Prescription Opioid Addiction: Abuse, Effects, & Treatment

Written By: Facility Staff

Edited By: Editorial Team

Published Date: 03/25/24

Last Updated: 03/25/24

If you have ever been or known someone with a prescription opioid use disorder, you know how debilitating it can be, and how disheartening — since it likely started with the treatment of legitimate pain. 

Most prescription opioid addictions start with use of a valid prescription, but can turn dangerous within days due to the highly addictive nature of these drugs.

Even after just three days of prescribed use for severe pain, a person can start to become addicted to opioids. They may then misuse or abuse the drug in order to feel its pleasurable effects.  

Fortunately, there are treatments available to help people living with opioid use disorders to regain control of their lives, like therapy, dual diagnosis treatment, and medical detox. 

Prescription Opioid Addiction: Quick Definition

Prescription opioids are a type of medication that are used because of their ability to relieve pain and induce relaxation. 

There are three main types of opioids:

  • Natural opioids, which are made directly from the opium poppy plant
  • Synthetic opioids, which are made in laboratories to mimic the effects of natural opioids
  • Semi-synthetic opioids, which are made using natural parts of the poppy plant that have been modified by chemists

In addition to providing pain relief, opioids also activate the reward center in the midbrain and can cause pleasurable feelings of euphoria and calmness. 

These feelings of pleasure, and also an avoidance of unpleasant opioid withdrawal symptoms, often lead to addiction in someone who was given a valid prescription for their pain. 

Prescription opioid addiction occurs when a person misuses a prescribed opioid in ways outside its intended use, and is unable to stop using the drug even when they want to or know they should. 

Key Facts on Prescription Opioid Addiction & Abuse

  • Approximately 1 in 4 people who are prescribed opioids end up misusing or abusing them. 
  • As many as seven or eight out of 10 overdose deaths involve opioids.
  • More than 136 people die every day from a death involving opioids. 
  • Men are more than twice as likely to die from a drug overdose than women.
  • Between 2011 and 2015, opioid-related overdose deaths tripled in the United states. 
  • 3.8% of American adults report abusing opioids within the last 12 months. 
  • People are more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a car accident. 
  • The presence of opioids in the United States has lowered the overall life expectancy. 

How Does Prescription Opioid Use Disorder Start?

A prescription opioid use disorder generally starts after a person is prescribed an opioid for a pain reliever following an accident, injury, or surgery. 

Many people at this point simply take their opioid as directed and stop when their prescription ends and pain is more manageable. They may experience a few mild side effects during the process. 

For others, they find benefit from the drug in relieving their pain but additionally may find that they enjoy the euphoric and relaxing effects that it causes. 

People may also start to experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop taking their opioids, and end up seeking more of the medication to avoid this discomfort. 

Which Prescription Opioids Lead to Addiction?

Any type of prescription opioid has the potential for causing addiction if it is abused or misused in any way. 

Some opioid medications are much stronger than others, but even those that are less strong or which are combined with another medication, like acetaminophen, are potentially dangerous. 

Prescription opioids that lead to addiction include: 

  • Codeine 
  • Fentanyl 
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin) 
  • Methadone 
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)

What Are the Signs of Prescription Opioid Addiction?

The signs of opioid addiction are not always easy to recognize, but are important to know — especially as the prevalence of opioid addiction in America continues to rise. 

Signs of prescription opioid addiction include:

  • Taking prescribed opioids in a way other than directed, such as taking a larger dose than prescribed or taking doses more frequently than prescribed
  • Taking opioids after a prescription has ended
  • Taking opioids without experiencing any pain 
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Seeming preoccupied about opioids and finding more
  • Engaging in risky or illegal behavior in order to obtain more opioids
  • Engaging in “doctor shopping” in order to obtain multiple prescriptions

If you recognize any of the above signs in a loved one, get them help as soon as possible. When it comes to addiction, early intervention can make all the difference. 

Can Prescription Opioid Abuse Lead to Dependence?

Yes, prescription opioid abuse can lead to physical dependence and this risk only increases the longer a person engages in opioid misuse. 

Dependency happens when a person finds that they can no longer function normally in their everyday lives without using prescription opioids. 

They may feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using and find themselves experiencing severe cravings. 

What Causes Opioid Addiction to Develop?

There is no single cause for why an addiction to opioids develops, and addiction can be linked to genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. 

Causes for opioid addiction include: 

  • Genetic predisposition to addiction
  • Enjoying the euphoric effects of opioids
  • Wanting to fit in with peers
  • Trying to self-medicate for co-occurring mental health disorders 
  • Wanting to escape or avoid problems
  • To help with boredom
  • To avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms

Risk Factors for Prescription Opioid Addiction

Anyone who is prescribed a prescription opioid is facing a potential risk of addiction, but some people are more likely than others to do so. 

Risk factors for prescription opioid addiction: 

  • Being a young adult between the ages of 18-25
  • Having a family history of substance use disorders 
  • Having a personal history of substance abuse or misuse
  • Having a co-occuring mental health disorder like depression or anxiety
  • Being on a high dose of prescription opioids or for a long duration
  • Being prescribed an extended-release version of opioids
  • Having easy access to prescription opioids 

People who have risk factors for opioid addiction can speak to their health care provider about their concerns and discuss alternatives for pain management. 

Who Experiences Prescription Opioid Misuse?

Prescription opioid misuse and addiction can happen to anyone, but is most common in young adults aged 18-25. 

It is also not uncommon in elderly or senior demographics, as they often experience chronic pain and can be more susceptible to the effects of opioids. 

And while prescription opioid misuse truly does affect anyone, it is up to two or three times more likely in men than women and also occurs more frequently in locations that are considered impoverished. 

