Medically Reviewed by Dr. Francine Mends, MD on August 5, 2020
Drug addiction affects over 1 in 10 people in the United States. Drug addiction is very serious. It hurts people physically, mentally, and socially. If you are dealing with drug addiction, you are not alone, and you need to know the facts about this dangerous disease.
What is Drug Addiction?
Drug addiction is a disease that changes your brain and affects your behavior. When you’re addicted to drugs, you do almost anything to get them and you have uncontrollable urges to take them. Even though you know the drugs are hurting you, you still take them.
People can become addicted to alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, meth, and even prescription drugs. But the risk of addiction and how quickly you become addicted can vary depending on the drug. Drug addiction is not about willpower or making bad decisions. Drug addiction is a disease that alters how your brain functions, and to quit, you need the right help.
Often, people start doing drugs casually. They like how drugs feel, and they think they have the situation under control. But eventually, as the drugs change how your brain works, you become addicted.
Difference Between Drug Abuse and Drug Addiction
Drug abuse and addiction overlap in a lot of ways, but there are a few differences:
Drug abuse refers to taking drugs excessively or misusing them in dangerous ways.
Drug addiction is a chronic disease where you seek and use drugs compulsively, regardless of the effects on your life.
Over time, drug abuse can become drug addiction, but both are dangerous. Even if you are not addicted to drugs, abusing drugs can still hurt your body and leave long lasting physical and mental effects. You can get treatment for both drug abuse and addiction.
What Causes Drug Addiction?
There are multiple causes of drug addiction. The causes vary from person to person, but they can be divided into the following main categories:
- Biological: Your unique genetics play a big role in drug addiction. Some people don’t enjoy how drugs make them feel, while others really like the feeling. If someone doesn’t like how a drug feels, they are usually less likely to take it again. Your brain chemistry can also make you more vulnerable to addiction.
- Psychology: Your psychology determines why you repeat certain behaviors even though they are harmful. These factors also determine how you cope with difficult situations. If someone doesn’t have a lot of coping skills for boredom or stress, they may be more likely to turn to drugs.
- Socio-cultural influences: When someone’s culture accepts or promotes drug use, they may be more likely to abuse drugs. For instance, if someone is from a family that abuses drugs, they may repeat those patterns. A lot of drug abuse at work or in the community can also increase the risk.
How Does Drug Addiction Affect the Brain?
Drug addiction causes changes in your brain. These effects drive the addiction and make you want to keep doing drugs. When you take drugs, your brain releases dopamine. This is part of the reward center of your brain that encourages you to repeat pleasurable experiences.
As you continue to use drugs, you build tolerance. Your brain doesn’t produce as much dopamine, and you don’t feel as much pleasure. As a result, you need to take more of the drug to get the same pleasurable effect.
At the same time, you also don’t get as much pleasure from other activities, such as spending time with your family, hobbies, socializing, and even sex. To feel good, you are compelled to take more and more drugs.
Why is Drug Addiction Considered a Disease?
In the past, many people considered drug addiction to be a choice. They thought addiction was about willpower, and these attitudes were very harmful. As researchers have learned more about addiction, they have classified it as a disease.
Drug addiction is considered to be a disease because of the way it affects your brain. It is a long-term condition linked to compulsive behaviors. People also consider drug addiction a disease because it decreases the quality of life and increases the risk of early death. But as a disease, drug addiction is also treatable.
Is Drug Addiction Hereditary?
Drug addiction is not hereditary. But many risk factors related to abuse and addiction are hereditary. By extension, if someone in your family has struggled with addiction, you may have an increased risk.
As indicated above, genetics play a role in drug addiction. Additionally, people with mental illness have a higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs, and these issues can be hereditary. Close to 40% of people who abuse drugs have a co-occuring mental disorder.
Simply being aware of the risk can help. If there is a lot of addiction in your family, you may want to learn coping mechanisms for stress, sadness, and boredom, and find ways to avoid drugs. Also, get help for mental health issues. Do not try to self-medicate.
Symptoms of Drug Addiction
If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, you should be aware of the signs of drug addiction. Although the symptoms can vary, here are some of the most common warning signs:
- Feeling an urge to do drugs every day or multiple times a day.
- Taking more drugs than you want to.
- Buying drugs even if you can’t afford them.
- Using drugs in situations where you shouldn’t.
- Continuing to take drugs even though they are causing problems in your work, school, or social life.
- Not taking care of yourself. Having poor hygiene.
