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When someone’s abusing prescription drugs, the signs may be subtle.

Substance abuse can take many forms, some less obvious than others. Prescription drug addiction is one of the “sneakier” types of abuse, because it usually starts with a legitimate prescription for a medication that’s initially helpful.

And someone who’s abusing prescription medicine won’t always have the outward signs of a problem — like breath that smells like alcohol.

Addiction can develop gradually, too, as you build a tolerance to a drug and need more to attain the same relief or results.

But the medicine’s prescribed. How can it be harmful?

Most potentially addictive prescription drugs, like opioids to control pain, are meant to be used for a short time, such as after surgery or if you break a bone. And opioids can provide effective relief for people who need to manage cancer-related pain.

The most commonly abused drugs include:

  • Opioids, like oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine.
  • Central Nervous System Depressants, or tranquilizers, like benzodiazepines, gabapentin and sleeping medications.
  • Stimulants, including medications that treat depression, narcolepsy, obesity and ADHD.

Your doctor doesn’t prescribe these drugs without carefully considering their need — and the patient, says Dr. Benjamin Kum, addiction medicine specialist and family doctor at Geisinger.

“When a healthcare provider writes a prescription, they’ve determined that the benefits of a drug outweigh the risks,” he explains. “They also give instructions for taking the medication and alert you to side effects and interactions.”

How does legitimate use become abuse?

The shift may start when your body builds up a tolerance to the prescribed medication. Eventually, the pleasurable effects decrease and dependency grows.

“When a tolerance is built overtime, misuse can become harder to control,” Dr. Kum notes. “And a person’s compulsive use can lead to long-term consequences like mental illness (or worsening mental illness), organ dysfunction, physical injuries or even death.”

Spending significant time trying to obtain medications from a hospital, doctors, friends, family members or other sources is an early warning sign for prescription drug addiction.

If you have any controlled substances left over from a prescription, make sure you dispose of them properly, Dr. Kum adds.

Geisinger’s medication take-back program the best way to safely dispose of any medication — even pet meds. Click here to find a secure bin near you.

What are some other symptoms of substance abuse?

People who are battling any kind of substance abuse might not admit they have a problem, Dr. Kum says. But there are some signs to watch for including:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Losing interest in regular activities
  • Nausea
  • Noticeable changes in mood
  • Paranoia
  • Poor coordination
  • Secretive behavior
  • Slower breathing rate
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Euphoria

“Depending on the type of addicting substance someone is using, their symptoms can vary,” says Dr. Kum.

Learn more about how to know if a loved one has an addiction.

Know when to reach out for help

If you or someone close to you may have an addiction, call Geisinger Marworth. You’ll speak with someone who can get you on the path to recovery.

With inpatient and outpatient programs and numerous counseling resources available, Geisinger Marworth can help you or your loved one live a healthier life free from alcohol or drugs.

Next steps:

How to recognize the signs of relapse
Get addiction help now
Learn about addiction treatment at Geisinger Marworth Treatment Center

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