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What is Drug Addiction?

Addiction impacts millions of lives and even kills thousands of people in the US each year. It is a dangerous medical condition, but it is still viewed as a moral failure or a sign of weakness.

Navigation: What Does Drug Addiction Mean?, How Does Addiction Develop?, How Does Addiction Affect Your Brain?, How Does Drug Addiction Affect the Body?, What are the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction?, Can Drug Abuse and Addiction Result in Overdose?, Is Addiction the Same as Drug Dependence?, What is the Best Treatment for Substance Use Disorder?, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Drug addiction affects almost 21 million Americans. However, only 10% of them actually receive treatment. Part of the reason is because of the stigma that surrounds addiction, substance use disorder (SUD), and rehab. This stigma is fueled by the lack of education regarding these topics. Therefore it is important to talk about drug abuse, addiction, and its effects.

Addiction not only affects the individual but also the people around them. In fact, it has a greater impact on the country’s economy. Every year, alcohol and drug addiction cost the US over $600 billion on lost productivity, damages, and treatment programs.

Addiction impacts millions of lives and even kills thousands of people in the US each year. It is a dangerous medical condition, but it is still viewed as a moral failure or a sign of weakness. In order to tackle this stigma, we need to define addiction and discuss some of the most common questions surrounding it. Let’s take a closer look.


What Does Drug Addiction Mean?

Drug addiction refers to a medical condition that is characterized by compulsive use of a particular substance, whether it’s a prescription drug or an illicit substance. This is a chronic brain disease that affects the way the brain works, making it difficult for the addicted individual to control their drug intake. An addicted person will keep abusing a substance even if they are already suffering from its adverse effects.

The effects of drug addiction can be long-lasting. In some cases, it can even be fatal. Once addiction takes hold, the person will continue to seek out drugs despite the harmful consequences.

Addiction is difficult to control. Even if the person wanted to quit, it would be extremely hard to maintain sobriety without going through a treatment program. Even for those who have been through rehab, relapse is an ongoing possibility.

Because it is a chronic condition, there is no cure for addiction. Just like other chronic conditions, it cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured with medicines. However, it can be treated and managed. A person with addiction can still live a long and sober life if they go through a proper treatment process.

Some people wonder what the difference is between drug abuse and addiction. Drug abuse refers to the act of taking legal or illegal drugs in ways that you are not supposed to. This means addiction isn’t just using illicit drugs—it can also be misusing the prescription drugs given to you by your doctor.

Taking someone else’s prescription or taking more than the prescribed dose just to get stronger effects is considered substance abuse. Taking drugs recreationally for the sake of getting high is also a form of drug abuse. Some people abuse drugs to reduce their stress or forget their problems.

Addiction is a condition that eventually develops with continued misuse of certain substances. At first the person becomes more tolerant towards the substance. Drug tolerance is when you need to take more of the substance just to get the same effect.

Addiction causes brain changes. It affects the brain’s reward center, compelling the person to keep taking a substance to feel good regardless of the potential consequences.

An addicted person will spend most of their time thinking about the drug and how to obtain it. Their days will revolve around seeking out the drug, taking the drug, and then recovering from its effects.

The addicted person will lose interest in things they used to enjoy. Their responsibilities will be neglected, and so will their relationships with other people.

While they are struggling with their physical and mental health, other aspects of their life will also be affected by their condition. This is why so many addicted people are overwhelmed and feel trapped in their downward spiral. In fact, addiction can ruin friendships, destroy marriages, and end careers—on top of all the dangers that threaten the person’s health and safety.

Although it seems as though addiction is developed by people who choose to get addicted, there are actually plenty of factors at play that can make a person more likely to fall victim to this medical condition.


How Does Addiction Develop?

At first, the person may choose to take a drug because they enjoy the way it makes them feel. But depending on the type of substance they are taking, addiction can quickly take hold of them. Drugs can change the way the brain works, and before the person realizes it, they can get addicted. They can lose control over their intake and struggle to quit even if they are already experiencing health problems.

Even before they use a drug for the first time, there are various risk factors that come into play. These risk factors can make a person more or less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, depending on how many they are exposed to. The more risk factors you have, the more likely it is for you to develop an addiction.

This is not a guarantee. A person with plenty of risk factors can avoid drugs and alcohol their whole life. It also goes the other way around. Some people who have fewer risk factors end up getting addicted anyway.

These risk factors only show that some people are at much greater risk of addiction than others.

Drug abuse can start with experimental use, especially in social settings. Experiencing peer pressure is a risk factor because it exposes someone to the social use of drugs. With time, drug use may become more frequent and lead to addiction.

Some people develop addiction because of their prescription medication. They either take more of the prescription drug than they are supposed to or they take it too often. Some people take other people’s prescriptions. Remember that even if you have the same condition as another person, you should not take the medications prescribed to them.

After marijuana, prescription painkillers are the most abused drugs in the US. Just because they are prescribed by doctors doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous. In fact, more people die every day from opioid painkiller overdoses than gun deaths and traffic accidents combined.

