In years past, drug addiction has been viewed negatively and paired with bad decisions and immoral people. However, research has confirmed that drug addiction is a true medical condition, a disease which affects the body and brain and all aspects of health and for which people need proper treatment.
The past few decades have brought new advances in addiction treatment, including a variety of evidence-based therapies, alternative treatments, and holistic healing. People with drug addictions who get into and complete treatment will reap the benefits—which can include quitting use of drugs, improving their occupational functioning, and learning to live a sober life.
What Is Drug Addiction?
Drug addiction is confirmed as a disease of chronic relapse, characterized by psychological cravings for the drug, an obsession with the drug, and a loss of control over drug use. People with addictions are often powerless to stop drug use because drug abuse changes the way the brain functions.
Many drugs affect the brain’s perception of pain and response to pleasure and cause desirable effects. Stimulants, such as cocaine, excite the central nervous system, causing increased alertness, energy, reduced appetite, and euphoria. Depressants, such as opioids and heroin, slow functions in the central nervous system, creating feelings of calm, relaxation, and euphoria.
It is the effects of drugs which often cause a person to become addicted to them. When abused, drugs cause a release of happy chemicals, such as dopamine, leading to an excess of the chemical in the brain. Normally, the brain produces this chemical on its own, and when a person disrupts the normal process of dopamine release by abusing drugs, they cause changes to the brain’s communication pathways.
With time, the brain will come to rely on the drug to elicit feelings of happiness and become unable to do so on its own. This is when addiction occurs. Once a person forms an addiction, successfully quitting drug use can be very difficult to achieve, especially if a person also forms a physical dependence on the drug.
Difference Between Addiction And Dependence
The terms “addiction” and “dependence” are often both used to refer to an addiction. However, dependence implies something more—that the person not only relies on the drug mentally but physically, too.
A person with an addiction is addicted to the drug and will feel psychological cravings, a need to constantly seek the drug, and will feel powerless to stop drug use, even if it has already led to adverse consequences. These feelings can be harder to face than they sound. Addiction takes over a person’s thoughts and feelings, rendering them unable to fight the urge to use drugs.
Physical dependence on a drug takes addiction a step further. A person with a physical dependence will experience unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even painful withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs. Coupled with the extreme urge to seek and use drugs caused by addiction, a person with addiction and dependence will likely not overcome these conditions without proper medical care and personal support.
Commonly Abused Drugs
There are many drugs of abuse in the United States, with more illicit drugs and prescriptions diverted for misuse entering the market all the time. With so many drugs of abuse available, it’s important to know which are the most commonly abused drugs and how they affect the body to recognize addiction when it starts and help loved ones seek adequate treatment.
Commonly abused drugs in the United States include:
Often not considered a drug, alcohol is the most widely abused substance in the United States. Millions are affected by an alcohol use disorder every year. Alcohol abuse comes with a wide range of side effects, and chronic alcohol abuse can lead to vast health consequences, including increased risk of cancer and effects to vital organs such as the liver and pancreas.
These are prescription central nervous system stimulants, such as Adderall (amphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate), commonly used to treat conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drugs increase energy and alertness and some believe they promote enhanced focus, which is often why they are diverted for misuse.
An illicit central nervous system depressant, cocaine is sold and used in many forms including a powder (snorted), a solution (injected), and a rock form called crack cocaine (smoked). Cocaine is not a drug that causes physical dependence. However, the effects of cocaine are vast and can be dangerous, including risk of tolerance, or no longer feeling the effects of cocaine with continued abuse, leading to increased abuse and higher risk of overdose.
Central nervous system depressants are those that slow brain activity and body functions. For these reasons, prescription depressants can be useful in treating conditions like anxiety and sleep disorders. The drugs produce a sense of calm and relaxation that the brain quickly learns to crave, leading to misuse. Prescription depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sleep medications like eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata), and opioids.
Hallucinogen abuse has been a problem for many years, as the drugs cause extreme distortions of perceptions of reality, such as hallucinations and dissociations. Commonly abused hallucinogens in the U.S. include ketamine, LSD, PCP, and DMT.
Heroin is an opioid, which means it slows the body and brain functions and produces extreme euphoria. Heroin is also a powerful drug which leads very quickly to addiction and dependence. Millions of people struggle with heroin addiction every year.
Inhalants became popular because they are not drugs of abuse but mostly common household items, such as paint thinner, solvents, and aerosol sprays, which people abuse by inhaling the fumes and contents. Inhalants can lead to addiction and are also incredibly dangerous to abuse.
Marijuana remains the most abused illicit drug in the United States. Many people do not believe the drug can be addicting, but much research shows this is not true. Though marijuana does not lead to physical dependence and has recently been approved for medicinal use in many states, the drug carries with it risk of addiction and adverse effects, including memory loss and psychosis.
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), also called Ecstasy or Molly in certain forms, is a psychoactive drug with hallucinogenic properties. The drug can lead to addiction and also carries risk of consequences, especially when abused with other drugs, as is often the case.
Methamphetamine, also called meth, is both a legal prescription drug under the brand name Desoxyn and a commonly produced illicit drug. Methamphetamine is a highly powerful, potent drug which can lead to addiction in just a few uses. The risks of methamphetamine abuse are many, and dangers of meth abuse can happen quickly since the drug is so addictive.
Opioid abuse and addiction is one of the biggest health problems facing the United States today, enough to gain the status of a nation-wide epidemic. Prescription opioids are used medically to relieve and treat chronic and moderate to severe pain. People with prescriptions often misuse their prescriptions without realizing the harm it can carry, including addiction, dependence, and high risk of overdose.
Signs Of Drug Addiction
People who develop drug addictions may not always realize it’s happening at first, or they may be unwilling or unable to admit they have a problem or need help. Because of this, signs of drug addiction may not always be apparent in the beginning as a person tries to hide or cover up their drug use. People with addictions may do this for many reasons, including fear of consequences, shame, guilt, or because they feel they are protecting those around them.
Each drug of abuse will come with varying signs of addiction, most of which point to side effects of the drugs. For example, signs of stimulant abuse and addiction can include dilated pupils, hyperactivity, loss of appetite or weight, restlessness, and excess sweating.
Signs of depressant abuse and addiction will likely oppose those of stimulant abuse and can include drowsiness, lack of coordination, clumsiness, dizziness, and problems with memory.
Addiction is largely psychological and behavioral, which means that a person with an addiction will start to show changes in the way they think and act.
Some general signs of a drug addiction include:
- cravings for the drug
- feelings that the person must use the drug regularly
- experiencing extreme urges to use or seek the drug
- spending a lot of time or money seeking or using the drug
- continuing drug use even when the person recognizes the harm caused by it
- failing to perform well at school or work due to drug use
- lack of interest in activities
- doing things a person wouldn’t normally do, like stealing or lying
- performing risky acts while under the influence of drugs, like driving
- wanting to stop drug use but being unable to do so
Drug addiction can lead to indefinite effects to a person’s health and life. Each drug of abuse comes with its own risks of side effects and continued abuse almost always leads to increased risk of overdose.
How Addiction Leads To Overdose
As a person becomes addicted to a drug, they tend to increase drug use. This is often due to development of a tolerance, which means a person can no longer feel the effects of the drug when they take it. In an effort to reach the desired effects, the person starts taking more of the drug or taking it more frequently, increasing the amount of the drug in their system.
In addition to increased risk of side effects, compiling a drug in the body means the body is unable to process and rid itself of the drug fast enough. This leads to a buildup of harmful chemicals and/or toxins in the body, which is typically what leads to overdose.
Overdose can be fatal or nonfatal, but in either case leads to harmful effects on the brain and body. Overdose on certain drugs of abuse always carries risk of death due to the way overdose manifests for these drugs. Drugs with life-threatening overdose dangers include alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines.
Drug overdose is considered a medical emergency. Anyone suspected of experiencing an overdose should be taken in for medical treatment right away to ensure the greatest chance at a full recovery.
Signs of a drug overdose can include:
- shallow or no breathing
- snoring sounds
- no response to stimulation
- disorientation, confusion
- inability to be roused
- chest pain
- extreme headache
- nausea, vomiting
- agitation, paranoia, hallucinations
- lack of consciousness
People with a polydrug addiction, or addiction to more than one drug at a time, are especially at risk for overdose. Abuse of multiple drugs can mask the effects of each, making it hard to tell when a person is becoming intoxicated. In this case, the person often continues to abuse drugs, increasing the risk for overdose.
Treatment For Drug Addiction
The most effective way to fight the adverse effects of drug addiction, including overdose, is to enroll in treatment. There are many types of addiction treatment, but the most effective by far is inpatient (residential) treatment.
Inpatient addiction treatment programs provide residential care for recovering individuals, meaning those in treatment will live on-site at a rehab facility for the duration of their treatment program. During their stay, patients will have access to comprehensive forms of care, including: counseling, group and individual therapy, alternative treatments (such as wilderness, music, art, and outdoor therapies), medication-assisted treatment, and many more, depending on the facility.
Many drug rehab centers also recognize that addiction is a condition which requires long-term care. For this reason, rehab centers will often help individuals new in recovery connect with local support and treatment programs (aftercare) so they may continue their recovery journey after completing the inpatient program.
Addiction can seem daunting and will convince a person there is no way out. But, with the right treatment program and a team of highly trained addiction treatment professionals, recovery is both manageable and possible.
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.
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- Mayo Clinic — Drug addiction (substance use disorder)
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence — Drug Overdose: A Medical Emergency, Facts About Drugs
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Use and Addiction, Commonly Abused Drugs Charts