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Addiction | Definition, Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Addiction | Definition, Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Article Contents

About 35 million people worldwide suffer from addiction. Also called substance use disorder, this disease can lead to serious health problems, including overdose. 

If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, it’s important to learn all you can about it. 

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease that makes you feel unable to control your use of a drug. Like other chronic diseases, it can cause significant impairment in your daily life. Fortunately, it’s treatable. 

Some people become addicted to illegal drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. Others become addicted to prescription drugs, including opioid painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone. 

Other substances that may cause addiction include:

  • alcohol
  • nicotine
  • prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin
  • benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Klonopin
  • barbiturates, such as Nembutal and Luminal
  • inhalants
  • cannabis (marijuana)

Is Addiction A Choice?

In most cases, people choose to start using drugs. However, drug use can quickly lead to drug addiction, which isn’t a choice but a disease.

Addiction causes changes in parts of the brain associated with decision-making, memory, judgment, and behavior control. These changes make it extremely difficult for someone to stop using drugs even if they want to.

Learn more about How Addiction Changes The Brain

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction doesn’t have one specific cause. However, scientists have identified multiple risk factors that make a person more likely to develop the disease. These risk factors include: 

Environment

You may face a higher risk of addiction if you’ve experienced abuse, neglect, or poverty, especially during childhood. 

Children who lack parental supervision, witness drug abuse or addiction, or experience peer pressure to try drugs also face a high risk of addiction. 

Genetics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), your genes contribute to between 40% and 60% of your risk for addiction. That’s why some people can use alcohol in moderation for decades, while others quickly develop a drinking problem.

Learn more about Addiction & Genetics

Emotional & Mental Health

Many people use drugs to cope with emotional problems like stress, grief, and loneliness or mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 

Drug use may temporarily ease these issues. Over time, though, it will likely worsen them and cause addiction. 

Early Drug Use

During childhood and adolescence, your brain is still developing. If you use drugs during this time, you may experience brain changes that increase your risk of addiction. 

Smoking Or Injecting Drugs

All forms of drug abuse can lead to addiction. However, smoking or injecting a drug into a vein raises the risk. That’s because these methods deliver an intense yet short high. 

To maintain the high for longer, some people use these methods over and over in a short span of time, which often causes addiction. 

Risks Of Addiction

The risks of addiction can vary depending on the person and the drug(s) used. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), common risks of addiction include:

  • liver damage
  • sexual dysfunction 
  • brain damage
  • memory loss
  • seizures
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Addiction also increases the risk of overdose. Common signs of overdose include:

  • enlarged pupils
  • trouble breathing
  • increased body temperature
  • seizures
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • loss of consciousness

Seek emergency health services if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms. 

Symptoms Of Addiction

The most common symptoms of addiction are tolerance and physical dependence.

Tolerance means your body becomes less sensitive to the drug over time. You’ll then need increasingly higher and more frequent doses to feel the desired effects.

Physical dependence means your body relies on the drug to function normally. Without the drug, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • intense drug cravings
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • mood swings
  • trouble sleeping
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • body aches
  • hallucinations (feeling, hearing, or seeing things that aren’t there) 
  • confusion 

Learn about How To Safely Manage Withdrawal

Other common symptoms of addiction include:

  • withdrawing from friends and family members
  • neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • needing the drug to feel normal
  • feeling unable to stop using the drug despite harmful consequences
  • acting irritable, angry, anxious, or paranoid
  • sleeping more or less frequently 
  • losing or gaining weight
  • borrowing or stealing money
  • neglecting personal hygiene 

If you or someone you love shows these symptoms, seek medical advice. 

Addiction Treatment Options

For most people, recovery from addiction starts with medical detox.

During medical detox, a team of health care professionals will help you gradually stop using drugs and monitor your withdrawal symptoms. They may prescribe medications, such as anti-nausea medicine or sleep aids, to make withdrawal more comfortable. 

Once you complete detox, you can enter an inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Inpatient programs are recommended for people with moderate-to-severe addictions, as they offer 24/7 care. Outpatient programs may work for people with mild addictions and strong support systems at home. 

Whether inpatient or outpatient, treatment programs provide services such as:

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

If you’re addicted to opioids, alcohol, or nicotine, your treatment plan may include medication-assisted treatment (MAT). That means doctors will prescribe medications to make your recovery easier. These medications may include:

  • methadone, which can reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms
  • naltrexone, which can block the pleasant effects of alcohol and opioids 
  • bupropion, which can reduce cravings for nicotine 

Therapy

Therapy can help you understand the reasons for your drug use and identify triggers. Triggers are people, places, feelings, or things that make you want to use drugs. When you know your triggers, you can avoid them or develop coping strategies for when you encounter them.

Learn more about Addiction Triggers 

The most common types of therapy for drug addiction include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy, where you can learn to manage thoughts and feelings that contribute to your drug use
  • group therapy, where you can share your experiences with other people who are recovering from addiction
  • family therapy, where you and your loved ones can learn to more effectively navigate your recovery 
  • motivational interviewing, where you can become more motivated to maintain recovery
  • contingency management, where you can receive rewards, such as gift cards, as you progress in your recovery

Support Groups

Like group therapy, support groups allow you to connect with people facing similar challenges. However, group therapy teaches you how to stop using drugs, whereas support groups focus more on maintaining recovery. 

In addition, while group therapy usually lasts a few weeks or months, support groups often meet for years. Thus, they can help you maintain recovery long after you leave your treatment program.

Aftercare Planning

Before you complete treatment, you can work with your treatment team to design a personalized aftercare plan to help prevent relapse. Depending on your needs, your plan may include strategies such as:

  • ongoing therapy
  • support groups
  • wellness activities like exercise, meditation, and journaling
  • psychiatry if you need medications to treat mental health concerns that contribute to your drug use
  • assistance with housing and/or employment

Even if you have a strong aftercare plan, relapsing is a common part of recovery. It doesn’t mean that treatment failed or that you’ll never recover. It just means you need to talk to your doctor about restarting treatment or trying a different treatment approach. 

To learn more about addiction treatment options, please reach out to a Recovering Champions specialist today. 

Written by Recovering Champions Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Drug Misuse and Addiction
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Physical and Psychological Effects of Substance Use
United Nations - World Drug Report 2019: 35 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders while only 1 in 7 people receive treatment
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Drug Use and Addiction

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