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Can medicines be addictive?

4-minute read

Medicines can have risks and side effects as well as benefits. Some medicines can cause dependence and addiction when you take them over some time. However, if this happens, dependence or addiction can be treated.

What is dependence and addiction?

Most medicines will not cause either dependence or addiction. However, they are not the same thing.

Dependence

Your body can become physically dependent on some medicines if you take them for long periods. Suddenly stopping the dosage can cause physical and mental withdrawal symptoms - making it difficult to stop taking the medicine. Dependence is due to changes in your brain; it is not caused by weak willpower.

Addiction

When you are addicted, however, you become unable to control your use of the medicine. You find it difficult to stop taking it even though the medicine becomes a problem. You may also experience the following:

  • needing to use the medicine regularly to cope with everyday life
  • needing more of the medicine to experience the same effects (known as 'tolerance')
  • obtaining and using the medicine becomes more important than other activities or relationships in your life.

Types of medicines that may lead to dependence or addiction

The main types of medicines that may lead to dependence or addiction are some pain relief medicines and sleeping pills. These medicines are usually meant to be used for a short while, e.g. 2 to 4 weeks or less.

However, you may become dependent or addicted to them if you continue to use them regularly for some time. The length of time required for a person to develop a dependence or addiction varies between types of medicine and between individuals.

Pain relief medicines

Some pain relief medicines belong to the family of drugs known as opioids. All opioids can be addictive (including heroin, which is also a member of this family) and they should be used with caution - especially by people with a history of alcohol or drug dependence.

These medicines include codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl.

Other than codeine, they are only available from a pharmacy if you have a prescription. (From February 2018, you will also need a doctor's prescription to be able to buy codeine.)

Sleeping pills

Some sleeping and anti-anxiety pills can also lead to dependence or addiction. Examples include diazepam, temazepam and nitrazepam.

Stimulant medicines

Stimulant medicines, such as methylphenidate and dexamphetamine, are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (repeatedly falling asleep during waking hours). These medicines are unlikely to cause dependence or addiction when used as prescribed.

How to avoid dependency or addiction to medicines

If you have been prescribed a medicine for pain, stress, sleeping problems or anxiety, you can check with your doctor about your risk of developing dependency or addiction.

Questions you can ask include:

  • What are the side effects of this medicine?
  • Is this medicine addictive?
  • How can I avoid addiction?
  • How long should I take the medicine for?
  • Do I have to take every pill in the prescription?
  • What are the signs of dependence or addiction?
  • What are my alternatives to taking this medicine?
  • Can I do anything else to help my condition?
  • What is the plan for dealing with my problem long term?

It is important to use medicines as prescribed and never use someone else’s prescription medicines or give yours to them.

Some warning signs to look out for include:

  • needing larger amounts of the medicine to experience the same effects
  • needing to use the medicine to feel normal or cope with life
  • finding it hard to control or reduce its use
  • experiencing unpleasant effects if you stop taking it regularly.

Where to get help

If you have a medicine use problem, seek help immediately from your doctor or pharmacist.

Helplines are also available:

  • Medicines Line: 1300 Medicine
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Family Drug Support: 1300 368 186

Online information and help is available from:

Medicine misuse can happen to anyone

Last reviewed: August 2017

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