Prescription medications are a fantastic tool for pain management, anxiety, and ADHD when used correctly. However, many medications are addictive and can soon cross a line into abuse. If a loved one has suddenly changed in their personality or habits, or if you’re using prescription medications and wonder if you’ve begun to abuse them, there are some telltale signs to watch for.
The three kinds of drugs most at risk for abuse are opioids, anti-anxiety medications and sedatives, and stimulants for sleep and hyperactivity disorders. Some symptoms are distinct to each category, while other signs cross over all three medications.
Opioids are prescribed for pain management, usually after surgery or for patients with chronic pain or illnesses. However, it’s easy to get addicted to opioids. Taking opioids for more than five consecutive days increases the risk of dependency.
When a patient becomes dependent on opioids, they must continue to seek out the medication or risk going through withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can be minimal or severe, depending on the length of time the person has been using opioids. Withdrawal symptoms are usually more obvious than signs of active opioid abuse, depending on the person. These symptoms include:
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, abdominal cramping
- Watery eyes, dilated pupils
- Pain in the muscles and bones, whole-body chills
- Insomnia, excessive yawning
- Irritability or anxiety
- Excessive sweating, restlessness
- Fast heart rate (tachycardia), high blood pressure (hypertension)
People with severe addiction can expect withdrawal symptoms to appear in 8-12 hours, and it can last up to 10 days without medical intervention. Those who are newer to prescription medication dependency can start to feel mild withdrawal symptoms in 24 hours, and these typically last 1-3 days.
As the body adjusts to daily opioid use, it can be difficult for friends and family to tell someone is abusing prescription medications. The signs are more subtle, but if you suspect a loved one is abusing opioids, watch for:
- Poor coordination
- Changes in sleep habits
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Mood swings
- Weight loss, changes in appetite
- Frequent flu-like symptoms
- Decreased libido
- Decreased interest in usual activities
- Poor hygiene
- More frequent refills of medications
Anti-Anxiety Medication Dependency
Anti-anxiety and sleep disorder medications help reduce tension, depression, and insomnia, but they’re also used to help with alcohol withdrawal and control seizures. Under the familiar names of Xanax, Ativan, Klonopins, or Valium, benzodiazepine abuse is more common than many people think.
Symptoms of “benzos” abuse can include:
- Mood or personality changes
- Poor hygiene habits
- Increased anxiety or insomnia
- Severe headaches
- Muscle weakness
- Poor coordination, dizziness
- Blurred vision
- Drowsiness, confusion
- Memory problems
- Slowed breathing
- Increased isolation from friends and family
If mixed with alcohol, benzo abuse can lead to a coma or death. Long-term abuse of benzodiazepines can include permanent memory loss, and in seniors, it may increase the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Ambien is a popular sleeping aid, often used in conjunction with benzos such as Ativan to reduce anxiety and insomnia. As a hypnotic, it can create many of the same symptoms as anti-anxiety medications when abused. However, abuse of hypnotics can also include:
- Frequent blackouts
- Excessive talking
- Inability to sleep at all without the hypnotic
- Poor coordination and balance
- Odd behavior with no memory of it
- Hallucinations and confusion
- Sleep-eating or sleep-driving
Typically prescribed for managing sleep disorders and ADHD, stimulants are popularly traded and used on college campuses and in the financial sector. High-stress environments that require lots of focus and little sleep have created a market for stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall.
The rise of diagnosed children and people with ADHD has made many of these medications more available, with some patients selling their medications to those looking for a boost. If you suspect your loved one is abusing stimulants, look for these telltale signs:
- Euphoric or manic behavior, pacing, increased irritability, mood swings
- Agitation and increased anxiety
- Reduced appetite
- Paranoia, increased alertness, jitters
- High body temperature
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Racing thoughts and speech
- Excessive sweating, energy, hyper-focus
People with long-term addictions to stimulants can seriously damage their heart muscle and put themselves at risk for stroke, cardiac arrest, coma, and death. Other long-term effects can include permanent damage to the lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels.
Telltale Signs of Addiction
No matter what kind of addiction you or a loved one may be struggling with, there are some telltale signs of addiction that cross almost every affliction. From gambling to prescription medications to alcohol, you or a loved one must maintain access to the addiction, which means money.
If you are suddenly missing high-value objects from your home, such as jewelry, electronics, or firearms, your loved one may be selling these items to get money for their addiction.
As you increase your intake of prescription medications, you build a tolerance. You need more to get the same high as you did when you first started taking the pills. When you run out of refills, you may find your doctor is unwilling to authorize another because they know you are dependent. Many patients begin doctor shopping or finding new doctors who will write prescriptions for them.
Many states have created databases for prescriptions to cut down on doctor shopping, but some addicts may circumvent this by using family and friends’ identities.
New financial difficulties
Poor work or school performance, unpaid bills, and frequent requests for financial help are telltale signs of addiction. The addict spends more time in their active addiction, often neglecting these key aspects of their life.
Once you’ve identified you or a loved one has a problem with prescription medications, it’s time to find help. With counseling, medication-assisted treatment, and outpatient support, you can overpower your addiction and learn to enjoy life without prescription medications.
Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.