Types Of Drug Tolerance: Metabolic, Functional, And More

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022

As someone uses a drug or alcohol over an extended period of time, they may build up a tolerance to the substance. There are a few different types of tolerance that can develop depending on different circumstances.

Types Of Drug And Alcohol Tolerances

The more a person uses a drug or alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a dependence, tolerance, and/or addiction to it.

As someone develops a tolerance to a substance, they will require higher doses in order to achieve the same effects of the drug.

This can make things difficult if they have developed a physical dependence and want to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

While tolerance is not the same thing as dependence or addiction, it can lead to both of these conditions, which makes it a risky side effect.

What Are The Types Of Drug Tolerance?

Desensitization and tolerance can happen with alcohol, opiates, stimulants, benzodiazepines, prescription painkillers, and amphetamine, to name a few. Tolerance occurs when the substance of choice is used heavily and over a period of time.

Regardless of the type of substance being used, there are a few different types of tolerance that can occur.

Acute Tolerance

Acute tolerance occurs during a single use of a drug but with repeated doses and in quick succession, and oftentimes with high concentrations.

This type of tolerance might occur during a drug or alcohol binge.

Behavioral Tolerance

Behavioral tolerance occurs when a person is able to hide their drug or alcohol use through certain demonstrated behaviors or in certain situations.

For example, an experienced drinker may be able to maintain a sober disposition when speaking to law enforcement.

Metabolic Tolerance

This type of tolerance refers to how long a drug lasts. In some instances, the more often you use a drug and the more of it you take, the faster your body will metabolize it and get rid of it with digestive enzymes.

Learn more about metabolic drug tolerance.

Functional Tolerance

Functional tolerance occurs when a person’s brain functions become adaptive to the behavioral and bodily changes that a person exhibits while they are using drugs or alcohol.

This is similar to pharmacodynamic tolerance in which a person’s brain chemistry becomes acclimated to the presence of the drug being used and loses some of its abilities.

Find out more about functional drug tolerance.


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Is Tolerance The Same As Addiction?

Tolerance and drug addiction are not the same condition, though they are related and often found occurring in unison. Furthermore, tolerance can exist with or without drug dependence.

Not all drugs are addictive, and some are more addictive than others, but it is generally possible to develop tolerance to any drug or alcohol when used enough.

However, using a drug a lot can build a tolerance to it but not necessarily a dependence or addiction, if that particular substance does not have addictive properties.

How Drug Tolerance And Alcohol Tolerance Differ

Drug tolerance and alcohol tolerance share the same idea but work differently in the body.

Alcohol is consumed and travels through the digestive system, while most drugs are smoked, snorted, or injected and typically travel straight to the central nervous system.

This is why the effects and side effects of a drug are usually felt much longer than the effects of alcohol.

A tolerance to alcohol is also more susceptible to certain influences, such as how much food a person has eaten prior to drinking during a particular instance.

Can Drug Tolerance Be Reversed?

Drug tolerance can be reversed for the most part, though a person may never quite reach their original baseline. Reversing drug tolerance will, however, take a lot of time and patience.

The best treatment for reversing a drug or alcohol tolerance is to stop using the substances all together. If this is done for an extended period of time, there is a great chance that a person can reduce their tolerance drastically.

A drug holiday is when a person takes a break from a drug in order to decrease their tolerance to it.

A healthcare provider may even recommend a drug holiday at times for prescription medications to increase their effectiveness.

However, it is never a good idea to decrease use of a prescription drug or stop a medication without a treatment providers guidance.

Can You Treat Drug Tolerance?

Depending on the substance being used and the severity of the tolerance or addiction, it may be time to seek professional addiction treatment for either yourself or a loved one.

Addressing the addiction is the best way to address side effects of it and related conditions, such as tolerance. Drug treatment is typically available in outpatient or inpatient form.

Treatment options for drug addiction include:

  • individual counseling
  • family counseling
  • behavioral therapy
  • medical detox
  • medication-assisted treatment
  • 12-step programs
  • peer support
  • relapse prevention support

Find Substance Use Disorder Treatment Today

Are you concerned that you or a loved one may have a problem with drugs and alcohol and need professional addiction treatment? Please do not be afraid to ask for help — you are not alone.

Our treatment specialists can answer any questions you have about substance abuse and assist you when you are ready to get started.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022


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