Prescription Drug Abuse: The Hidden Epidemic

Ten million prescriptions for the most common painkillers are issued each year. With deaths involving prescription or over the counter medications on the increase, even though the number of people using these drugs has stayed the same.

Businesswoman Natalie became hooked on painkillers after being prescribed cocodamol for a dental problem.

The 31 year old mother of three found it lifted her mood and helped her cope with daily life. “I was rushing round running my business and looking after the kids including lots of hospital visits for my eldest son. The drugs gave me a sense of wellbeing. I could run my life better.”

Four doses a day turned into eight and Natalie would go from one pharmacy to the next buying top up supplies. “If the kids passed a pharmacy they’d stop waiting for me to go in. I told my GP about it but only because I was worried about liver damage.”

I wasn’t honest

She agreed to a reduced dose but couldn’t keep to it.” I’m allergic to anti inflammatory medication so I felt there was no alternative. I was in a corner. I was also buying online and getting through 100 tablets in three days. My partner and family knew - I’d have terrible flu like withdrawal symptoms every morning. I needed 12 tablets with 30mg of codeine in each table just to be able to get going each day and look after the kids properly. I was using my mum’s arthritis medication. I was constantly worrying where the next tablet was coming from.

I was so embarrassed

Persuaded by her family to seek help, Natalie was referred to the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team (DART) team at Windsor House, Liverpool. “I was lucky I got an appointment the next day. They were lovely but I was so embarrassed. They offered me methadone, but I was so horrified at the idea. I tried to go ‘cold turkey’ but it was too severe – ten minutes felt like a day; so I took their help and accepted buprenorphine which acts as a substitute and stops withdrawal, they then wean you down.”

Nine months on Natalie is in recovery and feeling positive. “I know it’s not over but I have a supportive partner. I do think about the drugs, but it’s a psychological need. I’m a strong person and I want to stay well for my kids. I’ve lost three years - I don’t want to lose any more.”

The Facts

  • People often think that prescription and over the counter drugs are safer than illicit drugs. But they can be as addictive and dangerous and put users at risk for other adverse health effects, including overdose, especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol
  • The most commonly misused drugs are opioid painkillers. Others include sedatives and anti-anxiety medications, stimulants used to treat ADHD and certain sleep disorders, and anticonvulsants and mood stabilising drugs such as gabapentin and pregabalin
  • Most teenagers who abuse prescription drugs are given them for free by a friend or relative
  •  Many people are abusing legal and illegal drugs at the same time. However many others do not identify with illegal drug misusers


Signs that someone is misusing or dependent on prescription or over the counter medicines may include:

  • Running out of medication before expected or ‘losing’ medication
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one healthcare professional
  • Requesting a specific drug, claiming that other medications don’t work for them
  • Appearing intoxicated, sedated or experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • Having mood swings
  • Making poor judgements, getting into debt, relationship troubles.


Royal College of General Practitioners 2013. Prescription and over-the-counter medicines misuse and dependence factsheets. National Institute on Drug Abuse

Help and Support

If you think you or someone you know may be affected by prescription or over the counter drug misuse contact your GP or other health professional.

You can find information and advice at: National Institute on Drug Abuse