How to Recognize Prescription Drug Abuse in a Loved One

prescription drug abuse

If you think your family or loved ones are safe from prescription drug addiction, you may want to think again. In 2016, prescription drug abuse affected 11 million people.  46 people a day die from a prescription overdose, accounting for 35% of all opioid deaths.

People of all ages, from twelve years old all the way through the geriatric years, are misusing prescribed medications.  This means that your children, your friends, and even your parents could be abusing prescription drugs.

Teens, the Elderly, and Prescription Drug Abuse

Kids as young as twelve are experimenting with prescription drugs.  Kids and teens think that prescription drugs are safer to use than street drugs.  Abusing these drugs increases risky behaviors and poor decisions.

Starting to misuse prescription drugs at a young age puts kids and young adults at a much higher risk of moving on to other drugs, such as heroin, later in life.

There is also an increase in the number of aging adults who are addicted to prescription drugs, with an estimated 8 million of people over the age of 65 misusing medications.  Some of these older adults bring their addictions with them from their youth and are called “early-onset addicts.” Others develop the addiction later in life.

The misuse of prescription drugs in the elderly usually goes hand in hand with things such as depression, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and life traumas such as the death of a spouse or close friend.  Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonipin are frequently prescribed for the elderly and are the most abused in this age group.

Understanding Physical Dependence and Addiction

There is a difference between physical dependence on a prescription drug and an addiction to it, but both will lead to abuse of the medication.

Physical Dependence

Also known as tolerance, this is what happens to someone who has been on a prescription drug for a long time.  They will need to use more of the drug to feel the benefits, and they will go through withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the medication.  At this point, the misuse is due to physical problems because of their need for a higher dosage.

Addiction

Addiction is the next step for those who have developed a physical dependence on the medications.   They still physically need the drug, but they have developed an emotional dependency to the prescription as well.  They will seek the drug and continue to use it even if they are aware it is disrupting their lives.

People may also develop an addiction because they experience withdrawal symptoms from their physical dependency.

Some people will begin to use a drug simply for the sake of the drug itself.  They will develop an addiction so they can:

  • Be accepted by one’s social group and peers
  • Relieve tension and relax
  • Increase levels of energy
  • Increase mental alertness
  • Feel “high”
  • Increase feelings of well being

Some individuals are at a higher risk of developing an addiction to medications.  These people may suffer from:

  • Poverty
  • Preexisting psychiatric disorders
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Family history of addictions
  • History of addiction to other things, like alcohol or cigarettes
  • Past emotional trauma, such as neglect or abuse
  • Easy access to prescription medication
  • Feeling that prescriptions are “safer” than illicit drugs

Recognizing the Behavioral Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

Those who are abusing prescription medications will show different physical signs that are based on the drugs they are using, but friends and family usually report similar patterns of behavior.

1. Your loved one may become more irritable, exhibit mood swings, or other changes of behavior.  These can include any combination of:

  • Skipping class and work
  • Reckless behaviors
  • Abusive, hostile and angry reactions
  • Poor judgment and decision making
  • Uncharacteristic clumsiness or forgetfulness
  • Unreliable behaviors, such as not fulfilling obligations

2. You may find your family member or friend is becoming more deceptive.  This may appear as:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Outwardly deceitful behavior
  • Lying about money, friends, and activities
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Locking drawers or doors in their homes

3.  Someone who is addicted to prescription medications will begin to lose interest in daily activities, changing how they spend their time. These new behaviors may be driven by the drug they are taking, and can result in:

  • Increases or decreases in appetite
  • Increased or decreased sleep
  • Decreased work or school performance
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Lack of interest in their personal appearance
  • Changes in their circle of friends or hang-outs
  • Appearing overly energetic or sedated

4.  There will usually be a very marked change in the finances of someone who is caught up in prescription drug abuse.

  • Asking to borrow money
  • Having more money than usual (indicating they may be selling the medications)
  • Selling possessions
  • Stealing other people’s things to sell
  • Sudden willingness to work an “odd job” for immediate pay

5.  Lastly, if someone is abusing prescription medication, his or her attitude about the medications will change drastically.

  • Obsessing over the number of pills in a bottle
  • Taking more medication than is prescribed
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Stealing medications from friends and family
  • “Shopping” for more than one doctor and pharmacy to fill prescriptions
  • Constantly running short of medications and needing refills
  • Frequent complaints that they have “lost” medication or prescriptions

If your loved one is experiencing any combination of these changes of behavior and they are on prescription medications such as painkillers, stimulants, anti-anxiety medications or other depressants, he or she may be developing an addiction to the prescription drugs.

Physical Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

There are many classifications of drugs with a high risk of being misused.  These are generally placed into three categories, each with a different use and set of physical warning signs that may indicate abuse.

1. Stimulants

Stimulants are used to treat things like ADHD, narcolepsy, and obesity.  They give users a feeling of mental sharpness, focus and clarity and boost wakefulness and energy.  College students tend to use these when they are cramming for exams.

