What Is Addiction? Drug Types, Signs & Treatment

Addiction is a condition that compels people to use substances. There are various drugs that people may become addicted to, and there are several reasons why a person may develop an addiction. However, different forms of treatment are available, including both inpatient and outpatient care.

Many substances, from household cleaning agents to prescription drugs, can impact the brain and have the potential for abuse.

Due to genetic factors and life circumstances, some people are more vulnerable to drug abuse than others.

However, nobody has immunity to drug addiction, especially when using substances that have a high risk of dependence.

Below, we’ll discuss:

  • The definition of addiction
  • Types of substance addictions
  • The causes and signs of addiction
  • Risks of substance abuse
  • The connection between addiction and mental health
  • How to get help

Addiction Definition

An addiction, according to the National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA), is a “chronic, relapsing condition.”

It is a mental health disorder that compels people to abuse drugs, alcohol, or other harmful substances, even when they experience harmful consequences as a result.

The misuse of drugs and alcohol creates physical, long-term changes in the brain that cause intense cravings, physical discomfort, and mental distress when a person cannot access the substance of abuse.

Fortunately, because addiction is a mental health condition, it can be treated with rehabilitation, therapy, and medical care.

Types Of Addiction

People may become addicted to several types of substances, depending on their circumstances and which drugs they have access to.

Different types of drugs, including depressants, stimulants, and opioids, affect the brain in different ways.

A person may be addicted to a single substance, or they may be addicted to multiple drugs. The latter scenario is called polysubstance abuse.

It’s important to note that there are two types of addictions: substance addictions (being addicted to drugs or alcohol) and behavioral addictions (compulsive behaviors, such as sex addiction).

In this article, we will discuss substance addictions only. The following are drug categories with types of substances a person may become addicted to.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Some people erroneously assume that if a drug is prescribed by a doctor, that drug must be completely safe and non-addictive.

In reality, many prescription drugs have a high potential for misuse and addiction. Commonly misused prescription drugs include pain medication, stimulants, and certain anti-anxiety drugs.

A lot of people who take prescription medication wonder if they are addicted to their medication, especially if they stop experiencing benefits when they miss a dose.

However, while the body does get used to the effects a drug provides, a person who takes their medication as prescribed is unlikely to be addicted to that medication.

In contrast, misusing a prescription medication is a potential sign of addiction.

Some methods of prescription drug misuse include:

  • taking higher doses than prescribed
  • taking medication more often than prescribed
  • crushing or snorting pills
  • using another person’s medication
  • seeing multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions for the same medication (this is known as “doctor shopping”)
  • combining medications with alcohol or other drugs to enhance their effects

All patients should discuss the risks and benefits of their medication with their doctors.

For patients who are particularly vulnerable to addiction, doctors may prescribe medications with less potential for abuse.

Benzodiazepine Drug Abuse

Benzodiazepines, which are sometimes called “benzos,” are prescribed to treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia.

These drugs are both sedatives and hypnotics, and they work by increasing a neurotransmitter called “GABA,” which calms the central nervous system (CNS).

Benzodiazepines are especially effective at calming short, intense forms of anxiety, such as panic attacks. They begin to work quickly and provide relief in under an hour.

Many doctors who prescribe benzodiazepines do so as a short-term treatment. When taken long-term, benzodiazepines carry a high risk for physical dependence and withdrawal.

Some examples of benzodiazepines include:

Depressant Drug Abuse

Depressants are a class of drugs that slow down CNS activity. People often take depressant drugs to achieve a sense of calmness and relaxation.

Depressants have physical effects on the body as well, including reduced heart rate and slowed brain activity.

In high enough doses, some depressant drugs can create a sense of euphoria.

Some people who deal with polysubstance abuse may combine depressants with stimulants as a way to counteract or “cancel out” the less desirable physical effects of these drugs.

However, combining drugs, including stimulants and depressants, increases the risk of overdose and other negative health outcomes.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is the most common form of substance abuse in the United States.

Often served at parties and gatherings, alcohol is often desired for its inhibition-lowering effects.

According to a NIDA report on alcohol statistics, about 14.5 million people in the United States have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is sometimes called “alcoholism.”

The same report reveals that less than 10% of people with an AUD received treatment within the past year of being surveyed.

Marijuana Addiction

Although marijuana is illegal on a federal level, it has been legalized in several states, either for recreational or medical use.

