In the simplest terms, drug addiction is the strong compulsion to get and use substances, even though a number of undesirable and dangerous consequences are likely to occur. Addiction has been described as a “medical disorder that affects the brain and changes behavior.” Various substances including alcohol, illicit drugs, prescription medications, and even some over-the-counter medicines may fuel the development of an addiction.
Certain behaviors such as compulsive gambling or sex are sometimes labeled as addictions, but here, the term “addiction” is reserved for drugs of abuse.
The definition of addiction varies among individuals, organizations, and medical professionals, and society’s viewpoints about addiction are ever-evolving. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) all similarly describe addiction as a long-term and relapsing condition characterized by the individual compulsively seeking and using drugs despite adverse consequences.1
These organizations call addiction a disorder or a disease because:1
Comparing substance addiction to heart disease may help illustrate why it is defined as a disease by so many:1
Furthermore, since addiction is marked by periods of recovery and symptom recurrence (relapse), it resembles other diseases like hypertension and type-2 diabetes. These diseases are lifelong conditions that require continual effort to manage. Symptoms will likely return during periods where treatment compliance is low or absent, and symptoms will likely diminish when compliance to treatment begins again in earnest. 3
The idea that substance addiction is a disease is not, however, universal. Some would argue that addiction is not a disease because:
Proponents of this way of thinking put much more emphasis on the social and environmental factors of addiction—one proponent claims that addictions may be “cured” by locking addicts in a cell where there is no access to substances—instead of on the brain changes that occur as a result of substance abuse.4
Some schools of thought view treatment for addiction as little more than the individual making the decision to stop using.
Specific aspects of these opinions are hard to refute. For example, it is true that most substance abuse begins with a decision (although in many cases substance use began with a prescription from a doctor for a real medical problem and evolved into abuse).
But while no one forced an addicted person to begin misusing a substance, it’s hard to imagine someone would willingly ruin their health, relationships, and other major areas of their lives. Surely, if overcoming addiction were as easy as simply choosing to stop, the problem of addiction would be much easier to address and relapse would not be as common.
It should be noted that the “addiction is a choice” view is largely relegated to individuals and small groups. There are few, if any, nationally recognized substance abuse-focused organizations whose views have not evolved to understanding addiction as a disorder or disease. In fact, the NIH views the idea that addiction is a moral failing as an outdated, ill-informed relic of the past.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) no longer uses “addiction” as a term or diagnosis. Instead, the APA adopted the phrase “substance use disorder” as a way to describe problems related to “compulsive and habitual” substance use.The change was made specifically to avoid confusion surrounding the term addiction and it’s “uncertain” definition, as well as the negative stigma attached to the word. 7
No matter how one defines addiction or what term is used, what is clear is that addiction is an enormous problem in the U.S. that affects millions. Another irrefutable fact is that many drugs—both illicit and prescription—are quite addictive.
People get addicted to drugs for many reasons, but one of the major factors behind why drugs are so addictive is the rewarding, euphoric high they bring about. Drugs have the potential to significantly impact the systems in the brain relating to pleasure and motivation and make it difficult for other natural pleasures to compare.1
Every person experiences natural rewards in their life like a delicious meal, a favorite song, the pleasant feeling following exercise, or the happiness after sex, but drugs offer something more. The high that comes from abusing drugs is bigger, brighter, louder, and more gratifying than any natural reward, and it can make natural rewards seem small, dim, and quiet by comparison.
Dopamine tells the brain that the experience of using a drug is important and should be repeated. The brain is programmed to remember the people, places, and things associated with the use, so it will be easier for the person to repeat the situation.
With repetition, these bursts of dopamine tell the brain to value drugs more than natural rewards, and the brain adjusts so that the reward circuit becomes less sensitive to natural rewards. This can make a person feel depressed or emotionally “flat” at times they aren’t using drugs.1 If natural rewards are a plate of broccoli, drugs are a huge bowl of ice cream, and broccoli is even less appetizing after ice cream.
