How to spot and treat medication addiction

Nobody starts taking medicine with the aim of getting addicted. But sadly it can happen - and the consequences can be dangerous as well as miserable. Fortunately, help is at hand from your doctor - but you need to recognise the problem to get it.

What makes drugs addictive?

Technically, addictive drug share two properties. First, they work less well as time goes on, so you need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Secondly, you crave them if you have to go without. Other signs you may be addicted to medication include feeling you can't do without your next dose; trying and failing to cut down; or feeling guilty or ashamed about your drug use. You may feel the need to hide the drugs you're taking from others, or get into arguments with loved ones if they challenge you about them.

Drugs have recommended doses for a reason. At higher levels, they can cause a host of side effects, including long-term damage to your liver, kidneys and heart. It's essential not to take more than your doctor recommends.

Stopping drugs suddenly causes withdrawal

Some drugs that aren't classed as strictly 'addictive' can cause withdrawal symptoms if you stop them too quickly. For instance, you should never stop steroid tablets suddenly if you've taken a course for more than a week or two. Likewise, your body gets used to having some antidepressant tablets on board. If you stop them suddenly, you can get 'discontinuation symptoms' like anxiety or sleep disruption. For a few people, these can be severe and long lasting. It's always best to seek medical advice before you stop regular tablets, just in case. If you're worried your medication may be addictive, speak to your pharmacist - they're experts in all medication effects, good and bad.

The most addictive drugs - according to GPs

Ask the average GP for the most addictive drugs they're asked to prescribe and most of them will say benzodiazepines like Valium® (diazepam) or the sleeping tablet temazepam. These used to be widely prescribed for anxiety - the Rolling Stones even wrote a song about 'Mother's Little Helper'. But side effects of trying to come off treatment - anxiety, mood swings, sleeplessness, pain - often turned out to be worse than the problems they were being used to help. In serious cases, withdrawal can even cause seizures. If you've been taking '-epam' tablets for any length of time, speak to your GP about weaning down slowly with support.

What are Z drugs?

A new 'breed' of sleeping tablets called the Z drugs - zolpidem and zopiclone - was invented to overcome the addictive potential of benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, these have turned out to be highly addictive too. Sleeping badly is miserable, but your GP is right to limit prescriptions for these. A recent study showed that taking even one every three weeks was linked to higher death rates. What's more, people who take them for as little as two weeks are much more likely to fracture a major bone like a hip, probably because of hangover drowsiness affecting their co-ordination and balance.

What about painkillers?

Strong painkillers can be very addictive - ones containing codeine are a particular problem. You may find your pain actually getting worse, so you need stronger or more frequent doses as time goes on. Taking more may control the pain, but you run the risk of feeling drowsy and unco-ordinated. Constipation can also be a major problem.

It's thought as many as one in three people with chronic headaches is actually suffering from 'medication overuse headaches'. Your body adjusts to the painkillers, and you get withdrawal symptoms when levels in your blood drop. This causes a 'rebound' headache, and the obvious response is to reach for more painkillers. Even 'simple' painkillers like paracetamol, or anti-inflammatory tablets like ibuprofen or naproxen, can become addictive if you take them at least three times a week for three months at a time. However, codeine containing tablets are much worse. They can cause these headaches if taken just twice a week for three months or more, and it takes much longer to get over the headaches and aching that come with stopping them.

What can you do about addiction?

The key to tackling addiction is to get help. Your first port of call should always be your GP. Nobody is going to judge you, and medication addiction it's extremely hard to solve the problem alone. Indeed, if you're addicted to prescription medicine, your GP may well have their suspicions already. Your GP will be able to talk about services available, or agree a supervised tailing off of your medicine. They may be able to offer a different short-term medicine to help you with withdrawal effects. Take along a family member for support if possible - you'll need their support along the way.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.