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Drug addiction (substance use disorder)

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Oct 4, 2022.

Overview

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 medicine. 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 when they take prescribed medicines or receive them from others who have prescriptions.

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. Attempts to stop drug use may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill. These are called withdrawal symptoms.

Help from your health care provider, family, friends, support groups or an organized treatment program can help you overcome your drug addiction and stay drug-free.

Symptoms

Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

Recognizing unhealthy drug use in family members

Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or anxiety from signs of drug use. Possible signs that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:

Recognizing signs of drug use or intoxication

Signs and symptoms of drug use or intoxication may vary, depending on the type of drug. Below you'll find several examples.

Marijuana, hashish and other cannabis-containing substances

People use cannabis by smoking, eating or inhaling a vaporized form of the drug. Cannabis often precedes or is used along with other substances, such as alcohol or illegal drugs, and is often the first drug tried.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Long-term use is often associated with:

K2, Spice and bath salts

Two groups of synthetic drugs — synthetic cannabinoids and substituted or synthetic cathinones — are illegal in most states. The effects of these drugs can be dangerous and unpredictable, as there is no quality control and some ingredients may not be known.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called K2 or Spice, are sprayed on dried herbs and then smoked, but can be prepared as an herbal tea. A liquid form can be vaporized in electronic cigarettes. Despite manufacturer claims, these are chemical compounds rather than "natural" or harmless products. These drugs can produce a "high" similar to marijuana and have become a popular but dangerous alternative.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Substituted cathinones, also called "bath salts," are mind-altering (psychoactive) substances similar to amphetamines such as ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine. Packages are often labeled as other products to avoid detection.

Despite the name, these are not bath products such as Epsom salts. Substituted cathinones can be eaten, snorted, inhaled or injected and are highly addictive. These drugs can cause severe intoxication, which results in dangerous health effects or even death.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Barbiturates, benzodiazepines and hypnotics

Barbiturates, benzodiazepines and hypnotics are prescription central nervous system depressants. They're often used and misused in search for a sense of relaxation or a desire to "switch off" or forget stress-related thoughts or feelings.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Meth, cocaine and other stimulants

Stimulants include amphetamines, meth (methamphetamine), cocaine, methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, others) and amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (Adderall XR, Mydayis). They're often used and misused in search of a "high," or to boost energy, to improve performance at work or school, or to lose weight or control appetite.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Club drugs

Club drugs are commonly used at clubs, concerts and parties. Examples include methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also called MDMA, ecstasy or molly, and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, known as GHB. Other examples include ketamine and flunitrazepam or Rohypnol — a brand used outside the U.S. — also called roofie. These drugs are not all in the same category, but they share some similar effects and dangers, including long-term harmful effects.

Because GHB and flunitrazepam can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, confusion and memory loss, the potential for sexual misconduct or sexual assault is associated with the use of these drugs.

Signs and symptoms of use of club drugs can include:

Hallucinogens

Use of hallucinogens can produce different signs and symptoms, depending on the drug. The most common hallucinogens are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine (PCP).

LSD use may cause:

PCP use may cause:

Inhalants

Signs and symptoms of inhalant use vary, depending on the substance. Some commonly inhaled substances include glue, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt tip marker fluid, gasoline, cleaning fluids and household aerosol products. Due to the toxic nature of these substances, users may develop brain damage or sudden death.

Signs and symptoms of use can include:

Opioid painkillers

Opioids are narcotic, painkilling drugs produced from opium or made synthetically. This class of drugs includes, among others, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone, fentanyl and oxycodone.

Sometimes called the "opioid epidemic," addiction to opioid prescription pain medicines has reached an alarming rate across the United States. Some people who've been using opioids over a long period of time may need physician-prescribed temporary or long-term drug substitution during treatment.

Signs and symptoms of narcotic use and dependence can include:

When to see a doctor

If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, get help. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances for a long-term recovery. Talk with your health care provider or see a mental health provider, such as a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

Make an appointment to see a provider if:

If you're not ready to approach a health care provider or mental health professional, help lines or hotlines may be a good place to learn about treatment. You can find these lines listed on the internet or in the phone book.

When to seek emergency help

Seek emergency help if you or someone you know has taken a drug and:

Staging an intervention

People struggling with addiction usually deny they have a problem and hesitate to seek treatment. An intervention presents a loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.

It's important to plan an intervention carefully. It may be done by family and friends in consultation with a health care provider or mental health professional such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or directed by an intervention professional. It involves family and friends and sometimes co-workers, clergy or others who care about the person struggling with addiction.

