Drug Rehab: Prescription Pill Abuse

When the word ‘addict’ is mentioned people often revert to a stereotypical picture of a dishevelled heroin addict sleeping on a park bench. Nothing could be futher from the truth – people from all walks of life get addicted to chemicals. A great many people are addicted to pills that they obtain on prescription. Many medications that can be obtained over the counter are abuseable but I have known addicts to see multiple doctors in order to get multiple scripts for stronger medications. These addicts are often quite wealthy elderly people who became hooked on the medication after having it legitimately prescribed by a doctor.

There are several classes of medication that can be abused: pain killers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives. It is possible to become physically and psychologically dependent on all of these sorts of drugs. This results in a similar pattern of compulsively using drugs as any “street” addict. Doctors will not normally prescribe medication in the doses required by a prescription pill addict and so deceipt and trickery becomes required to obtain the drug.

Opioid painkillers

Opioid painkillers are a commonly abused prescription pill medication. These painkillers often contain codeine. Taking high doses of an opioid based analgesic has a similar effect to using heroin: an intial rush of euphoria followed by drowsiness. General mental functioning is depressed and various physical side effects may present (vomiting, constipation, constricted pupils).

People using opiates can become physically addicted to them. Their brain might become accustomed to the presence of the drug which results in a tolerance – a situation where ever increasing doses are required to obtain the same effect. Chronic use can result in a physical dependence in which case if the addict stops using the drug he/she will encounter withdrawal symptoms. It is best to consult with a medical doctor and perform a detox under her supervision.

CNS depressants

Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants can also be abused. These medications are prescribed to treat anxiety, muscle tension and sleep disorders. There is a wide range of drugs in this class:

  • benzodiazepines (Ativan, Halcion, Librium, Valium, Xanax)
  • alcohol
  • chloral hydrate
  • narcotics
  • methaqualone (Quaaludes)
  • buspirone (Buspar)
  • zolpidem (Ambien)

Although each of these drugs is quite different most of them work by increasing the effect of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which is responsible for inhibiting brain activity. More GABA means less activity. As with opiates it is possible to become physically and psychologically addicted to these prescription pills. Detoxification from benzodiazepines such as Valium or Librium should be medically supervised.

CNS stimulants

Stimulants is the last class of drugs we will look at. These medications are used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. Stimulants excite the CNS which results in enhanced mental alertness and reduced drowsiness and fatigue. Examples of stimulants include caffeine, cocaine and the amphetamines. Stimulants are often included in diet mixtures sold over the counter in South Africa.

Using stimulants affects the whole body. While under the effect of a stimulant a persons blood pressure, breathing rate and heart rate will all increase. High doses can push these body systems to dangerously high levels. There are psychological side effects associated with stimulants. Users may experience hostility, paranoia and undifferentiated fear.

There is a high risk of abusing stimulants and they are now prescribed a lot more cautiously than they used to be.

Did you know that heavy coffee drinkers become dependent upon caffeine? If they stop drinking coffee they may experience mild withdrawal symptoms characterised by irritability, nervousness and headache.

If a person who has been abusing CNS stimulants stops using them they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as extreme fatigue, depression and sleep disturbances. It is best to detox under supervision of a medical doctor.

Getting help

Prescription pill addiction is very similar to being addicted to ‘street’ drugs. It can lead to serious physical and psychological consequences and have a negative effect on the functioning of the family. It may be very difficult to stop using independently but it can be treated in a drug rehab.


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Founded in 2008, WeDoRecover has evolved from an advisory service for addiction treatment into a comprehensive provider of care, following its 2019 merger with Changes Addiction Rehab in Johannesburg. Specialising in connecting patients to top-tier addiction treatment centers in the UK, South Africa and Thailand, WeDoRecover supports individuals globally, including those from the United Arab Emirates and Europe. Accepting both South African medical aid and international health insurance our organisation facilitates access to high-quality treatment for substance and alcohol use disorders, offering individualised care that addresses the physical, mental and social needs of patients.

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