When it comes to risk factors, everyone is different. Addiction has a genetic factor, meaning those who have a family history of substance use disorder and addiction are more likely to develop it themselves. Your genes are responsible for about half of your odds. Having family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol means you are more likely to become addicted than someone who doesn’t have a genetic predisposition to it.

People who are struggling with mental health disorders are more likely to become addicted. They may self-medicate and take drugs to cope with the symptoms of their condition, whether it’s anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Having a history of trauma is also associated with an increased risk of addiction.

Addiction and mental disorders often co-occur. Either condition is already difficult enough to deal with, but having both at the same time is even more dangerous. It often requires a dual diagnosis treatment plan.

Aside from genetic factors, there are also environmental factors to consider. People living in toxic home environments or living in poverty have a high risk of turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with their situation.

On the other hand, wealthy individuals may also have a high risk of substance abuse simply because they have more access to illicit substances and illegal drugs.

Early drug use is another risk factor because children’s brains are still developing. Drug use can impact a developing brain. This can make you more likely to get addicted once you get older.

More than 90% of people who have an addiction started taking drugs or drinking alcohol before they were 18 years old. In terms of age demographics, Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most likely to take addictive drugs.

Some people try drugs for the first time and end up craving for them. Your reaction to drugs can influence the development of addiction. Some people try it once, hate it, and never try it again. Just remember that some drugs are so potent that you can get hooked after the first time you use it.

At the end of the day, not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted. However, it can happen to anyone at any age.

How Does Addiction Affect Your Brain?

Drugs mainly affect the brain’s reward center, flooding it with dopamine, which is considered the “feel good neurotransmitter”. This is what causes an intensely euphoric feeling that many people find addictive. This dopamine surge reinforces the idea that this behavior is pleasurable, and causes the brain to seek it out.

Because the brain is wired to want to repeat pleasurable experiences, the person feels the urge to repeat this behavior and keep taking drugs. Addicted people are motivated to do it again and again.

Unfortunately, the brain also gets used to the extra dopamine. This causes the person to take more of the drug just to reach that same level of euphoria. Everything else that used to cause joy will begin to give you less pleasure. Hanging out with friends, spending time with your family, eating your favorite food, and engaging in your hobbies all become less appealing because they do not cause the same level of pleasure.

Prolonged exposure to these drugs can damage other chemical systems within the brain. It can affect a person’s memory, judgment, reasoning, decision making, and ability to learn. This is also part of the reason why addicted individuals struggle to quit or even seek help.

The brain changes because of the constant presence of a certain drug. This affects the person’s way of thinking as well as their behavior. This may even lead to certain mental disorders, which is why mental health services are normally part of a complete addiction treatment plan.

How Does Drug Addiction Affect the Body?

Addiction also has effects on a person’s body. In fact, drug addiction can affect every organ in the body. Here are some of the physical health problems that can be caused by addiction: cardiovascular disease, abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting, diarrhea, and pancreatitis.

Addiction can also cause more minor changes to the person’s system. It can affect their appetite, their body temperature, and their sleeping patterns. The changes in their behavior can indirectly impact their physical appearance. For example, they may neglect their personal hygiene.

In some cases, drug addiction can lead to more severe effects like heart attack, kidney damage, liver damage, brain damage, seizures, stroke, malnutrition, and respiratory problems like emphysema, breathing problems, and lung cancer.

If a person takes drugs intravenously and uses a shared needle, they can put themselves at risk of blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis and HIV.

Addiction medicine not only tackles the cravings and the mental health problems caused by addiction but also the physical effects of substance abuse.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction?

Encountering any of the physical and mental health problems listed above is a sign of drug addiction or alcohol addiction. If you believe someone you love is struggling with drug addiction, you have to watch out for the various signs and symptoms.

Sometimes people are in denial about their condition. They lie about their substance use disorder out of shame, guilt, fear, or regret. This is also why stigma prevents a lot of people from getting the treatment that they need. Before you can help anyone, you need to know what signs to look out for.

Family members and close friends are usually the first ones to notice behavioral changes. An addicted individual may take more drugs than they are supposed to, or they may take their prescription for a longer period of time. If they are using a prescription drug, they may run out before they are supposed to.

They have an intense urge to use the drug multiple times a day. They will always carry some around with them, and even buy more even if they can’t afford it.

You may notice that they are being secretive and lying about where they are going or who they are spending their time with. If they are asked about it, they may lash out at family and friends. They may spend a lot of time alone or isolated in their room.

Since the drug has become their main focus, they will start to care less about their hygiene and appearance. They will stop taking care of themselves. At the same time, there may be a drop in attendance and performance at school or work. This may lead to financial problems for those who are already working. As for students, this may lead to bad grades, poor attendance, and other problems.

Oftentimes, an addicted person will lie, steal, or engage in risky behavior like having unsafe sex or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They may even get in trouble with the law.

Withdrawal symptoms happen every time they try to quit. Common withdrawal symptoms include shakiness, sweating, nausea, and fatigue, but these symptoms change depending on the type of drug taken, the duration of abuse, the dosage taken, and other factors.