During the intervention, these people gather together to have a direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the person about the consequences of addiction. Then they ask the person to accept treatment.

Causes

Like many mental health disorders, several factors may contribute to development of drug addiction. The main factors are:

Changes in the brain

Physical addiction appears to occur when repeated use of a drug changes the way your brain feels pleasure. The addicting drug causes physical changes to some nerve cells (neurons) in your brain. Neurons use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. These changes can remain long after you stop using the drug.

Risk factors

People of any age, sex or economic status can become addicted to a drug. Certain factors can affect the likelihood and speed of developing an addiction:

Complications

Drug use can have significant and damaging short-term and long-term effects. Taking some drugs can be particularly risky, especially if you take high doses or combine them with other drugs or alcohol. Here are some examples.

Other life-changing complications

Dependence on drugs can create a number of dangerous and damaging complications, including:

Prevention

The best way to prevent an addiction to a drug is not to take the drug at all. If your health care provider prescribes a drug with the potential for addiction, use care when taking the drug and follow instructions.

Health care providers should prescribe these medicines at safe doses and amounts and monitor their use so that you're not given too great a dose or for too long a time. If you feel you need to take more than the prescribed dose of a medicine, talk to your health care provider.

Preventing drug misuse in children and teenagers

Take these steps to help prevent drug misuse in your children and teenagers:

Preventing a relapse

Once you've been addicted to a drug, you're at high risk of falling back into a pattern of addiction. If you do start using the drug, it's likely you'll lose control over its use again — even if you've had treatment and you haven't used the drug for some time.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing drug addiction (substance use disorder) requires a thorough evaluation and often includes an assessment by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. Blood, urine or other lab tests are used to assess drug use, but they're not a diagnostic test for addiction. However, these tests may be used for monitoring treatment and recovery.

For diagnosis of a substance use disorder, most mental health professionals use criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Treatment

Although there's no cure for drug addiction, treatment options can help you overcome an addiction and stay drug-free. Your treatment depends on the drug used and any related medical or mental health disorders you may have. Long-term follow-up is important to prevent relapse.

Treatment programs

Treatment programs for substance use disorder usually offer:

Withdrawal therapy

The goal of detoxification, also called "detox" or withdrawal therapy, is to enable you to stop taking the addicting drug as quickly and safely as possible. For some people, it may be safe to undergo withdrawal therapy on an outpatient basis. Others may need admission to a hospital or a residential treatment center.

Withdrawal from different categories of drugs — such as depressants, stimulants or opioids — produces different side effects and requires different approaches. Detox may involve gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

Opioid overdose

In an opioid overdose, a medicine called naloxone can be given by emergency responders, or in some states, by anyone who witnesses an overdose. Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of opioid drugs.

While naloxone has been on the market for years, a nasal spray (Narcan, Kloxxado) and an injectable form are now available, though they can be very expensive. Whatever the method of delivery, seek immediate medical care after using naloxone.

Medicine as part of treatment

After discussion with you, your health care provider may recommend medicine as part of your treatment for opioid addiction. Medicines don't cure your opioid addiction, but they can help in your recovery. These medicines can reduce your craving for opioids and may help you avoid relapse. Medicine treatment options for opioid addiction may include buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone, and a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

Behavior therapy

As part of a drug treatment program, behavior therapy — a form of psychotherapy — can be done by a psychologist or psychiatrist, or you may receive counseling from a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. Therapy and counseling may be done with an individual, a family or a group. The therapist or counselor can:

Self-help groups

Many, though not all, self-help support groups use the 12-step model first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Self-help support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, help people who are addicted to drugs.

The self-help support group message is that addiction is an ongoing disorder with a danger of relapse. Self-help support groups can decrease the sense of shame and isolation that can lead to relapse.

Your therapist or licensed counselor can help you locate a self-help support group. You may also find support groups in your community or on the internet.

Ongoing treatment

Even after you've completed initial treatment, ongoing treatment and support can help prevent a relapse. Follow-up care can include periodic appointments with your counselor, continuing in a self-help program or attending a regular group session. Seek help right away if you relapse.

Coping and support

Overcoming an addiction and staying drug-free require a persistent effort. Learning new coping skills and knowing where to find help are essential. Taking these actions can help:

Preparing for an appointment

It may help to get an independent perspective from someone you trust and who knows you well. You can start by discussing your substance use with your primary care provider. Or ask for a referral to a specialist in drug addiction, such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or a psychiatrist or psychologist. Take a relative or friend along.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Before your appointment, be prepared:

Some questions to ask your provider may include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your provider is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

Be ready to answer questions so you'll have more time to go over any points you want to focus on.

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