring prescription drug abuse statistics about this age bracket, courtesy of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, include:

  • In 2014, more than 1,700 young adults died from prescription drug overdose, mostly due to opioids
  • Around 12 percent of people in this age range misuses prescription drugs
  • For every death due to prescription drug overdose, there were 119 emergency room visits and 22 treatment admissions among young people

Additionally, from 1991 to 2011, the number of prescriptions written and dispensed for opioids in the United States increased each year.

It’s not just opioids that are a problem. More than 20 percent of Americans are prescribed a drug to treat a psychiatric or behavioral disorder. Such a high rate can cause people who struggle with substance use disorders to become addicted to the drug’s ingredients.

Based on 2012 – 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health data, an annual average of 11.3 million U.S. adults ages 12 or older reported taking prescription pain relievers non-medically at least once in the past year.

The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Opioids and morphine-derivative pain-relief medicines are among the prescription drugs most often misused and that are commonly associated with addiction. While each person is different and some people could be more or less susceptible to addiction to different drugs, some of the ones often linked to addiction include:

  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Amphetamine
  • Methylphenidate
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines


Codeine, an opioid commonly taken to relieve mild to severe pain, is found in some medication used for treating cough and even diarrhea. When used for pain relief, codeine is often prescribed along with paracetamol, or other medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Codeine is the most common opiate prescribed and the most misused one around the world. Every year, around 300,000 kilograms of codeine are consumed. In some countries, cough syrups and tablets containing codeine are available without a prescription, making it easy for people to become addicted to the drug. Some of the most common commercial names for codeine are:

  • Empirin with Codeine
  • Fiorinal with Codeine
  • Robitussin A-C
  • Tylenol with Codeine

A few of the popular street names used for codeine are:

  • Cody
  • Captain Cody
  • Schoolboy
  • Doors and fours
  • Loads
  • Pancakes and syrup


Morphine is an opiate pain-relief medication, which is found naturally in several plants and animals, and acts directly on the central nervous system to relieve both acute and chronic pain. Although more than 500,000 kilograms of morphine are produced each year, only a small percentage is used directly in pain relief medication. More than 70 percent of the morphine produced is used to make other opioids such as oxycodone, hydromorphone and heroin. Morphine is included in many commercial drugs, including:

  • Roxanol
  • Duramorph
  • MS Contin
  • Morphine Sulfate ER
  • Kadian

Some of the most common street names for morphine include:

  • Miss Emma
  • Monkey
  • White stuff


Methadone is an opioid with perhaps the most controversial usage and is often taken to reduce withdrawal symptoms of narcotics such as heroin. However, some medical experts have questioned the effectiveness of methadone in treating people with heroin misuse disorders. They argue that methadone only serves to redirect dependency from illegal to authorized channels and is not a viable strategy to recover from drug addiction. Some of the most common names for methadone are:

  • Dolophine
  • Symoron
  • Amidone
  • Methadose
  • Physeptone
  • Heptadon


Amphetamine is a very potent stimulant mainly used in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many patients taking amphetamine develop a drug tolerance very quickly, meaning that over time they require increasingly higher doses to achieve the same effects. Due to the required increase in dosage, people often become addicted to drugs that include amphetamine, such as Adderall.

Some of the most common street names for amphetamine include:

  • Bennies
  • Black beauty
  • Crosses
  • Hearts
  • LA turnaround
  • Speed
  • Truck driver
  • Upper


Methylphenidate, a stimulant in the phenethylamine family of drugs, helps treat ADHD and narcolepsy. The substance is in a variety of commercial drugs, including:

  • Ritalin
  • Aptensio
  • Daytrana
  • Equasym
  • Medikinet
  • Metadate
  • Methylin
  • QuilliChew
  • Quillivant


Barbiturates, which are derived from barbiturate acid, include certain derivatives that enhance the action of GABA. Barbiturates have been discovered to cause severe physical and psychological dependence. This, coupled with the fact that some more effective and much safer drugs have come to the market, has resulted in significant decrease in the prescription of barbiturates by doctors for the treatment of anxiety, amnesia and epilepsy.


Benzodiazepines are a special class of inhibitors. Specifically, they act on the GABA-A receptors where they open certain GABA-activated chloride channels to allow chloride ions to enter the neuron. The presence of chloride ions makes the neurons negatively charged, which causes people to become less likely to get excited. Benzodiazepines are ingredients in the following popular commercial drugs:

Benzodiazepines have a few common street names, including:

  • Sleeping pills
  • Candy
  • Downers
  • Tranks

If you notice yourself or a loved one routinely taking one of these prescription drugs, this is a sign of a substance use disorder. Many people suffer from this illness, especially with prescription drugs. Whether you or a loved one built a dependence from following a doctor’s prescription or through misuse, help is available. The Recovery Village knows how dangerous some prescription medications can be and also knows how to treat for addiction to these life-threatening substances. Call one of our associates today and speak to an addiction expert, who can detail why these drugs are so harmful and how drug rehabilitation can help.


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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.