Over time, the desire for drugs becomes a learned reflex—a person can be triggered to use by the people, places, and things that are linked to their drug use, just as someone might get hungry driving by their favorite restaurant, only the desire is likely to be much more overwhelming. Cravings can feel uncontrollable even years after a person gets sober.1
At the same time the drug is producing these changes in the brain that are associated with the development of addiction, the individual may also come to tolerate higher doses and even depend on the drug to feel well. 3 Tolerance and dependence develop because of adjustments the brain makes to manage the alterations that come from the repeated presence of a drug. Tolerance and dependence are two signs of a substance use disorder but may also develop to some extent in the absence of addiction. 3 So what are they?
Addiction and physical dependence are often talked about as though they are interchangeable; however, they are separate phenomena that can exist without the other. 3 Someone using their opioid pain medications as prescribed can develop some physiological dependence but may not exhibit the compulsive behaviors of addiction. Conversely, some drugs may be used in a compulsive manner that indicates an addiction without physically relying on it to feel well.
Someone abusing drugs is also likely to have paraphernalia around the house – pill bottles, pipes, bongs, needles, etc.
Mental health professionals use a distinct set of diagnostic criteria to determine whether someone has a substance use disorder, and how severe the problem is. These criteria include the following:7
There is no single cause of addiction; people begin using substances for many reasons and one person’s path to addiction may look drastically different from that of another.
Apart from the case of beginning drug use via a prescription from a doctor, there are 4 main reasons people may try substances, according to NIDA:1
People who have an intensely good experience their first time using begin to learn that drugs can make them feel great, and the foundations of addiction are set. Not everyone responds the same way to drugs and alcohol, however.
For years, experts have debated if it was nature (biology/ genes) or nurture (upbringing/ environment) that determined whether someone will become addicted. Now, the prevailing view is that there is no one thing we can look at to predict someone’s risk of developing an SUD—rather, the interaction of the person’s unique biology and environment BOTH influence how the drug will impact a person’s susceptibility to becoming addicted.1
Biological factors impacting addiction account for between 40% and 60% of someone’s risk for addiction.1Possible biological factors include:1
The person’s developmental stage is particularly important, since teens who use drugs are much more likely to become addicted and remain addicted into adulthood.1
Environmental factors include all situations and experiences a person lives through. The most significant environmental influences include: 1
Each person will have a number of biological and environmental risk and protective factors.1 A risk factor is something that puts the individual in more danger of becoming addicted, while a protective factor is something that minimizes that danger.
Possible biological and environmental risk factors include:1
Possible biological and environmental protective factors are:1
Finally, the risk of addiction may be strongly impacted by the route of administration of the abused substance. Certain routes will produce stronger highs. For example, injecting opioids will produce a rapid intense euphoria that snorting or swallowing opioids can’t match.1
Intense highs that come on rapidly also tend to dissipate quickly,1 and the quicker comedown may further encourage drug abuse.
Any drug may be abused compulsively but certain drugs/drug classes have a reputation for being exceptionally addictive.1 Continue reading to learn more.
Certain opiate alkaloid substances found naturally in poppy plants are used to manufacture opioids such as heroin as well as prescription drugs used to treat pain, cough, and diarrhea. Prescription opioids include:
Once opioids are ingested, they activate opioid receptors throughout the central nervous system to disrupt pain signaling from the body to the brain.10
Opioids are always among the list of the most addictive drugs for reasons such as the following:10
Stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine/crystal meth, and prescription medications used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Stimulants can:11
These desirable effects are related to the drugs’ effects on norepinephrine, a brain chemical that increases blood pressure and heart rate, as well as on dopamine signaling in the brain.
