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Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a physical and psychological dependence that leads to intense cravings for the drug and difficulty stopping without treatment.

The chemicals in some drugs are more highly addictive than others. Breaking an addiction to drugs is difficult, but not impossible. Medical science is increasing our understanding of what happens to the brain in addiction and is developing effective treatments for it. 

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of addiction to drugs follow the same pattern of abuse and dependence as alcohol dependence. Some drugs are highly addictive and cannot be used safely and recreationally without putting yourself at very high risk for addiction. Experimentation with drugs and patterns of addiction often start in adolescence and young adulthood.

General signs and symptoms of drug addiction include:

  • Tolerance; you need to use more to get the same effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you stop using
  • Needing the drug regularly and, in some cases, many times a day
  • Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug and doing things to obtain it that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
  • Legal problems related to drug use
  • You want to cut down using or stop, but haven’t been able to
  • Feeling that you need the drug to deal with your problems or function well
  • Losing a job or work opportunities, losing friends, hurting family relationships, or giving up activities you previously enjoyed
  • Continuing to use despite knowing that it is hurting your health and disrupting your life
  • Driving or doing other activities that place you and others at risk of physical harm when you're under the influence of the drug

Effects of drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes the addictive and health effects of some of the most commonly abused drugs.

A powerfully addictive drug that is snorted, sniffed, injected, or smoked. Crack is cocaine that has been processed from cocaine hydrochloride to a free base for smoking. Cocaine usually makes the user feel euphoric and energetic. Common adverse health effects include heart attacks, respiratory failure, strokes, and seizures. Large amounts can cause bizarre and violent behavior. In rare cases, sudden death can occur on the first use of cocaine or unexpectedly thereafter.


A drug that has stimulant and psychedelic properties. It is taken orally as a capsule or tablet. Short-term effects include feelings of mental stimulation, emotional warmth, enhanced sensory perception, and increased physical energy. Adverse health effects can include nausea, chills, sweating, teeth clenching, muscle cramping, and blurred vision.


An addictive drug that is processed from morphine and usually appears as a white or brown powder. Short-term effects include a surge of euphoria followed by alternately wakeful and drowsy states and cloudy mental functioning. It is associated with fatal overdose and, particularly in users who inject the drug, infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.


Breathable chemical vapors that users intentionally inhale because of the chemicals' mind-altering effects. The substances inhaled are often common household products that contain volatile solvents or aerosols. Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. If sufficient amounts are inhaled, nearly all solvents and gases produce a loss of sensation, and even unconsciousness.

One of the strongest mood-changing drugs. It is sold as tablets, capsules, liquid, or on absorbent paper. It produces unpredictable psychological effects. With large enough doses, users experience delusions and visual hallucinations. Physical effects include increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; sleeplessness; and loss of appetite.

In 2011, Marijuana was the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S. The main active chemical is THC. Short-term effects include memory and learning problems, distorted perception, and difficulty thinking and solving problems.

An addictive stimulant that is closely related to amphetamine, but has longer-lasting and more toxic effects on the central nervous system. It has a high potential for abuse and addiction. Increases wakefulness and physical activity and decreases appetite. Chronic, long-term use can lead to psychotic behavior, hallucinations, and stroke.

A highly addictive drug and one of the most heavily used in the U.S. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causing many diseases including cancer, emphysema and other respiratory illnesses, and heart disease. The adverse health effects from cigarette smoking account for thousands of deaths each year in the U.S.

Illegally manufactured in labs and sold as tablets, capsules, or colored powder. Also known as angel dust, it can be snorted, smoked, or eaten. Developed in the 1950s as an IV anesthetic, PCP was never approved for human use because of problems during clinical studies, including intensely negative psychological effects. Many PCP users are brought to emergency rooms because of overdose or because of the drug's unpleasant psychological effects. People high on PCP often become violent or suicidal.