This drug, which comes from hemp plants, creates a sense of relaxation and euphoria, as well as increased appetite.

Some people who abuse marijuana develop a marijuana addiction.

Opioid Abuse

Opioids, or opiates, are drugs that are often taken for pain relief. They work by attaching to the brain’s opioid receptors, and that interaction blocks pain signals.

Although opioids are highly effective for short-term pain relief, they also create euphoria, and as a result, these drugs are addictive.

According to a recent opioid study, three million adults in the United States have either dealt with or are currently dealing with an opioid use disorder.

Most opioids in the U.S. are prescription medications.

Some of the most common prescription opioids include:

Illicit Opioid Abuse

Illicit opioids are any opioids that are produced illegally.

Illicit opioid abuse, such as heroin abuse, creates the same effects as prescription opioid misuse, including pain relief and euphoria.

When the U.S. government began setting limitations on prescription opioids, many people who could no longer obtain their pain medication switched to using heroin instead.

Although heroin shares similarities with prescription opioids, it also carries additional dangers. Because heroin is an illicit and unregulated drug, it may contain additives that harm humans.

Synthetic Opioid Abuse

Natural opioids, such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, are derived from opium poppy plants. Synthetic opioids, in contrast, are created in a lab to mimic the effects of natural opioids.

Most prescription opioids, for example, are synthetic. One type of synthetic opioid is called fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin.

Fentanyl is created in legitimate medical labs and is available with a prescription. Because it is so powerful, it is generally only used for extremely severe pain, such as cancer-related pain.

However, imitation fentanyl is also produced illicitly. It is often mixed with other drugs, usually unbeknownst to the people who purchased those drugs.

This practice is highly dangerous, as fentanyl can cause an overdose even in small amounts. If a person does not know that their drugs contain fentanyl, they may unknowingly consume enough of it to cause a life-threatening or fatal reaction.

Some organizations offer fentanyl test strips as a form of harm reduction. These test strips can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs.

Stimulant Drug Abuse

Stimulants are drugs that speed up activity in the CNS. They increase the brain’s supply of several neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that encourages happiness and energy. Stimulants, when misused, flood the brain with too much dopamine, thus creating a high.

However, with repeated stimulant misuse, the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine. As a result, regular amounts of dopamine will no longer feel like enough.

Therefore, the brain will crave more stimulants, which in turn leads to addiction.

Prescription Stimulants

Some stimulants, such as Adderall, are available via prescription, primarily for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Because people with ADHD do not have enough available dopamine in their brains, prescription stimulants can bring their dopamine levels up to adequate amounts.

In people who do not have ADHD, however, prescription stimulants can increase dopamine to dangerous amounts.

Prescription stimulants are often abused by people who don’t have ADHD to meet tight deadlines, stay awake for long hours, or gain a competitive edge.

Those who abuse these medications can become addicted.

Illicit Stimulants

Other stimulants are illicit drugs. Though they produce similar effects as prescription stimulants, they are unregulated and dangerous.

Some examples of illicit stimulants include:

In rare cases, cocaine and methamphetamine are prescribed for medical conditions. Cocaine’s medical uses include topical anesthesia during dental procedures, and meth may be prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

However, when prescribed, these drugs are synthesized in medical labs and used under doctor supervision.

When created illicitly, they often contain harmful additives, including other drugs such as fentanyl. Fentanyl-laced cocaine significantly increases the risk of a drug overdose.

Illicit meth is made from household chemicals that are not intended for human consumption.

Barbiturate Abuse

Barbiturates belong to the sedative-hypnotic class of drugs.

They were once commonly used to treat anxiety, and although they are still sometimes used for this purpose, they have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Additionally, barbiturates are still prescribed to treat seizures, and they are sometimes used during surgical procedures.

Though barbiturates do have legitimate medical uses, they can also be misused. When used inappropriately, they can cause addiction.

Phenobarbital Abuse

Phenobarbital is an anti-seizure medication that belongs to a group of drugs called barbiturates. These medications, like benzodiazepines, are sedative-hypnotics.

In addition to treating seizures, phenobarbital causes feelings of calmness and relaxation.

Phenobarbital misuse, like other forms of barbiturate misuse, can lead to addiction.

Other Drugs Of Abuse

Many other substances have the potential to cause addiction or physical dependence. These substances can cause physical changes that cause the brain and body to start relying on them.

