What Is Drug Addiction?

million people receive age 12 or older require treatment for substance abuse problems yearlyNational Institute on Drug Abuse

Drug addiction is a chronic mental disease that occurs when the consumption of drugs becomes compulsive and involuntary due to changes in brain function. Driven by the abuse of addictive substances, these changes are caused by disruption to regularly functioning parts of the brain that regulate motivation, memory and cognitive skills, leading to harmful and erratic behavior. If left unchecked, addiction can cause long-lasting mental health issues, damage to the body, and even death.

While drug addiction can sometimes be difficult for friends and family to understand, it is preventable and can be treated. Due to the nature of addiction, it can be very difficult or impossible for an addicted person to stop taking the drug on their own, making it vital that they receive the proper treatment and support.

Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs in the U.S.

What to Do If Someone You Know Becomes Addicted

If you suspect that yourself or someone you know has developed a drug addiction, it’s vital that you seek immediate help. The sooner you ask for help, the more likely long-term recovery becomes.

The sooner you ask for help, the more likely long-term recovery becomes.

Due to the high risk of relapse, drug addiction treatment is a complex process. Steps involve helping the patient to stop using the drug, preventing a relapse, and assisting in re-integrating the patient socially and professionally. Most chronic drug-use patients require long-term, highly disciplined care to get on the path to recovery and regain control over their lives.

Counseling and behavioral therapies are among the most common and effective methods for treating drug addiction. These programs can help modify patterns of drug use, change a patient’s attitude toward recovery, and improve their quality of life. Attending a support group can be similarly beneficial, since these groups allow people to share their experiences and help each other beat addiction and stay sober.

Staging an intervention may also help. An intervention is a structured meeting, often involving friends and family members, designed to convince a person affected by addiction to quit using a substance or seek help. While difficult, an intervention can help a person struggling with drug addiction to see how their behavior is affecting those around them, often prompting them to take action.

There is no single treatment that is effective for everyone. Finding the support and treatment that’s right for you is the key to overcoming addiction.

Drug Addiction Recovery Resources

Agency / OrganizationContact Details
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)


Dual Recovery Anonymous
SMART Recovery
Secular Organizations for Sobriety
Narcotics Anonymous

Effects of Drug Addiction

Abusing drugs (both illegal drugs and prescription medications) can cause a person’s brain metabolism to decrease and the circuits in their to brain behave differently. Over time, this makes it incredibly difficult to stop taking the drug, causing a person to become addicted.

Drug addiction leads to increasingly unpredictable changes in behavior that can affect decision-making, nutrition, personal relationships, and a person’s career. It can also have serious, long-term effects on a person’s health.

The effects of drug addiction can include:

  • Dramatic shifts in appetite, alertness, mood, and behavior
  • Overdose
  • Psychosis
  • Mental illness(es)
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Hepititis
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Death

Drug addiction is also a relapsing disease, meaning a person may return to addictive behavior after trying to stop. It is important that they receive the right support throughout the process of getting sober to help them beat their addiction for good.

Despite advancements in the study of addiction as a serious health condition, some still consider it to be a moral issue and believe it should be combatted with public shaming and criminal punishment. Modern scientific research has provided a better understanding of the effects addiction has on neurochemistry and on the emotional and behavioral states of those affected. This has led to better strategies for treatment, education, and prevention of this debilitating mental disease.

Common Causes of Drug Addiction

Most initial drug use is voluntary. There are many reasons why people start abusing drugs, and some drugs are more addictive than others.

In some cases, a person may begin using drugs to feel euphoria, joy, or excitement, or to reduce feelings of depression or boredom. This is often the case with illegal substances, like heroin and cocaine, which produce a quick and addictive high. Some people feel pressured to try a drug because their friends are trying it, or assume that trying it once is safe. But even trying a drug once can create a greater desire to feel the same effects again, which can quickly spiral into addiction.

