Do I Have An Addiction? The Difference Between Physical Dependence And Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on March 22, 2023

Addiction is a term that has a different meaning from physical dependence, although the two are sometimes used synonymously. Addiction is used to refer to a substance use disorder, while dependence can simply be an effect of chronic substance use, including the use of a medication prescribed by a healthcare provider.

Physical Drug Dependence

Physical dependence and addiction are two terms that are commonly conflated, even among some medical professionals. But they’re not one and the same.

Someone who is addicted to a drug is often physically dependent on it, but having physical dependence does not necessarily mean you or a loved one has an addiction.

Read more about dependence vs. addiction below.

What Is Physical Drug Dependence?

Physical dependence is a condition that can develop through chronic, regular drug or alcohol use.

This is a normal biological response to the use of a habit-forming substance and is typically associated with drug tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

Signs Of Physical Drug Dependence

Substance dependence can be thought of as a physical reliance on a drug.

As a result, you might feel “off” or experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop using that drug altogether, or if you attempt to cut down on your drug use very quickly.

Signs of physical dependence can include:

  • developing drug tolerance (needing a higher dose to feel the desired effect)
  • feeling sick if you skip a dose of a drug or medication
  • symptoms of withdrawal within hours to days of last use

How Long Does It Take To Become Physically Dependent On A Drug?

The timeline for this can vary. With some substances, including certain prescription drugs, you can begin to develop dependence within weeks of daily use.

Factors that can affect this include:

Physical drug dependence is not inherently dangerous by itself. Although, the risks of this can vary somewhat depending on the type of drug taken and the nature of your drug use.

Generally, what this means is that you’ll likely need to develop a plan with a clinician on how to gradually taper your dose or wean off a drug without causing too much distress.

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Is Addiction The Same As Drug Dependence?

Not quite. Addiction is a term that is generally used to describe a physical and psychological reliance on an addictive substance, or as a term that’s synonymous with substance use disorder.

Substance use disorder is a chronic, relapsing disorder that’s characterized by compulsive substance use, in addition to other behaviors, physical symptoms, and psychological symptoms.

This can include addiction to:

Can You Be Physically Dependent On Drugs Without Being Addicted?

Yes. Physical dependence can occur with the use of any habit-forming substance, including prescription medication that’s taken regularly, as prescribed, for a certain amount of time.

This includes some mental health medications for anxiety and depression, as well as some medications that are taken for medical issues, such as chronic pain.

Dependence is a result of chronic substance use, not necessarily substance abuse. You can be physically dependent on a drug without being addicted to it or having a substance abuse problem.

Signs Of Drug Addiction

Knowing common signs of drug addiction can be helpful to understand how this is different from physical drug dependence.

Addiction can be both physical and psychological in nature, and it can alter how someone behaves, as well as affect other areas of their life, such as their relationships and employment.

Signs of addiction might include:

  • physical dependence and withdrawal
  • increased frequency of drug use
  • excessive drinking and/or drug use
  • unsuccessful attempts to quit drugs/alcohol
  • frequent mood swings or worsened mental health
  • continuing to drink or use drugs despite the negative consequences it has on a person’s life
  • spending a significant amount of time using, getting, or recovering from drug use
  • withdrawing socially from friends, family members, and other loved ones
  • feeling like you rely on a drug mentally or psychologically to get through the day
  • neglecting other parts of your life due to your substance use
  • experiencing physical alcohol/drug cravings

What Is The Best Treatment For Addiction?

Treatment for addiction is recommended according to the severity of a person’s illness, chronicity, the type of drug, and other personal factors related to their substance use.

If you are both physically dependent on a drug and have an addiction, the first step in the treatment process is generally detoxification, also known as “detox.”

Drug And Alcohol Detox

Detox is a process of removing a substance from your body. Sometimes this occurs through an acute, “cold turkey” process, or through a tapered approach, depending on the type of drug.

If you have addiction, entering a medically supervised detox program, or finding an inpatient treatment center that offers detox services, is strongly encouraged.

This can help prevent side effects and medical complications that can arise during the detox and withdrawal process, including life-threatening complications associated with certain drugs.

Addiction Treatment

Detox alone isn’t a treatment for addiction. After you detox from a drug, additional medical and behavioral health treatment is recommended to help you stay off a former drug of abuse.

This might include:

Find The Best Addiction Treatment Today

Addiction is a chronic but treatable illness that can be difficult for someone to overcome without professional help, especially if they have developed severe physical dependence.

At, our admissions specialists can guide you toward a treatment program, or treatment recommendations, that best suit the needs of your personal situation.

Don’t wait. Call our helpline today to learn more about your addiction treatment options, or to find an addiction treatment program at a quality drug treatment facility near you today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on March 22, 2023
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