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Drug Dependence vs. Drug Addiction

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The Difference Between Drug Dependence and Drug Addiction

The terms “drug dependence” and “drug addiction” actually refer to two slightly different concepts.

Navigation: Drug Dependence vs. Drug Addiction: Is There a Difference?, Mental Dependence vs. Physical Dependence, Substance Use Disorder: Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse, Common Substance Abuse Withdrawal Symptoms, Treatment Options for Drug Dependence and Addiction, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


The difference between dependence and addiction in terms of substance abuse can be difficult to understand, especially since these two terms have been used interchangeably in the past. There are some organizations that use different definitions or even abandon both terms altogether. Both terms can be classified as part of substance use disorder, which encompasses a broader range of behaviors and experiences related to substance use, including both physical and psychological aspects.

This change in terminology reflects the acknowledgment that drug-related behaviors are influenced by a combination of factors, including biological, psychological, and social factors.

Despite this, the terms “drug dependence” and “drug addiction” actually refer to two slightly different concepts. Recognizing the difference between dependence and addiction is important because it helps understand the nature of substance abuse. In fact, it is possible to become drug dependent without being addicted, and vice-versa. Knowing as much as possible about addiction can also be a valuable tool in achieving recovery.

Over time, the understanding of these terms has evolved, and there has been an effort to differentiate between them. Today, when people say “dependence”, they are usually talking about physical dependence on a substance. When they talk about “addiction”, they refer to the compulsive use of certain substances despite the consequences.

That said, the interchangeability of the terms “drug dependence” and “drug addiction” might still persist in some contexts due to historical usage or lack of awareness about the evolving understanding of these concepts.

It’s important for medical professionals, researchers, and society at large to use accurate and updated terminology to ensure clear communication and a better understanding of the complexities of substance use and its associated disorders.

Here we will talk about addiction versus dependence, specifically their unique differences and what people should know about these two terms. Let’s take a closer look.


Drug Dependence vs. Drug Addiction: Is There a Difference?

The short answer is yes, there is a difference.

Although they both refer to substance abuse disorders, there is a distinction between substance dependence and drug addiction. These concepts are both related to the way a person’s body and mind react to a substance. Both conditions may also be caused by prolonged substance abuse. However, they have some nuanced differences.

Drug dependence, also referred to as physical dependence, occurs when a person’s body becomes accustomed to the presence of a particular substance. First, a person develops tolerance. This means that over time, a person who abuses a certain substance will have to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effects. For example, alcohol abuse can lead to the development of tolerance.

Dependence is when the person’s body can no longer function normally without their drug of choice. They will feel the need to take drugs or drink alcohol just to feel normal. Otherwise, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. This physical reliance is what characterizes dependence and sets it apart from addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms are negative physiological and psychological effects that occur when the drug is reduced or stopped abruptly.

Dependence does not necessarily imply addictive behavior or compulsive drug use. It’s more about the body’s adaptation to the drug, and dependence can happen with some medications that are not typically associated with addiction, such as certain painkillers or anti-anxiety medications.

On the other hand, drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder (SUD), involves not only physical dependence but also psychological and behavioral components.

Addiction is characterized by a compulsive and uncontrollable urge to use a substance even when the person is already suffering from its negative consequences. It is a chronic and relapsing condition that is also considered a mental health disorder.

Addiction is more than just a physiological response; it involves a psychological need for the drug and can lead to destructive behavior patterns. Addiction often affects multiple aspects of a person’s life, including their relationships, work or school performance, and overall well-being.

In summary, drug dependence is primarily about the body’s adaptation to a drug, leading to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, while drug addiction encompasses both the physical dependence and the psychological and behavioral aspects of compulsive drug use.

It’s possible for someone to be physically dependent on a substance without being addicted, but addiction typically includes some degree of physical dependence.

It’s important to note that the field of addiction and substance use is complex, and the terminology can vary in different contexts. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association provides criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder, which takes into account various factors including physical dependence and addictive behaviors.


Mental Dependence vs. Physical Dependence

In 1964, the World Health Organization (WHO) wanted to replace the medical designation of the word addiction with dependence because the former term is ambiguous and carries too much negative connotation. But since both terms are still in use now, it’s important to learn the differences.

Aside from dependence and addiction, there is also a difference between mental dependence and physical dependence.

Mental dependence and physical dependence are terms often used to describe different aspects of addiction, particularly in the context of substance abuse. They refer to distinct dimensions of how individuals can become reliant on a certain substance.

Mental dependence is when a person is conditioned to use a substance in response to a feeling or an event. These are called “triggers”. There are many different things that can trigger a person’s desire to use an addictive substance. It can be a person, place, event, or thing that a person associates with the substance.

Mental dependence, also referred to as psychological dependence, involves the emotional and psychological aspects of addiction. This type of dependence is characterized by a strong craving for the substance or behavior due to the pleasurable feelings or relief from negative emotions it provides.

