Has Prescription Drug Use Increased?: Everything You Need to Know

While the focus is often on illegal drug use when it comes to addiction, sadly, we’re seeing an increase in prescription drug use and abuse in the UK and beyond.

That being said, it is important to understand why this is happening, how we can reduce this rise and how to understand the signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction.

What Prescription Drugs Are Under Close-watch?

While all prescription drugs should be distributed carefully and under professional care, certain prescription drugs are more addictive than others.

The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines on using these drugs to ensure that they’re prescribed safely and appropriately.

Throughout the prescription period, doctors and nurses and those who can prescribe are encouraged to monitor patients for signs of addiction and dependence, especially when these medications are used long-term.

That being said, certain prescription drugs have been recognised to have the potential for misuse or dependence and some of the most commonly monitored prescription drugs in terms of addiction potential in the UK include:

  • Opioids: This class of painkillers includes drugs like morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, and codeine. They are effective for pain management but also have a known potential for dependence and overdose.
  • Benzodiazepines: Drugs like diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), and alprazolam (Xanax) are prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and certain other conditions. They can lead to dependence, especially with long-term or high-dose use.
  • Z-drugs: Zopiclone, zolpidem, and zaleplon are used for sleep disorders. Like benzodiazepines, they can be habit-forming if used regularly.
  • Stimulants: Drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dexamfetamine, which are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can be misused, particularly by individuals without the condition.
  • Gabapentinoids: Gabapentin and pregabalin are prescribed for neuropathic pain, epilepsy, and anxiety. There have been concerns about their misuse and potential for dependence, especially when combined with opioids.
  • Codeine-containing medications: While codeine is an opioid, it’s worth highlighting separately because it is available in over-the-counter (OTC) preparations in combination with other analgesics, like paracetamol (e.g., co-codamol). There have been concerns about overuse and dependency on these OTC products.

How Does Prescription Drug Addiction Develop?

Prescription medications are a big risk when it comes to addiction; due to the legality of the drugs, there is a particular level of trust, meaning the dangers of such can be overlooked.

Like any drug or substance, what was once a controlled usage can surely spiral out of control and into an addiction when not taken with precaution. While prescription drug addictions can develop through the user being the patient, there is also the risk of the user becoming addicted to prescription medication that isn’t theirs to begin with.

This is why it is incredibly important for people only to take the medication that is prescribed to them and not share or distribute any prescriptions.

However, this isn’t the only risk; while many addictions come from prescriptions, there is still the risk of over-the-counter medication. For example, available medication that includes codeine is addictive and doesn’t require a prescription to buy.

Frequent usage of this can lead to a development in addiction, even if the use from the get-go was required and honest.

Another issue why prescription drugs can become dangerous is that tolerance can build quickly, meaning that, over time, the user does not get the same effect from the prescribed dose.

After a while, they may feel as though they have to take more, which can lead to dependence.

Whilst it is possible to become physically dependent on a medication and not have this lead to addiction, the dependence must be managed through medical supervision.

Under the eye of a doctor, the medication can be slowly tapered down so that the side effects of withdrawal are lessened, and the physical dependence ends.

What Are the Dangers of Prescription Drug Addiction?

If you are abusing prescription drugs over time, the associated risks grow exponentially. These can include:


One of the first signs of drug dependence and addiction of any kind is cravings.

Although this does not sound particularly dangerous, it is considered one of the most difficult barriers to overcome with an addiction. Psychological dependence on a drug is just as hard as any physical aspect and may remain even long after the drug has left your system.


Tolerance builds quickly with many different drugs, meaning that the user has to continuously up their dose to get the same effect.

Not only does this quickly build a physical dependence, but it also induces serious withdrawal symptoms over time, making it that much harder to quit the drug even if you want to. Tolerance is also part of what makes this kind of addiction so dangerous, as although the brain requires more of the drug to feel high, the body still has to process massive amounts of the substance, which can lead to serious medical complications.


A serious focus on either taking or getting hold of a drug can take over your life. This means letting other things fall by the wayside, including family, friends, jobs, etc. Over time, this can lead you to feel isolated and feel that you have no one left to talk to, meaning that your only real comfort is your addiction.

Criminal behaviour

It is not just illegal drugs that cause people to commit criminal acts. If you are addicted to a prescription drug, it will not be easy to get more than you have been prescribed. Common illegal activities associated with prescription drugs include:

  • Fraud (such as filing a prescription more than once at multiple pharmacies)
  • Buying drugs illegally online
  • Identity theft (getting a prescription using someone else’s identity)

Heroin Addiction Developing

Heroin is an opiate, coming from the same family as morphine. For those addicted to opioid medications, who have exhausted every avenue of getting their drugs on prescription, heroin is a natural but very dangerous progression.