Many cases of drug addiction do not begin with illegal drug use and can be accidental. In recent years, cases of prescription painkiller abuse have been on the rise, with opioid use being flagged as especially addictive. Patients are often prescribed opioid painkillers and other drugs to treat ailments like pain and stress, and can become addicted if they take the drug for too long or too often. When the prescription runs out, some patients struggling with addiction turn to illegal drugs that are more easily accessible, like heroin.

Risk Factors for Drug Addiction

While there is often no way to know whether a person will become addicted to a drug, there are certain risk factors for addiction. Genetic predisposition can play a large part, with scientists estimating that as much as 60% of a person’s susceptibility to addiction may be genetic.

Drug Addiction Risk Factors

  • Genetics
  • Lack of parental supervision in youth
  • Peers or family members that abuse drugs
  • Physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
  • Involvement in criminal activities
  • Poverty
  • Poor academic performance
  • Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety

Warning Signs of Drug Addiction

The type of drug taken and the method used to administer the drug can also factor into addiction. Some drugs, like cocaine and opioid painkillers, have highly addictive properties and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that can quickly lead someone to develop an addiction. Injecting or smoking a drug can also increase the likelihood of addiction, since this creates an instant high. Swallowing a drug, on the other hand, produces much slower effects, but this can still become addictive.

If you have been taking drugs (prescription or otherwise) and are concerned you may be developing an addiction, there are certain warning signs you should look out for. These include:

  • A regular, intense urge to take drugs
  • Needing to take larger and larger quantities of the drug to achieve a similar state of euphoria, pain relief, or well being
  • Decreased socialization
  • Feelings of apathy towards work or family obligations
  • Keeping drugs close at all times
  • Loss of sleep or appetite
  • Continuing to use drugs after attempts to stop

These warning signs are harder to spot in others, as people struggling with drug addiction can become secretive to hide their drug use. If you suspect that someone you love may have a drug addiction, it’s important to seek help to get them the treatment they need. Warning signs include:

Signs of Substance Abuse

  • Erratic behavior
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Pupils that appear very small or like pinpoints, even in dim light
  • Signs of intravenous drug use, including track marks on the person’s skin and the presence of syringes and/or burnt spoons in their home
  • Slurring or incoherent speech or writing
  • Sudden changes in physical appearance, including weight loss
  • Changes in personal hygiene and grooming
  • Lethargic behavior or loss of motivation
  • Being frequently late or absent from work, school, or home
  • A drop in work productivity or school grades
  • Excessive secrecy and privacy
  • Unusual or frequent requests for money
  • Stealing money from a loved one
  • Spending more money than usual and/or selling personal items
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering simple details

The signs and symptoms of drug addiction depending on the type of drug involved. If you suspect someone you love may have a problem with drugs, it’s best to seek help even if you aren’t sure.

Preventing Drug Addiction

The best way to prevent drug addiction is to avoid drugs altogether, where possible. While prescription medication is often necessary to treat pain, illegal drugs should be avoided at all costs. The use of these drugs is addictive, dangerous, and can result in serious penalties, including prison time.

Certain factors can decrease the likelihood that a young person will develop a drug addiction in their lifetime. These include:

  • Strong parental guidance or mentoring
  • Positive relationships with family
  • Good self-discipline
  • Strong academic performance
  • Involvement in extracurricular activities

One of the most effective methods for preventing drug addiction is raising awareness of its damaging effects. Prevention programs in schools and communities have helped to reduce cases of substance abuse and change public perception of those affected.

Early use of addictive substances, including cigarettes and alcohol, can spur the development of drug dependency and addictive behavior. Educating children early about the dangers of these substances can reduce the likelihood that they’ll become addicted and help them say no in situations involving peer pressure.

Risk of drug abuse also surges during difficult life transitions. Some people start using drugs as a coping mechanism during periods of divorce, unemployment, or similarly stressful events. If you are going through a difficult period or know someone who is, make sure you know where to turn for help.

Preventing Addiction to Prescription Painkillers

In recent years, cases of prescription opioid addiction has been on the rise. To combat this, most doctors prescribe opioid painkillers for short-term use only. If your doctor recommends a course of opioid medication, speak to them about the risks, and let them know immediately if you feel you may be developing an addiction.