Side Effects of Prescription Opioid Abuse

Even opioids when used as prescribed have the potential to cause side effects, and these effects can be amplified when opioids are abused. 

It is important to note that the side effects of opioids can also be made worse by using them along with other substances or prescription medications, such as benzodiazepines. 

Side effects of prescription opioid abuse include: 

  • Nausea
  • Constipation 
  • Drowsiness 
  • Headaches 
  • Respiratory depression
  • Mental fog
  • Depression 

Complications of Prescription Opioid Addiction

An addiction to prescription opioids can, with time, start to affect multiple areas of a person’s life, with complications that only become more dangerous with continued use. 

Complications of prescription opioid addiction include:

  • Physical health problems
  • Worsening of mental health problems or conditions 
  • Problems with family and personal relationships 
  • Poor performance or motivation at school or work
  • Progression to stronger substances, such as heroin 
  • Legal or financial problems 
  • Increased risk for overdose death

Perhaps one of the most harrowing issues of a prescription opioid addiction, though, is the tendency for it to lead to a heroin addiction.

Research shows that 1 in 5 people who abuse heroin first began abusing prescription opioids and turned to heroin after the prescription ended to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Options

Fortunately, people who have found themselves with an addiction to prescription opioids have several treatment options available. 

Opioid Detox Programs

Opioid detox programs are a type of outpatient treatment option that typically include a combination of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and therapy. 

Medications that are used in MAT for opioids include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. 

This type of treatment can last anywhere from one to three months to over a year or more for a severe opioid use disorder. 

Opioid Rehab Programs

In addition to outpatient opioid detox or MAT programs, people can also seek help for opioid abuse through an inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment program. 

During inpatient programs, people live onsite with others in the program and participate in individual and group therapy, as well as other activities that promote a sense of community. 

Within outpatient programs, like partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient treatment, you receive the care you need while living at home and tending to life’s duties.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis treatment can help by addressing both a person’s addiction and any co-occurring mental health or behavioral health disorders they are struggling with at the same time. 

By getting to the root of a person’s problems through this method, they can heal their mental health and addiction and greatly reduce the chances of relapse in the future.

Behavioral Therapy & Counseling

Counseling and behavioral therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), can help people through addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. 

In addition to different types of therapy, there are also different formats of therapy that can include individual, group, family, and relationship therapy. 

Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments typically come in the form of holistic or alternative therapies, and can include offerings like adventure therapy, music therapy, and animal-assisted therapy. 

These treatments are often used in combination with evidence-based treatments, and sometimes spiritual-based treatments, in order to provide a well-rounded treatment experience. 

Prescription Opioid Recovery Options

Recovering from opioid addiction can be a long-term and ongoing process, continuing even after successful completion of an addiction or detox program. 

For this reason, people who are recovering from opioid addiction may want to participate in aftercare or continuing care.

Continuing care options for opioid recovery include:

  • Relapse and overdose prevention support: for times of crisis or when emergency support is needed
  • Continued therapy: outpatient therapy often continues in both individual and group formats
  • Support groups: peer support groups, such as 12-step meetings, can be helpful for continued support
  • Transitional housing: for people who have completed inpatient programs and are looking for a safe and sober living environment till they feel comfortable on their own

Prescription Opioid Addiction Recovery Resources 

There are several resources available online for people who are seeking support for opioid use disorders. 

These resources can be helpful to both people living with opioid addiction, as well as their family members who are hoping to better understand and offer support. 

Recovery resources for prescription opioid addiction include: 

  • Make the Connection — a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recovery resource that is specific to veterans and their families, allowing them to connect with others and share their stories of recovery. 
  • Narcotics Anonymous — a resource for finding both in-person or virtual support meetings for people with a substance use disorder of any kind, including opioid use disorders. 
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — provides a variety of helpful and informative resources that are all based on scientific research and addiction science. 
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — this federal organization provides a convenient and comprehensive treatment locator of mental health and behavioral health facilities, as well as a variety of informative resources on public health and a 24/7 crisis hotline. 

Find Prescription Opioid Drug Treatment at Otter House Wellness

No one who is living with an addiction to prescription opioids should ever feel hopeless or like they are alone in what they are going through. 

At Otter House Wellness, we are honored to help you or your loved one get back on your feet through any of our high-quality and restorative outpatient treatment programs. 

Contact us to learn more about how you can get started at our North Carolina treatment center and our extensive options for treating opioid use disorders. 

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   Heroin Addiction

Is everyone who uses prescription opioids at risk of addiction?

Yes, everyone who uses prescription opioids faces a potential risk for addiction, though some people may be more at risk than others. 

The CDC estimates that around one in four patients who are prescribed long-term opioid therapy will struggle with addiction.

What is the relationship between prescription drugs and opioid/heroin abuse?

In some instances, opioid and heroin drug use begin as a case of prescription drug abuse, and progress to heroin once the prescription is no longer available or attainable. 

Heroin and prescription opioids have similar effects, so people may also progress to heroin or other street drugs when they have built up a tolerance to prescription opioids and need a stronger high.

Can prescription opioid addiction lead to overdose?

Yes, an addiction to prescription opioids can make the chances for a life-threatening opioid overdose more likely.

Furthermore, the longer that a person misuses or abuses prescription opioids, the greater their chance of an overdose becomes. 

An overdose from opioids can be deadly, and requires the timely administration of a drug called naloxone (Narcan) in order to reverse it.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Prescription Opioids.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 20, 2024. 

Mayo Clinic. “How opioid use disorder occurs.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 20, 2024. 

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 20, 2024. 

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Prescription Opioids DrugFacts.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 20, 2024. 

U.S. Department of Labor. “Risk Factors for Opioid Misuse, Addiction, and Overdose.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 20, 2024. 

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