Physical dependence refers to the physiological changes that occur in the body when a person consistently uses a substance. It is characterized by the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. It is often associated with substances that directly interact with the body’s neurochemistry, such as drugs like opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol.

Withdrawal symptoms can be quite uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous, depending on the substance. This usually motivates the person to continue using the substance to avoid withdrawal.

In summary, physical dependence primarily focuses on the body’s adaptations to a substance, including tolerance and withdrawal, while mental dependence revolves around the psychological craving and compulsion to use a substance or engage in a behavior. It’s important to recognize that these two forms of dependence can often interact and reinforce each other, contributing to the complexity of addiction.

Substance Use Disorder: Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse


Drug abuse can lead to a variety of physical, behavioral, and psychological signs and symptoms. Before we talk about these symptoms, we have to take note that the presence of these signs do not necessarily confirm drug abuse, as they could also be related to other health issues.

However, if you suspect someone may be struggling with drug abuse, recognizing these signs can be helpful in seeking appropriate assistance.

Drug abuse tends to cause various physical symptoms like changes in appearance, changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, and physical health issues. A person engaging in drug abuse may experience sudden weight loss or gain, pale skin, bloodshot or glazed eyes, dilated or constricted pupils, poor hygiene, frequent illness, chronic cough, runny nose, frequent nosebleeds, tremors, slurred speech, unexplained injuries or bruises.

Oftentimes, loved ones also spot behavioral changes like increased isolation and secretiveness, changes in priorities, and impaired judgment. The addicted individual may begin to neglect their responsibilities, leading to decreased performance at work, school, or home.

Drastic shifts in interests and priorities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and changing their social circle are common indicators of substance abuse.

Many people who struggle with substance abuse also run into financial problems which are often unexplained.

Substance abuse also has psychological signs such as memory problems, difficulty concentrating, decreased cognitive function, lack of motivation, paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions.

The signs and symptoms of drug abuse can vary depending on the type of drug being used, the individual’s tolerance, the amount being consumed, and the duration of abuse.

If you suspect someone is struggling with drug abuse, it’s recommended to approach the situation with empathy and support, and encourage them to seek professional help from medical professionals, therapists, or addiction counselors.

Common Substance Abuse Withdrawal Symptoms

Drug dependence is often associated with uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that range from mild to severe. Some drugs can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms that may even be life-threatening.

For example, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and potentially fatal if not managed properly. This condition, known as delirium tremens (DT), can include symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, extreme confusion, high blood pressure, and rapid heart rate.

Opioid withdrawal can also be very uncomfortable and, while not typically life-threatening, it can lead to complications such as dehydration, vomiting, and diarrhea, which can be particularly risky in vulnerable individuals.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal, which includes medications like Xanax and Valium, can be severe and even life-threatening due to the risk of seizures and other neurological symptoms. Some stimulants, like cocaine or amphetamines, can cause intense depressive symptoms during withdrawal, which may lead to suicidal ideation.

This is why abruptly stopping certain drugs, particularly those that lead to physical dependence, can be dangerous and is generally not recommended without proper medical supervision.

Medically supervised detoxification and withdrawal management programs can help individuals safely manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risks associated with abrupt cessation.

Treatment Options for Drug Dependence and Addiction

Treatment for drug dependence can vary depending on the specific drug involved, the severity of the dependence, and the individual’s needs and preferences. Here are some common treatment options:

Detoxification: This is usually the first step in treatment. It involves safely managing the withdrawal symptoms that occur when a person stops using a drug. Detoxification can take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting, and medical supervision is often necessary, especially for substances with severe withdrawal symptoms like alcohol or opioids.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Focuses on identifying and changing patterns of thinking and behavior related to drug use.

Contingency Management: Incentivizes abstinence through rewards for negative drug tests or other positive behaviors.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy: Helps individuals find motivation to engage in treatment and make positive changes.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Medications can be used to alleviate the discomfort of withdrawal and reduce the risk of relapse during detoxification. Some medications can help reduce cravings.

12-Step Facilitation Therapy: Incorporates the principles of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) into therapy.

Support Groups: Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a supportive environment for individuals in recovery to share their experiences and receive encouragement.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: For individuals with both substance use disorders and mental health disorders (co-occurring disorders), integrated treatment that addresses both issues simultaneously is crucial.

Family Therapy: Involving family members can provide essential support and help improve communication patterns that might contribute to drug use.

Holistic Approaches: Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and other complementary therapies can be used in conjunction with other treatments to promote overall well-being and reduce stress.

The best treatment approach often involves a combination of these programs tailored to the patient’s specific needs.

Treatment plans should be flexible and adjusted as necessary based on the person’s progress and any changing circumstances. It’s recommended to seek help from medical professionals or addiction specialists to determine the most appropriate treatment approach for a specific situation.

Look for a rehab near you today if you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction or dependence.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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