Stimulants include medications like Adderall and Ritalin.  Some signs of potential abuse of a stimulant are:

  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Violent or aggressive behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia and delusions
  • Hyperactivity
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Problems with thinking and memory
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Flushed skin
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils

2.  Depressants

Depressants are prescribed to give the user a feeling of calmness and increase feelings of well being.  They are commonly given to treat anxiety.  These drugs are called benzodiazepines and include Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin.

These drugs can cause a person’s breathing to slow and even stop altogether when taken improperly. Other common signs of depressant abuse include:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Dizziness and lack of coordination
  • Decreased attention span
  • Memory problems
  • Impaired judgement

3.  Opioid Pain Medications

Opioid addiction is the most common and, with 130 fatal overdoses every day, the most deadly.  Opioids include illicit drugs like heroin, but also many pain relief medications such as codeine, morphine, fentanyl.

Oxycodone, in particular, is a major concern; it’s one of the most dangerous prescription medications and one of the most addictive.  If not taken properly it can stop someone from breathing, just like a depressant does.

Opioids are frequently given in the short-term, after surgery or injury.  They can also be prescribed over long periods of time for people who are in constant pain, like a bad back or chronic knee pain.  For many people addicted to opioids, the addiction was gradual and accidental in nature.

Pain pill addiction signs are:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Constricted pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Watery or droopy eyes
  • Nausea, vomiting, and constipation
  • Periods of unconsciousness called “nodding”
  • Slow reactions
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Dry mouth

How Prescription Drug Abuse Leads to Heroin Use

It’s well known that when people begin to abuse prescription medications, they run the risk of becoming addicted to heroin later in life.  In fact, 75% of heroin users admit that they started out by abusing prescription drugs.

Heroin is a natural next step after misusing prescription medications, but why?

  1. Heroin is much cheaper than prescription medications, especially for the uninsured.
  2. Heroin is in the same drug class as prescription opioids and depressants (Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin).
  3. Heroin is easier to get than prescription drugs, which involve finding a doctor willing to prescribe them.  Many prescription drug addicts will “shop” around for doctors and pharmacies to fill multiple prescriptions.
  4. Heroin is used to combat withdrawal symptoms after finishing a treatment plan of prescription pain killers.

Generally, the addiction follows a certain pattern of abuse as it progressively worsens.

Anatomy of an Addiction

The first step is usually that the person is prescribed a medication due to an injury or a psychological event, like anxiety.

After a while, the person may realize that the medication isn’t working as well because prolonged use has built a tolerance to it. They may need to increase the number of pills they take to get the benefits they used to get from the original prescription.

It is at this point that he or she may begin to steal medications, or the money needed to purchase them illegally.  They may also discover other ways to take the medications, such as crushing them up and snorting them, to intensify their reactions and make the medications last longer.

The person may return to the doctor for a larger supply of pills, and the doctor will most likely refuse.  The person will look for other avenues to get the medication, but it is too difficult and expensive to purchase on the street.  At this point, the user will turn to an alternative, illicit drug such as heroin.

When the user first starts to use heroin, he or she can still justify its use by snorting it.  No one starts out wanting to inject a drug, but they quickly learn that injecting it uses less of the drug and results in a more intense feeling.

The Consequences of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse can lead to the same consequences as illicit drug abuse.  Addiction destroys lives, so recognizing the signs of prescription drug abuse in those around you is vital.

1. Addiction can lead to impaired judgement and poor decisions:  Not only are poor decisions made while on the medications, but poor decisions can be made because of the need to get the medications.  The need for money can lead to many kinds of crime.

2. Addiction can lead to decreased work or academic performance: An addiction to prescription medication can lead to skipping school or work, and not being able to focus while there.

3.  Addiction can ruin relationships: An addicted person who lies about their addiction or steals from friends and family to feed it destroys their trust.

4.  Addiction can lead to a high tolerance for medications: If a medication is needed, a person with an addiction may have built too high of a tolerance for it to be useful.  In addition, if the person is a known prescription drug abuser, he or she will earn the label of “drug seeker” and be unable to receive drugs, even if they are needed.

Seeking Help

If you’ve recognized that someone you love may have a problem, it’s time to seek professional help.

There are three stages for a good recovery program.

1. Detox: This is usually three to ten days and will cleanse the body of toxins. With medical supervision, some medications may be given to help lessen the symptoms of withdrawal and reduce cravings.

2. Rehab:  Lasting approximately a month, rehab deals with the psychology of addiction.   Individualized treatment plans will include counseling and family therapy, as well as learning new coping skills.

3. Ongoing support:  The recovering addict will receive follow up services after the completion of the program.

Coastal Detox provides highly individualized care plans, a state of the art facility, and all of the care and support you expect for your loved one as he or she begins the new journey of recovering from prescription drug abuse.  Give us a call or fill out this short form to get started on the road to healing today.

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Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.