Sedatives, or central nervous system (CNS depressants), include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other sleep medications. In the brain, sedatives increase the influence of another brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).12 Sedatives make a person feel drowsy or calm, which is why they are often prescribed for problems with anxiety and sleep disorders.12 These affects may appeal to some users and may promote abuse. Some people will also use these drugs to enhance the high of opioids, which can be particularly dangerous, since both depress respiration.
One factor that plays into the addiction potential of sedatives is the risk of withdrawal symptoms that present when use ends. Since sedative withdrawal can be quite uncomfortable and dangerous for someone who is physically dependent, the person may be more inclined to continue using to avoid it.
Alcohol is hard to escape; the drug is obtainable in restaurants, corner stores, gas stations, bars, many people’s homes, and more. The quick, easy access and low cost make alcohol’s potential for abuse high.
Another factor increasing the addictive nature of alcohol is its interaction in the brain. Once consumed, alcohol impacts various chemical messengers like GABA, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which result in the numerous effects of alcohol like decreased attention, poor memory, drowsiness, and a lack of social inhibitions. Alcohol also affects other neurotransmitter systems such as endogenous opiates, further increasing its addictive potential.
In a similar way to sedatives, quitting alcohol once dependent produces a very serious withdrawal syndrome that could put a detoxing person’s life in danger, with effects such as seizures and delirium tremens. Faced with the promise of an unpleasant withdrawal, people may keep drinking past the point that it is no longer pleasurable.
If you or your loved ones are abusing alcohol or other drugs, it is never too early or too late to ask for help. Professional treatment for addiction is an effective way to address both your physical dependence and addiction. These programs don’t view the people who ask for help as “addicts” but as individuals struggling with a chronic condition affecting every aspect of their lives.
Getting help may be intimidating, but there are many resources to make the process as comfortable as possible. You may consider discussing your concerns with your primary care physician or a mental health expert.
If you are unable to speak with a doctor or other treatment professional about appropriate rehabilitation options, contacting a helpline could be your path towards treatment. Good options for a drug addiction hotline include:
At the earliest stages of addiction treatment, a professional will conduct a thorough assessment to identify your current status, symptoms, and the most appropriate course of action to manage your recovery. An evaluation includes:14
Based on the information gathered during this assessment, you will be referred to a level of addiction treatment that best fits your condition.14
At the outset of addiction treatment, many people require a period of professional detoxification to allow the body to readjust to the lack of the drug (go through withdrawal) while under supervision.14 Professional detox is a necessary first step in treatment for many people getting sober, because quitting certain substances will bring about a range of distressing withdrawal symptoms that may venture into life-threatening territory.14
During medical detox, medications are used to manage withdrawal. Other detoxes, called “social” or clinically managed detox, emphasize the support and encouragement of staff in a safe environment to facilitate recovery but do not offer prescription medications for symptoms. These detoxes may not be safe for managing withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives and are usually not recommended in cases of opioid dependence due to the severe discomfort associated with withdrawal from these drugs.14
Detox, and the treatments that follow, can occur in inpatient or outpatient settings:14
Someone who completed inpatient detox may transition to some form of ongoing treatment to maintain their momentum, such as residential treatment, PHP, IOP, or standard outpatient. The specific course of treatment will depend on numerous individual factors and may change with time.
Another option for people currently in or finished with treatment is support groups. Support groups are meetings organized and run by people in recovery that focus on fellowship, continued focus on sobriety, and giving back to others as a way to stay drug-free.
For many, addiction treatment is a lifelong process with ongoing professional treatment and aftercare options to maintain recovery. Since longer periods of treatment are linked to longer periods of recovery, staying in treatment for an adequate amount of time (as recommended by your treatment staff), engaging in aftercare, and participating in recovery groups can be extremely beneficial.3
Whether you think addiction is a disease or not, everyone can agree that addiction is a serious problem that adversely affects the lives of the people using substances as well as the people in their lives. The suffering that comes along with addiction can be immense, but treatment offers a ray of hope for the future.
Frequently Asked Questions: