Drug addiction is a complex, dangerous and difficult-to-manage disease. It is characterized by mental and physical dependency on drugs or medications and an inability to stop using those substances even when they begin to negatively affect the addict's health, relationships and general well being.

A drug is defined as a medicine or other chemical substance that has a physiological effect on the central nervous system when introduced into the body.The brain-altering, highly addictive effects of drugs can make quitting extremely difficult, both physically and mentally, even if the abuser is ready and willing to stop using drugs. Drug addiction is the second most common type of addiction, and whether the abused drug is a legal prescription drug or an illegal drug, addiction can lead to very serious negative mental and physical health effects.

Studies have identified certain drugs as significantly more addicting than others, causing faster development of dependence and tolerance and resulting in more intense withdrawal symptoms. A study by David Nutt published in the medical journal The Lancet, Psychoactive drugs of misuse: rationalising the irrational rates the five most dangerous drugs as:

  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Barbiturates
  • Street methadone
  • Alcohol

The decision to take a drug for the first time is generally voluntary for most people and often occurs in a social situation. The changes that occur in the brain over, even a short period of use, impairs an addict's self-control and ability to resist the impulse to continue using the drug, leading to increased doses and usage.

Signs and Symptoms

Every drug has different mental and physical consequences, but the symptoms of addiction remain similar across all drugs:

  • Intense cravings and urges for the drug on a regular basis
  • Failure to fulfill obligations and responsibilities because of drug use
  • Drug use in unusual and dangerous situations
  • Lack of control and failure in attempts to quit using the drug
  • Continuing to use drugs even after acknowledging negative effects and consequences
  • Increased tolerance level
  • Legal problems or problems with relationships, school, or work because of drug use
  • Loss of interest in socializing, hobbies, and other previously enjoyed activities
  • Buying the drug even when it can't be afforded
  • Doing anything to get the drug, even things that are illegal or would not normally be done (stealing, etc.)
  • Going out of the way to make sure to maintain an ample supply of the drug
  • Neglecting appearance and personal health
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using drugs


The majority of drugs target the brain and central nervous system, flooding them with dopamine. Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. It also is instrumental in regulating emotional responses and movement. Drug use can alter important brain circuitry that is essential for life-sustaining functions. These changes also drive the need for compulsive drug abuse that defines addiction.

In addition to changes in the brain, drug addiction's impact can be extensive. Most effects occur after long-term use or when the dose level increases to high amounts, but some can occur after as little as one use. Drug abuse can also have effects on organs and produce changes throughout the body as well as have numerous other adverse health effects, including:

  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Hepatitis
  • Lung Disease
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increase in body temperature
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Cold Flashes
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Weakened immune system
  • Liver failure
  • Seizures

The consequences of drug addiction are not limited to an addict's health. It can also have an impact on behavior, leading to problems in every aspect of an addict's life. These behavioral changes can quickly spread and begin to negatively affect the people around them. The behavioral effects of drug addiction include:

  • Paranoia
  • Aggressiveness, possibly leading to uncharacteristically violent behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired judgment
  • Impulsiveness
  • Loss of self-control

Causes and Risk Factors

Drug addiction cannot be predicted based on any one single factor alone. Addiction is influenced by numerous factors and the more risk factors an individual possesses the greater the likelihood that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction. There are two main groups of risk factors, genetics and environment. Together they account for about half of an individual's vulnerability to drug addiction. Risk factors include:

  • Genetics and family history, including gender and ethnicity
  • Mental illness
  • Peer Pressure
  • Abuse (physical or sexual)
  • Stress
  • Quality of parenting
  • Age at which drug use begins


Too often drug addiction goes untreated. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health only 10.4% of the 23.2 million Americans suffering from drug addiction receive the treatment they need. Since drug addiction is so complex and affects many different aspects of an addict's life, finding the correct treatment can be very difficult. The chronic nature of drug addiction makes it impossible for an addict to simply stop using drugs for a short period of time and become completely cured. An effective treatment tends to incorporate multiple components that are directed specifically at different aspects of the addiction.

Treatment should not only be targeted at helping the addict stop using drugs, but also focus on helping them maintain a drug-free lifestyle and become a contributing member of society. Help and support from family, friends and loved ones is crucial to the ongoing success of the treatment. Many addicts will require long-term or repeated treatment attempts to finally achieve a full recovery from addiction. It is critical that the recovering addict remains in treatment for an adequate amount of time or relapse is almost certain.

Convincing an addict that they need help can be difficult. An intervention can be an excellent approach to breach the subject. A professional intervention specialist can be enlisted to ensure the intervention is handled appropriately. Remember, however, that treatment does not need to be voluntary in order to be successful.

Withdrawal from the use of drugs has serious side effects and medically assisted detoxification is necessary. Many addicts also suffer from other mental disorders, which can be assessed and treated at this time as well. Medical assistance will ensure the addict receives the proper care and attention they need during this difficult first step.

Medications combined with behavioral therapy are the keys to a process that begins with detox and is followed by treatment and relapse prevention. Medication can be used to ease withdrawal symptoms, help reestablish normal brain function and reduce cravings that can result in relapse. Addicts who only attempt medical treatment and do not receive any other treatment are just as likely to relapse as addicts who never sought treatment at all.

Behavioral treatment enhances the effectiveness of any medications and greatly reduces the chances of relapse by encouraging the recovering addict to engage in the treatment process. Most behavioral treatment programs involve counseling, individually or in a group setting. Some programs also utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), multidimensional family therapy, motivational interviewing, or motivational incentives. Residential programs are sometimes used for recovering addicts with severe problems. Therapeutic communities, for example, focus on reintroducing the recovering addict into a social environment that is safe and drug-free.

Staying sober is not a solo commitment. Addiction, by its nature tends to isolate an addict, thus recovery requires a support network to be successful. Along with help and support from loved ones, finding a support group that can help with the recovery process is essential. A support group can help to recognize issues before they are a problem, offer moral support, help develop control, reduce stress and depression, provide an opportunity to develop positive friendships and much more. You are not alone, ask for help if you need it and remember to reward yourself when appropriate in a way that does not undermine your recovery.