Addiction develops when a person begins to use a substance or engage in a certain activity compulsively, and in a way that harms them. Those with an addiction don't have control over their own actions - their life is ruled by their addiction, and they feel trapped and helpless, unable to quit or reduce their addiction.

Alcohol and drugs are the most common and often the most harmful addictions, but an addiction could be virtually anything. The most widespread addictions include:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs, whether illicit or prescription
  • Gambling
  • Smoking
  • Eating disorders
  • Sex and porn
  • Internet
  • Gaming

Signs and Symptoms

The main factor that distinguishes addiction from regular substance use is the aspect of control. An addicted individual cannot control their addiction and behaviors without help. There can be both physical and mental obstacles in the way of a person's ability to deal with their addiction.

Some signs of addiction can include:

  • Strong urges, obsessive thoughts, and cravings for the addictive substance or behavior
  • Failed attempts to stop or decrease the addiction
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Spending money that should be used for other things on an addiction
  • Failure to meet obligations and responsibilities as a result of the addiction
  • Denying or ignoring harmful effects of the addiction
  • Engaging in the addiction at unusual or dangerous times (for example, drinking in the mornings or using drugs while driving or at work)
  • Lying about or concealing the addiction
  • Engaging in the addiction even after acknowledging it harms health and wellbeing
  • Loss of interest in previous activities and hobbies
  • Taking risks to continue engaging in the addiction
  • Increased mental health problems like depression, anxiety, paranoia, or mood swings

In the cases of alcohol, drugs, smoking, or other forms of substance abuse, signs and symptoms can include:

  • Increased tolerance (needing to use more of the substance for the same effects)
  • Engaging in risky or dangerous activities under the influence
  • Excessive consumption of the substance
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms, which can include:
    • Strong cravings
    • Moodiness, irritation, depression, and anxiety
    • Insomnia
    • Increased appetite
    • Constipation or diarrhea
    • Trembling, shaking, and sweating
    • Seizures, hallucinations

Not all addicts will display all of these symptoms. Some people are 'functioning addicts', for example, who can continue to manage their work or school responsibilities and keep their addiction secret from family members and loved ones. Addiction may be even more insidious in high-functioning addicts, however, as denial and refusal of treatment can continue for years. A high-functioning addict is still a danger both to themselves and to loved ones around them.

If you think a loved one may be experiencing addiction [link to support page], signs to look for include unexplained changes in mood, lifestyle, personality, relationships, behavior, or performance at work and school.


Long term addiction can lead to the loss of loved ones, finances, relationships, and careers. Addiction can completely destroy a person's lifestyle and normal living, and addictions to substances like drugs, alcohol, or nicotine can seriously impact physical health. Addiction is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., and the physical consequences of substance addiction can include:

  • Weakened immune system, leading to higher risk of infections and diseases
  • Organ damage, such as liver damage or failure in alcoholics
  • Fertility issues or birth defects
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Seizures, stroke, and brain damage
  • Cardiovascular issues such as heart attacks and increased heart rate

Long-term addiction and substance abuse changes brain structure, sometimes permanently. For those who receive treatment for a serious long-term addiction, recovery becomes a lifelong process that involves constantly managing triggers which could lead to relapse.

Causes and Risk Factors

While anybody can become addicted to a substance or activity, certain risk factors make some more prone to addiction. Individuals with high risk factors can become addicted to a substance even if they consume or use it as the same rate as a non-addict. Risk factors for developing addiction include:

  • Genetics: Having a close relative with an addiction highly increases the risk of developing addiction.
  • Gender: Males are twice as likely to develop an addiction.
  • Age: Research has shown that individuals who start consuming substances or engaging in addictive behaviors early in life have a higher chance of developing an addiction.
  • Stress: Substance abuse or addiction can be used as a coping method to deal with underlying stress. Research has also shown that certain stress hormones are linked to the development of alcoholism.
  • External factors: Surroundings which encourage the addiction, such as negative peer groups who support substance abuse.
  • Metabolism: Individuals who metabolize or process drugs or alcohol faster have a higher risk of developing a substance addiction, as individuals with a high tolerance need a higher dose to feel the same effects as others.
  • Mental health: ADHD, depression, and other mental health conditions are linked to an increased risk for developing addiction.

Addiction often has an underlying cause that spurs the individual towards their behaviors. Addicts can engage in their addiction to cope with underlying stress or psychological problems, and a comprehensive addiction treatment program will involve tackling underlying issues through psychotherapy or counseling.

How addiction affects the brain

Addiction has visible effects on the brain, mainly in the limbic system, which is responsible for feelings of rewards and pleasure. When an action or substance induces pleasure, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Drugs and addictive substances cause an especially intense and sudden flood of dopamine to the brain, releasing up to 10 times as much dopamine as natural behaviors. The brain, unable to compete with these high levels of dopamine, will eventually become unable to generate normal levels of the neurotransmitter, resulting in cravings for the substance in order to heighten dopamine levels. Research has found that the speed and intensity of dopamine release is highly correlated with how addictive that substance is.

It's hypothesized that dopamine interacts with glutamate, a neurotransmitter responsible for learning and reward-related habit building. Addictions, whether to substances or activities, stimulate and overload this reward system, which is usually responsible for correlating pleasure with activities necessary for survival such as sex and food. After repeated stimulation, brain chemistry in the nucleus accumbens changes and the brain begins to see the addiction as something that's needed. The brain will then evoke processes which motivate the individual to seek more of the addiction, leading to cravings, compulsive use, and withdrawal symptoms.


Though addiction can seem inescapable, there are a variety of effective, clinically-affirmed treatments that can help individuals recover from their addiction. Effective treatments often use a combination of several methods for a more comprehensive approach, and possible treatments can include:

  • Medication
  • Detox and rehab
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or other types of psychotherapy
  • 12-step programs
  • Group therapy programs such as AA or Narcotics Anonymous
  • Drug education
  • Medication for possible underlying mental health problems like depression

Drug addiction or alcoholism can lead to the possibility of serious withdrawal symptoms developing if substance use is stopped "cold turkey". Withdrawal symptoms include delirium, seizures, heart attacks, strokes, or hallucinations, so attempts at self-treatment for an addiction could be very dangerous. Addiction can be treated by addiction specialists or other healthcare professionals - a professional may decide that dedicated medical care like detox or medication is necessary.