Are prescription drugs addictive?

Yes, prescription drugs that effect the brain, including opioid pain relievers, stimulants, and depressants, can cause physical dependence that could lead to addiction. Medications that affect the brain can change the way it works—especially when they are taken over a period of time or with increasing doses. They can change the reward system, making it harder for a person to feel good without the drug and possibly leading to intense cravings, which also make it hard to stop using.

This dependence on the drug happens because the brain and body adapt to having drugs in the system for a while. A person may need larger doses of the drug to get the same initial effects. This is known as “tolerance.” When drug use is stopped, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can occur. When people continue to use the drug despite a range of negative consequences, it is considered an addiction. When a person is addicted to a drug, finding and using that drug can begin to feel like the most important thing—more important than family, friends, school, sports, or health. 

Carefully following the doctor’s or dentist’s instructions for taking a medication can make it less likely that someone will develop dependence or addiction, because the medication is prescribed in amounts and forms that are considered appropriate for that person. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking certain types of prescription drugs. These risks should be carefully weighed against the benefits of the medication and patients should communicate any issues or concerns to their doctor right away.

Other kinds of medications that do not act in the brain, such as antibiotics used to treat infections, or drugs to help with heartburn, are not addictive.