Heroin is cheaper and easier to access than prescription drugs and is even more addictive; it is an unfortunate fact that many of the people who die from heroin abuse every year start with an addiction to legal pain pills.

Who Is at Risk of Prescription Drug Addiction?

Essentially, anybody is at risk of prescription drug addiction.

Anybody who receives a prescription or even uses it recreationally as a coping method could find themselves in the position of addiction, no matter the circumstances. For instance, in the UK, as of June 2023, it was reported that there were even instances that “GPs were reporting an “80pc increase in prescriptions for drugs that treat ADHD” amid exam stress in school youths.

This prompted medics even to warn that pupils have been passing ‘smart drugs’ to friends.

This is how easily prescription drug addictions can develop, particularly for undeveloped minds in their school ages. No matter the age, status or mental well-being, prescription drug addiction has the potential to develop. Hence, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of such for both your own or somebody else safety.

Signs of Prescription Drug Use

There are varied prescription drug addiction symptoms and effects, all of which fall under different categories but work in conjunction with one another. That being said, these are the things that you should be looking out for to ensure that there isn’t a risk of developing a serious addiction before it is too late.

Physical Symptoms

  • Tolerance: Needing to take more of the drug to achieve the desired effect or finding that the same dose has a much-diminished effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: When not taking the drug, experiencing symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, anxiety, or other symptoms. The specific symptoms can vary depending on the drug.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: This can include insomnia or excessive sleepiness.
  • Changes in appetite: This can lead to weight loss or weight gain.
  • Physical decline: Poor physical coordination, neglecting personal grooming, or physical health issues like constipation, respiratory depression (in the case of opioids), or memory issues (in the case of benzodiazepines).
  • Increased consumption: Taking the drug in larger amounts or over a more extended period than was intended.

Behavioural Symptoms:

  • Doctor shopping’: Visiting multiple doctors or pharmacists to obtain prescriptions for the same drug.
  • Using multiple pharmacies: To avoid suspicion when filling prescriptions.
  • Faking symptoms: To obtain a prescription from a doctor.
  • Misusing the medication: This can include taking the medication in a way not prescribed (e.g., crushing and snorting pills).
  • Defensive behaviour: When someone tries to discuss drug use.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: Such as failing to meet obligations at work, school, or home.
  • Secretive behaviour: Hiding the medication, avoiding social gatherings, or being secretive about where they go or who they’re with.
  • Financial problems: Due to spending significant amounts of money to buy the drug, especially if obtaining it without a prescription

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Mood swings: Ranging from feeling euphoric to depressed.
  • Increased anxiety or paranoia: Even if the drug was initially prescribed to treat anxiety.
  • Obsession: Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the drug.
  • Loss of interest: In hobbies or activities once enjoyed.
  • Denial: Not believing or not accepting that there’s a problem with drug use.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of prescription drug addiction, it’s crucial to seek professional help. Addiction can be dangerous and even life-threatening, but with the right support, like with us here at Ocean Recovery, rehabilitation is possible.

How to Lower Rates of Prescription Drug Use & Beat an Addiction

While prescription drug abuse is detrimental to health and well-being, the good news is that there is help and there is something being done about the prescribing of addictive substances.

For instance, the NHS recently posted that “Opioid prescriptions cut by almost half a million in four years as NHS continues crackdown”. So, with a growing awareness, there is more and more attention being brought to the increase in prescription drug use and abuse.

However, for those suffering from addiction now, it is important to reach out for help.

To safely detox from prescription medications once an addiction has formed, you should consider a dedicated rehabilitation centre.

At Ocean Recovery Centre, we not only help you to detox and lose your physical dependence on medication, but we also help you to work through the psychological addiction that is preventing you from quitting.

Benefits of using our dedicated inpatient service include:

  • Access to both detox and psychological treatment all in one place
  • Constant monitoring to administer medication, deal with medical emergencies and provide support around the clock.
  • A range of wellbeing therapies and social activities to help make the process easier
  • Group and family sessions to help support everyone around you
  • A dedicated aftercare programme to help ease you back into everyday life at the end of your treatment.

To find out more and get started on your recovery journey, just call 01253847553, or email info@oceanrecoverycentre.com

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: February 15, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.