Medication addiction

Medication addiction

medication addiction

How to recognise a problem with your use of medication.

Accidtion can creep in easily, and its effects on individuals and families can be devastating.

Whether it’s an extra tablet to help you sleep or an increased dose of medication for your back pain, keeping control over your medication intake is essential when it comes to avoiding the slippery slope of addiction.

Mark Lewis, director at Jahara Treatment Centre, says it’s easy for unsuspecting patients to become addicted. ‘Addiction often starts with something very normal – trouble sleeping, stress and anxiety, or chronic pain,’ he says. Using a situation that anyone might find themselves in, he describes the possible road to addiction: ‘Jane visits her local GP who prescribes, for a limited period, a sleeping tablet, anti-anxiety tablet, or painkiller. She finds relief initially, but it’s only temporary, so she starts using the medication outside its prescribed use:

‘The original dose of sleeping tablets isn’t helping Jane fall asleep any more so she takes an extra one.

‘The painkillers are no longer effective so she takes more than one at a time, or starts taking them more frequently. ‘Jane finds herself struggling with heightened anxiety when her anti-anxiety medication wears off, even in situations where she was previously comfortable, so she takes it more frequently. ‘Soon, Jane finds herself running out of medication. The script the doctor gave her was meant to last the whole month but has only lasted 20 days. So she visits a different doctor to get another script so that her current doctor won’t ask questions. Eventually she starts collecting her medication from different pharmacies and paying cash for her medication because the medical aid threshold has been reached.

‘This becomes a vicious cycle and Jane’s addictive and deceitful behaviour has her trying to cover up what she’s doing, and as with any addiction, this becomes progressively worse.’

Mark advises that the problem becomes even worse when individuals consume alcohol with their prescribed
medication. The mixture of alcohol and prescription medication becomes what he calls a new ‘super drug’. ‘The
individual now relies on alcohol to give the medication more effect,’ he explains. ‘In some cases, individuals actually take the medication with their alcoholic drink, which creates an illicit high.’

How to spot the warning signs of medication addiction

  1. ‘The easiest way to tell if you have a problem is if you’re taking your medication outside the prescribed dosages and frequencies,’ says Mark. ‘If you find yourself needing more than what’s prescribed, you may be heading towards a problem.
  2. ‘If you need more than one script from more than one doctor, you’re entering into addictive behaviour.
  3. ‘If you’re consuming alcohol when taking your medication, you’re acting irresponsibly and creating your own illicit “super drug”.’

There’s a common belief that certain medications aren’t addictive because the body cannot become physically addicted to them if taken as prescribed. But often the psychological addiction is what causes the addiction to tablets and medicines.


How to tell if it’s serious

‘Signs of a serious addiction to prescription medication can be seen in deceitful behaviour, the increasing amount of money being spent, and the increasing need to hide your behaviour and medication from those around you,’ Mark
explains. Other signs include:

  • Individuals hiding their medication in different places.
  • Excessive amounts of empty medication packets.
  • Neglecting daily responsibilities.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Change in sleeping patterns.
  • Weight gain or loss.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Blackouts.

How to tell if it’s severe

’Severe addiction will eventually result in serious physical problems,’ says Mark. ‘Kidney and liver damage are common as the body can’t cope with the amount of chemicals being consumed, specifically when mixed with alcohol.’ Other physical symptoms include seizures, heart attacks, and organ failure.

How to spot addictive medications


Mark warns about some common over-the-counter medicines that can be habit-forming:


Examples: Valium, Pax, Diazepam
Often used to treat anxiety, muscle spasm, and even symptoms of withdrawal from other substances.


Examples: Codeine, Pethidine, Morphine
Often found in day-to-day headache tablets or painkillers, and in cough syrups.

Amphetamines and Methamphetamines 

Example: Pseudoephedrine
Found in most common cold and flu medications, specifically those aimed at clearing out sinuses. You’ll also find such stimulants in some dietary tablets.

Did you know? 

Some of the most addictive over-the-counter medicines:
Stilnox (insomnia)
Adcodol (pain, tension, fever)
Myprodol (pain, tension, fever)
Vicodin (pain)
Tramacet (pain)

How to fight addiction

Mark advises that the abuse of medication is the most dangerous addiction to treat because of the complications that the detoxification process can have. ‘Coming off medication isn’t easy as your body has become so reliant on the medication that it can go into shock if weaning isn’t done appropriately and under the supervision of a trained medical practitioner. There’s no way of knowing how dependent your body has become on the medication, so professional
help is the only way to safely wean yourself off prescription medication,’ he advises.

For example, before the detoxification from benzodiazepines, medical professionals take into account exactly what type of benzodiazepine has been taken, the dosage, and the time period. Only then can they design a personalised reduction regime using different medications to counteract any of the possible withdrawal symptoms. Most people struggle with detoxification from pain medication as the withdrawal from this is similar to that of heroin.

‘Again, certain medications need to be used to assist the individual, and need to be administered by a medical
practitioner. To give someone who’s addicted and abusing medication more medication to try to wean themselves off won’t work as they’ll most likely just continue abusing the new medication.’

What are the side effects of weaning?

Side effects can be life-threatening if weaning isn’t handled correctly with medical help and supervision. ‘When an individual comes off the medication they were addicted to, the initial problems that were being treated (anxiety, insomnia, pain) will come back and be even worse than previously,’ Mark explains. ‘These issues will also be coupled
with added depression and other struggles that the psychological addiction has developed.’

Individuals struggling with addiction often need to undergo a rehabilitation process in order to function normally without the threat of relapse. Other side effects include seizures, heart palpitations and failure, panic attacks,
sweating, irritation, depression, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, restlessness, and hallucinations.

How to help

If you’re seeing the warning signs of addiction in a friend or loved one, or even in yourself, Mark suggests that you seek professional medical and psychological assistance. ‘Remove alcohol and any medication within the house that may provide temptation, and allow this person space to go through the recovery process and the associated emotions. Introduce them to a support group and make sure you’re educated on addiction so that you can better understand the bigger problems involved,’ he says.

Contact Jahara Treatment Centre at 071 100 1639 or [email protected] and H.E.A.L. support group at – they’ll be able to refer you to the right hospitals, doctors, rehabilitation centres, and
support structures to work through addiction.



Send this to a friend