The short answer is yes, when not taken as prescribed, some prescription medications can be addictive because of their chemical composition. 

Here's what you need know about prescription medications to know if yours are addictive or if you, or someone you know, may be addicted to a prescription medication.

What causes medication to be addictive?

Some medications have mind-altering properties.  Along with their intended medicinal properties or the reason they were prescribed, prescriptions can produce additional effects on the body.  These effects may cause a person: 

  • To feel good or get "high"

  • To relax or relieve tension

  • To reduce appetite or increase alertness

  • To experiment with the mental effects of the substance

  • To maintain an addiction and prevent withdrawal

  • To be accepted by peers or to be social

  • To try to improve concentration and academic or work performance

For these reasons, individuals may take more than their intended dose to maintain these effects.  These effects, however, cannot be maintained because our bodies build up a tolerance.  Tolerance means that the initial amount of medication no longer produces the same effects in the body, and now a higher dosage is needed to produce the same effects.  Over a period of time, and as more medication than the intended dose is ingested, an individuals tolerance goes up. 

What happens when someone's tolerance increases?

Through this pattern of increased use, your brain and body come to expect the effects of the drug, whether the effects produced are emotional, physical, or psychological.  When these effects are not produced, you may experience withdrawal.  This withdrawal is typically uncomfortable, causing you to want to alleviate these symptoms.  This relief comes when you take the drug at the dose you have been maintaining throughout your use. 


Increased tolerance does not mean addiction.  It is important to understand that substance use, misuse, or abuse does not necessarily mean you're addicted.   Addiction is a complex brain disease manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. 


Learn why addiction is a brain disease   

Drug addiction is preventable.  Learn more about addiction here.  Frequently asked questions about addiction are answered here. 

Watch Pleasure Unwoven, a video essay through which Dr. Kevin McCauley explains addiction.

Do your prescription medications put you at risk?

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