Catching the signs of addiction early on can significantly increase the chances of recovery. Confronting them about their condition and presenting them with the option of treatment may be necessary. In some cases, you may even have to set up an intervention to get them to realize the gravity of their situation.

Can Drug Abuse and Addiction Result in Overdose?

Addiction is not directly the cause of an overdose. Just because a person is addicted does not necessarily mean that they will suffer from an overdose. However, it does put them at greater risk of it.

Addicted individuals tend to seek out larger and larger doses of the drug due to their condition and the intense cravings that come with it. The risk of an overdose increases significantly if you abuse certain substances at the same time. Alcohol in particular should not be taken with certain drugs because it will definitely lead to an overdose, which can be fatal.

In fact, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Drug overdoses can either be accidental or intentional.

An accidental overdose occurs when someone takes higher doses of their prescription medication to try and achieve certain results. An intentional overdose is associated with people who are suffering from suicidal thoughts. A drug overdose is always tragic regardless of the person’s intent.

Unfortunately, drug overdoses are becoming increasingly common. A lot of people overdose because there’s no way to tell the exact dosage of the street drugs they take. Others overdose because they are unaware of the dangers of mixing certain drugs, and that certain combinations can lead to severe respiratory depression. Drinking alcohol with drugs that slow down your brain activity can lead to life-threatening results.

It is important to discuss the effects of a drug overdose so you can recognize when someone is experiencing an overdose. Seek immediate medical attention if you see any of the warning signs of a drug overdose.

If someone is having an overdose, their heart will typically start to race and they may begin sweating. They may become confused or disoriented for no apparent reason. They may even lose consciousness. It is also common for a person to experience vomiting or diarrhea during a drug overdose. Having blood in the vomit or stool are signs of life-threatening complications.

Some people begin hallucinating during an overdose, seeing things that are not there or speaking nonsensically. Others become agitated or paranoid. Another potential warning sign of an overdose is having seizures.

An overdose can be fatal. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 105 people die every day from a drug overdose. Most of these are unintentional. Drug overdose kills more people each year than guns, falls, and car accidents.

Even if an overdose does not prove fatal, it can still cause some serious, long-term physical effects. Some people get permanent brain damage, memory problems, sensory problems, and problems with coordination.

There are many possible signs of an overdose. Whether it’s an illegal drug or a prescription medication, the risk of overdose is there. If you suspect a drug overdose, seek treatment immediately.

Is Addiction the Same as Drug Dependence?

It’s easy to confuse addiction with dependence since the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. But while these two are definitely connected, they are not the same thing. It is possible to become physically dependent without being addicted, but it usually means the person is close to developing addiction.

Addiction refers to the chronic medical condition that is characterized by the compulsive intake of a drug. On the other hand, physical dependence or drug dependence is characterized by symptoms of drug tolerance and withdrawal.

When a person has been taking a certain drug for a long time, their body doesn’t just become tolerant towards it, it also becomes dependent. The body adjusts to the drug’s constant presence to the point where it can no longer function normally without it. The person will struggle to get through their day without taking the drug.

The person feels like they need to take the drug just to function. If they try to quit or even just reduce their intake, they will experience intense cravings and serious withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms may range from mild to severe. A person’s withdrawal symptoms will be influenced by factors like their age, physical health, mental health, emotional state, type of substance taken, duration of intake, etc.

Common withdrawal symptoms include: insomnia, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression, aches, pains, cravings, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, shaking, and hallucinations.

Some people go through severe withdrawal symptoms such as paranoia, tremors, disorientation, confusion, and seizures. In some cases, withdrawal can be life-threatening.

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What is the Best Treatment for Substance Use Disorder?

The best treatment programs for addiction include a combination of medical detox and behavioral therapies. We need to mention that the addiction treatment process is not going to be the same for everyone. People experience addiction differently. This is why it is important to develop a personalized treatment plan based on the person’s specific needs and condition.

Medical detox is designed to help people get sober by gradually lowering their drug or alcohol intake and managing their withdrawal symptoms. This is the safest way to address physical dependence and the various health effects of addiction. Health care professionals may administer medications to help keep cravings and withdrawal symptoms under control.

While medical detox helps you get sober, behavioral therapies are designed to help you maintain your sobriety for the long term. By diving into the root causes of addictive behavior, patients can recognize unhealthy thought patterns and learn healthy coping mechanisms. This will help them in the long run as they fight off addiction and learn to live a sober life.

If the patient has a co-occurring mental health disorder, a mental health professional will help them.

There are many different types of behavioral therapies and this is where most rehab facilities differ in their approach. The key is in finding the right treatment for your loved one. There are plenty of great resources out there for things like addiction and treatment, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

While there is no cure for addiction, the condition can be treated, and people can recover. Remember that relapse is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is common among those in recovery. It simply means there is more work to be done. Certain adjustments may have to be made so that the patient responds to it better.

Drug addiction treatment is said to be a lifelong process. Look for an addiction treatment center near you today to get started on your journey to sobriety.

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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