Prescription medication misuse is the use of medication in a way that is different from what a doctor intended, and it has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prescription medications have legitimate medical purposes, unlike illicit drugs; however, several prescription medicines as prescribed by healthcare services such as opioid painkillers, sedatives, stimulants, and psychotherapeutics have the potential for abuse and can lead to addiction.
The initial decision to take prescription drugs is usually voluntary to treat a health condition or relieve pain. However, all medications affect individuals differently, and over time tolerance to the substance will increase, meaning more significant quantities are required to feel the same effects, and this can result in dependency.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that the number of people over the age of 12 who have misused prescription drugs is steadily increasing. We have witnessed a tremendous surge in people visiting A&E due to overdoses, as well as an increase in those seeking help from addiction service centres.
Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction
Our society, particularly in the West, focuses on the pursuit of success. This results in a culture where we will go to any lengths to overcome anything standing in the way of achievement, such as stress or pain. We are all too often unwilling to take a long-term solutions-based approach and instead opt for quick fixes to alleviate discomfort.
Unfortunately, this exacerbates the dangers of prescription medication as more people turn to drugs to manage their symptoms even if they are not necessary or are not the best option for their condition.
Any prescription drug holds the potential for misuse, but the properties and effects of particular medications increase the likelihood and risk of misuse as well as the severity of potential harm and long-term implications.
Not only do these medications pose a significant risk to the patient they have been prescribed for, they can also easily find their way onto the black market for sale alongside other illicit substances.
In the UK, the most commonly abused prescription medications include:
- Opiates: Codeine, Hydrocodone, Morphine, and Fentanyl
- Insomnia/sleeping pills: Tempazepam, Zopiclone, Ambien, and Restoril
- Anti-anxiety medication: Benzodiazepines and Pregabalin
- Stimulants: Ritalin and Adderall
Opioids are the most commonly abused prescription medication in both the UK and the United States. It is one of the most dangerous families of prescription drugs as tolerance to the substance builds quickly. They are regularly used as a short-term measure post-surgery or for acute pain. Although they can be prescribed for chronic pain issues, there is little evidence of any benefit from long-term use, and an overdose from opioids can quickly become fatal as they slow heart rate and respiration.
Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, are other commonly abused prescription drugs. These highly addictive medicines act as tranquilisers and are often prescribed for anxiety. The calm and relaxed state these drugs induce can escalate someone’s dependency, especially if they find themselves in an environment where their use is normalised.
Ritalin, which is used to treat ADHD or ADD, is another frequently abused medication. As Ritalin is a stimulant, it can help students and workers increase focus and concentration and can help them to stay up later to meet deadlines or finish projects.
Prescription medication addiction is a complex condition with widespread adverse effects on individuals and their families and friends. Addiction can lead to issues both at home and at work, creating feelings of shame, isolation, and powerlessness.
When these drugs are prescribed, the doctor will consider each patient’s unique and complex needs and the selected medications, their dosage, and their effects will vary significantly from person to person.
The symptoms of prescription drug abuse cover a wide spectrum that includes physical, behavioural, and psychological changes and will depend on the specific drug; however, all addictions inevitably impact a person’s health, well-being, and day-to-day life.
Some of the most common symptoms of prescription medication addiction include:
- Changes in appetite
- Insomnia or sleeping more than usual
- Weight loss
- Lack of coordination
- Poor concentration
- Digestive issues including constipation or nausea
- Increased or slowed heart rate
- Increased or slowed breathing
- High blood pressure
- Secretive behaviour
- Absences from work
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Reduced contact with friends
- Lack of self-care
- Risk-taking behaviour
- Mood swings
- Changes in personality
Anyone can develop a substance abuse disorder at any age or point in their life. However, certain situations, environments, and conditions can increase the risk of addiction, including:
- Past and present addictions including nicotine and alcohol
- Pre-existing mental health issues
- Family history of substance misuse
- Peer pressure or a work/social environment with substance use
- Easy access – such as having prescription medications in the house or office
- Lack of knowledge about prescription medications and their harmful effects
- Traumatic events or periods of intense or sudden change
The Effects of COVID-19
Over the past two years, COVID-19 has caused significant hardship worldwide. We have witnessed increased isolation, economic decline, and a vast loss of life.
Numerous reports and studies have evidenced the toll this situation has had on our physical and mental health. Working from home and being isolated from loved ones has resulted in us:
- Taking less exercise
- Seeing undesired weight changes
- Increasing alcohol consumption
- Witnessing abuse in the home
- Struggling with mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and addiction
Parents and key workers are more likely to have suffered from physical and psychological issues due to the pandemic stressors. Parents, in particular, have been disproportionately affected due to working from home whilst juggling families, homeschooling, lockdown situations, social restrictions, and economic difficulty.
The stress and uncertainty have led many adults to seek alleviation and comfort from substances, and in some instances, combining prescription medicines with alcohol, which can have potentially lethal effects mandy of these substances are depressants that decrease heart rate and respiratory function, and can result in coma or death.
The pandemic has also seen a surge in illicit prescription medications being sold on the black market to teenagers and young adults. Illicit opioids and benzodiazepines have been in circulation across the country, and toxicology reports have connected these substances to a number of hospitalisations and fatalities.
Black market drugs can contain different substances in varying strengths meaning that the risk of overdose is much higher. In the last year, benzodiazepines were listed on the death certificates of 476 people in England and Wales, which is an increase of 55% in 10 years.
Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease; however, full recovery is possible. If you, a coworker, family member, or friend is struggling with prescription medication addiction, please seek help immediately.
The most effective mental and behavioural health treatment offers individualised recovery programmes designed to meet each person’s needs.
The Revoke Programme provides a combination of treatment approaches adapted to match your personal circumstances. Our expert therapists continually evaluate your progress and make appropriate changes to your plan to ensure you always receive the best possible treatment.
 de las Cuevas, Carlos et al. “Benzodiazepines: More “Behavioural” Addiction Than Dependence”. Psychopharmacology, vol 167, no. 3, 2003, pp. 297-303. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s00213-002-1376-8.
 Calvano, Claudia et al. “Families in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Parental Stress, Parent Mental Health and the Occurrence of Adverse Childhood Experiences—Results of a Representative Survey in Germany”. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2021. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s00787-021-01739-0.
 “Valium Deaths Soar As Drug Users Mix ‘Benzos’ With Cocaine”. The Guardian, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/20/valium-deaths-soar-as-drug-users-mix-benzos-with-cocaine.