- Lying, stealing, or doing dangerous things while on drugs, e.g., driving or having unprotected sex.
- Spending most of your time thinking about drugs, obtaining drugs, and taking drugs.
- Needing more of the drug to feel the same effects.
- Feeling like you can’t quit using drugs.
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms when you quit.
Diagnosing Drug Addiction
Diagnosing a drug addiction requires a thorough evaluation and assessment by a qualified psychologist, psychiatrist or a licensed addiction counselor. During the evaluation and assessment, they will ask questions to understand how often you use drugs, how it affects your daily life, and what happens when you try to quit.
Normally, most health professionals will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose drug addiction.
Most Common Drug Addictions
The most common drug addictions in the United States involve the following substances:
Every day, 128 people die from opioid overdoses in the United States. That is over 46,000 deaths per year.
Approximately 526,000 people were addicted to heroin in 2013. An estimated 1.7 million Americans are currently addicted to prescription opioids. Note that some people are addicted to both of these substances and may be counted twice in the above numbers.
About 1.6 million people (0.6% of the population) use meth in a year, and close to a million people over the age of 12 were addicted to this drug in 2017. This number increased by over a quarter between 2016 and 2017.
A powerful stimulant, cocaine is incredibly addictive, and it can ruin lives and cause death due to overdose.
Approximately, 16.8% of people over the age of 26 have done cocaine at some point in their lives. And nearly 15% of people over the age of 12 have tried this drug.
Active cocaine users are most likely to fall in the 18 to 25 year old age bracket. 1.5% of people in this age range report using cocaine in the last month, while 0.70% of people over the age of 26 have used it in the last month.
With increasing legalization of this drug, many people think that it is not dangerous, but with regular use, people often develop marijuana use disorder.
Teens who start smoking before age 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely to become addicted than people who start when they are older. Over 40 million Americans use marijuana every year.
Hallucinogens, Ecstasy and Molly (MDMA)
Nearly 6 million people over the age of 12 use these drugs every year, and although they are not typically considered to be addictive, they can be abused.
These drugs can be very dangerous and potentially deadly. If you or a loved one is taking any of these drugs, you should get help so that you can stop.
Effects of Drug Addiction
Drug addiction causes both short and long-term effects. The health effects vary based on the type of drug.
Meth, opiates and cocaine can lead to psychotic behavior. Sedatives can cause confusion and memory loss. MDMA can cause seizures and long-term brain damage. Overdosing on these drugs can be fatal.
In addition to the physical effects of drugs, there are also effects related to the risky behavior associated with drugs.
People who are addicted to drugs are more likely to contract infectious diseases like HIV through sharing needles or unsafe sex. They are more likely to get into car accidents or get injuries as well.
Addiction can cause issues with family and work as well as legal or financial problems. Addictions can make mental illnesses worse. People who are addicted to drugs are also more likely to die by suicide.
Getting Help With Drug Addiction
To stop using drugs, you need help. Luckily, there are many different treatment options that can help with drug addiction. When you reach out for help for yourself or a loved one, a drug counselor can help you determine the right type of help based on your needs.
If you are physically addicted to drugs such as opioids, you can have severe withdrawal symptoms that can be deadly. To get off these drugs safely, you need to go through a medically supervised detox. Then, you can start your treatment plan.
Types of Treatment
There are several types of treatment options to choose from when considering getting help with drug addiction.
Inpatient rehab is when you live in a treatment center, and research shows that at least 90 days of inpatient rehab is the most effective option for dealing with drug addiction.
Outpatient rehab allows you to access care while still living at home. Some people need to choose outpatient care so that they can continue to work or take care of children. Others opt for outpatient care after living in a rehab facility.
Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) offer a middle ground between inpatient and outpatient care. A slightly more intensive form of outpatient care, PHPs require you go to a hospital or clinic for hours of intensive treatment every day, but you return home in the evenings.
Effective addiction treatment relies on evidence-based practices. Treatment helps you understand why you are using drugs and guides you through learning to live without substance abuse.
Through behavioral therapy, you learn more about your addictive patterns and find out about new coping mechanisms. Group counseling can help you create bonds with other people who are on the journey to sobriety.
Because addiction affects the whole family, counseling with your family can also be an important way to heal wounds and establish new dynamics.
In some cases, people use medication to help get past addictions and ease withdrawal symptoms. This is called Medication-Assisted Treatment, and it is usually offered in quality treatment centers.
In particular, medications can be useful when you’re dealing with addictions to alcohol, opiates, and nicotine.
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