Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a
person's brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a
legal or illegal drug or medication. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana and
nicotine also are considered drugs. When you're addicted, you may continue using
the drug despite the harm it causes.
Drug addiction can start with experimental use of a recreational drug in social
situations, and, for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. For
others, particularly with opioids, drug addiction begins with exposure to
prescribed medications, or receiving medications from a friend or relative who
has been prescribed the medication.
The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some
drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction more
quickly than others.As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug to get
high. Soon you may need the drug just to feel good. As your drug use increases,
you may find that it's increasingly difficult to go without the drug.
to stop drug use may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill
(withdrawal symptoms). You may need help from your doctor, family, friends,
support groups or an organized treatment program to overcome your drug addiction
and stay drug-free.
What is drug addiction?
Drug addiction (also known as substance use disorder) can be defined as a
progressive disease that causes people to lose control of the use of some
substance despite worsening consequences of that use. Substance use disorder can
be life-threatening. Addictions are not problems of willpower or morality.
Addiction is a powerful and complex disease. People who have an addiction to
drugs cannot simply quit, even if they want to. The drugs change the brain in a
way that makes quitting physically and mentally difficult. Treating addiction
often requires lifelong care and therapy.
What drugs lead to addiction?
Drugs that are commonly misused include:
- Alcohol, Club drugs, like GHB, ketamine,
MDMA (ecstasy/molly), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol®).
- Stimulants, such as cocaine (including crack) and methamphetamine (meth).
- Hallucinogens, including ayahuasca, D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), peyote
(mescaline), phencyclidine (PCP) and DMT.
- Inhalants, including solvents, aerosol sprays, gases and nitrites (poppers).
- Opioid pain killers such as heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine
- Prescription drugs and cold medicines.
- Sedatives, hypnotics and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications).
- Steroids (anabolic).
- Synthetic cannabinoids (K2 or Spice).
- Synthetic cathinones (bath salts).
- Tobacco/nicotine and electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or vaping).
While these drugs are very different from each other, they all strongly activate
the addiction center of the brain. That is what makes these substances
habit-forming, while others are not.
How might substance use disorder affect me?
Drugs affect the brain, especially the "reward center" of the brain.
Humans are biologically motivated to seek rewards. Often, these rewards come
from healthy behaviours. When you spend time with a loved one or eat a delicious
meal, your body releases a chemical called dopamine, which makes you feel
pleasure. It becomes a cycle: You seek out these experiences because they reward
you with good feelings.
Drugs send massive surges of dopamine through the brain, too. But instead of
feeling motivated to do the things you need to survive (eat, work, spend time
with loved ones), such massive dopamine levels can lead to damaging changes that
change thoughts, feelings and behavior. That can create an unhealthy drive to
seek pleasure from the drug and less from more healthy pleasurable experiences.
The cycle revolves around seeking and consuming drugs to get that pleasurable feeling.Addiction to drugs changes the brain over time. It affects how the brain
works and even the brain's structure. That's why healthcare providers consider
substance use disorder a brain disease.
The first use of a drug is a choice. But addiction can develop, creating a very
dangerous condition. Drugs affect your decision-making ability, including the
decision to stop drug use.You may be aware there's a problem but unable to stop.
With addiction, stopping drug use can be physically uncomfortable. It can make
you sick and even become life-threatening.
What are symptoms of substance abuse?
Symptoms of drug addiction include:
What are treatment for substance abuse and addiction?
- Bloodshot eyes and looking tired.
- Changes in appetite, usually eating less. Changes in physical appearance, such as
having a poor complexion or looking ungroomed, Craving drugs.
- Difficulty completing tasks at work, school or home, Engaging in risky
behaviours, despite knowing negative consequences (such as driving while
impaired or having unprotected sex).
- Inability to reduce or control drug use, Issues with money, Weight loss.
Several therapies exist for treating substance use disorder. Even for a severe
case, treatment can help.
Often, you'll receive a combination of these
- Detoxification: You stop taking drugs, allowing the drugs to leave the body. You
may need healthcare supervision to detox safely.
- Medication-assisted therapies: During detox, medicine can help control cravings
and relieve withdrawal symptoms.
- Behavioral therapies: Cognitive behavioral therapy or other psychotherapy (talk
therapy) can help deal with addiction's cause. Therapy also helps build
self-esteem and teaches healthy coping mechanisms.
Medication may be part of your treatment plan. Your care team figures out the
best medications for you.
Medication-assisted treatments are available for:
- Opioids: Methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are FDA-approved for the
treatment of opiate use disorder.
- Alcohol: Three FDA-approved drugs include naltrexone, acamprosate and disulfiram
- Tobacco: A nicotine patch, spray, gum or lozenge can help. Or your doctor might
prescribe bupropion or varenicline.
Both inpatient and outpatient treatment plans are available, depending on your
needs. Treatment typically involves group therapy sessions that occur weekly for
three months to a year.
Inpatient therapy can include:
Therapeutic communities or sober houses, which are tightly controlled, drug-free
Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can help
you on the path to recovery. Self-help groups are also available for family
members, including Al-Anon and Nar-Anon Family Groups. Participation in 12-step
based recovery work has been proven to improve outcomes.