Prescription medications
Prescription drugs that are abused or used for nonmedical reasons can alter brain activity and lead to dependence. Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include opioids (often prescribed to treat pain), central nervous system depressants (often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders), and stimulants (prescribed to treat narcolepsy, ADHD, and obesity). Long-term use of opioids or central nervous system depressants can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Taken in high doses, stimulants can lead to compulsive use, paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and irregular heartbeat.

Harmful effects on others

Drug addiction does not just harm the health and well-being of the person addicted; there are also serious consequences for others.

Secondhand tobacco smoke
Secondhand tobacco smoke, also called environmental tobacco smoke, is harmful to others, especially children. Involuntary smoking increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.

Drugs during pregnancy
Exposure to drugs during pregnancy, including alcohol and tobacco, can harm infants. Negative effects include low birth weight, a higher risk of complications and birth defects, and serious developmental problems.

Spread of infectious diseases
Injection drug use contributes to the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. Drug use interferes with judgment and increases the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors, which contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Emotional toll on families
The need for a drug can be so overwhelming that everything else comes second, including family and friends. Drug abuse takes an emotional toll on families and increases the likelihood of domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect.

Common misconceptions

People who use drugs and/or alcohol are choosing to do so.
People generally start out as occasional drug users or social drinkers. But over time, some people find that it is very difficult to stop drinking or using. Addiction leads to changes in the brain that make drug use compulsive and make it much more difficult to stop using.

Alcoholism or drug addiction is a character flaw.

Addiction is a medical and psychological disorder. Drugs become an extremely powerful motivator for people who are addicted, and addicted individuals will often do almost anything to get drugs. Drug and alcohol use have changed the person’s brain and its functioning in critical ways.

We should try to find the cure for addiction that will help everyone and solve the problem.

There is no “one size fits all” form of treatment, much less a magic bullet that suddenly will cure addiction. Different people have different addiction-related problems, and they respond differently to similar forms of treatment, even when they're addicted to the same drug. As a result, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol need an array of treatments and services tailored to address their unique life and health needs.

A person needs to “hit bottom” before they can be helped.

Dr. Kathleen Brady, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says one of the myths is “this whole idea that an individual needs to reach rock bottom before they can get any help. That is absolutely wrong. There is no evidence that that's true. In fact, quite the contrary. The earlier in the addiction process that you can intervene and get someone help, the more they have to live for, the more they have to get better for.”

People don't need treatment. They just need willpower.

It is extremely hard for people addicted to drugs and alcohol to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. Research shows that addiction actually changes people’s brain function, making it increasingly difficult to quit without effective treatment. Providing effective prevention and early intervention to help stop substance abuse early is important, because children and teens become addicted to drugs faster than adults and risk greater physical, mental, and psychological harm.

Treatment just doesn't work.

There has been improvement in drug and alcohol treatment. Today, there are numerous effective addiction treatments available. Studies show that treatment reduces relapse rates and can significantly decrease criminal activity during and after treatment. There is also evidence that addiction treatment reduces the risk of infectious disease, hepatitis C, and HIV infection and improves the prospects for getting and keeping a job up to 40%.

People can successfully finish substance abuse treatment in a couple of weeks if they're truly motivated.

The right length of treatment for any individual depends on many factors. It is important to have a thorough evaluation with a qualified addiction professional. Research shows that failing to complete the length of treatment that is recommended for you is associated with a higher rate of relapse. Thus, if your treatment professional recommends a longer treatment based on her evaluation, it is important to follow their advice. Follow-up supervision and support are essential. In all recovery programs, the best predictor of success is completing the full treatment and continuing to attend aftercare.

People who continue substance abuse after treatment are hopeless.

Completing a treatment program is merely the first step in a recovery process that can last a lifetime. Addiction is a chronic disorder, and like other chronic illnesses, people may have relapses. Stress at work, family problems, and social and environmental cues can trigger a relapse. People who are addicted are most vulnerable to a relapse during the few months immediately following their release from treatment. Recovery is a long process and frequently requires multiple treatment attempts before complete and consistent sobriety can be achieved. Relapse prevention strategies learned in treatment can help people with addictions reduce the chance of a relapse, and help them manage relapses more effectively to get back on track sooner.

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