Some other commonly abused substances include:

  • tobacco
  • hallucinogenic drugs, otherwise known as club drugs (LSD, MDMA, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms)
  • sleep medication
  • muscle relaxants
  • cough syrup and cold medication
  • antihistamines
  • ketamine (often mixed with cocaine, known as the Calvin Klein drug)
  • inhalants (paint thinners, nitrous oxide, gasoline, glues)

What Causes Addiction?

Like most other mental illnesses, addiction does not have a singular cause.

People of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds may become addicted to substances. However, some people are more vulnerable to substance abuse than others.

Multiple factors play a role in addiction. Each of these factors increases a person’s risk for substance abuse disorders.

Some common risk factors include:

  • early access to drugs
  • lack of education about drugs and their consequences
  • family history of drug abuse
  • genetic predisposition for addiction
  • co-occurring disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • trauma
  • peer pressure
  • stress

Signs Of An Addiction

A person with an addiction will generally try to hide their substance use from loved ones. Nevertheless, certain signs may alert friends and family members.

Substance abuse can create physical, mental, and behavioral signs.

Some physical signs of addiction include:

  • high eyes” (bloodshot eyes, dilated or constricted pupils)
  • energy changes (excessive or low energy)
  • sores from heroin skin popping and other forms of intravenous drug use
  • track marks from injection
  • tooth decay caused by dry mouth (ex. “meth mouth”)
  • alcoholic nose” (a red, bulbous nose condition caused by alcohol abuse)
  • appetite changes (loss of appetite or excessive appetite)
  • weight changes (excessive weight loss or weight gain)
  • poor muscle coordination
  • nausea and vomiting
  • difficulty breathing
  • trembling
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness

Some mental signs of addiction include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • difficulty forming thoughts or holding conversations
  • loss of motivation
  • mood swings
  • paranoia
  • changes in personality
  • confusion
  • hallucinations

Some behavioral signs of addiction include:

  • spending large amounts of money
  • keeping secrets
  • lying
  • avoiding self-care and hygiene
  • becoming withdrawn and isolated
  • leaving one group of friends for another
  • engaging in risky behaviors

Risk Of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse has several negative consequences. A person with an addiction may experience harm to their physical, mental, and social health.

Specific risks depend on the method that a person uses to abuse drugs. Needle use, for example, increases the risk of HIV and other infectious diseases.

Other consequences depend on the drug itself. For instance, a person may experience immediate bodily changes after stopping alcohol use.

Those changes include benefits such as increased energy, but they also include difficult withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol abuse can also damage a person’s heart health. Many people with alcohol addiction also deal with alcohol-induced hypertension.

Stimulants, depressants, and other classes of drugs also create extensive risks.

Some of those risks include:

  • heart rate changes (slowed or racing heart rate)
  • worsening mental health conditions
  • brain damage
  • organ damage
  • dental problems
  • malnutrition
  • sleep disturbances
  • sexual dysfunction
  • strokes and seizures
  • cancer
  • immune system damage
  • overdose

Addiction And Mental Health

Many people with addictions also deal with a co-occurring disorder. Likewise, people with other mental health conditions have a higher risk of developing an addiction.

The connection between mental illness and addiction is somewhat unclear, but both seem to reinforce each other.

Some specific mental health conditions occur alongside addiction often. For example, substance abuse and eating disorders often occur together.

Other common co-occurring disorders include substance abuse and:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • ADHD

How To Help Someone With An Addiction

For people who have never had a drug or alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to know how to support somebody who does have an addiction. Fortunately, there are ways to show support.

One of the most important ways to help somebody with an addiction is to understand that addiction is not a choice.

Because it is a mental illness, it requires understanding and treatment. When friends and family members know how addiction works, they can remove some of the stigmas from it.

Other ways to support someone with an addiction include:

  • setting strong boundaries
  • understanding underlying issues (ex. PTSD, depression, etc.)
  • avoiding negativity and guilt trips
  • learning about codependency and avoiding codependent behaviors
  • asking non-invasive questions
  • being honest without assigning blame
  • waiting until the person is sober to address the addiction
  • holding an intervention
  • offering help and encouragement
  • supporting recovery efforts

Addiction Treatment Options

Several types of addiction therapy and treatments are available for people who want to begin or continue their recovery. Options include both inpatient and outpatient care.

Some addiction therapy options include:

  • detox: medical support that provides comfort and safety as drugs or alcohol leave the body
  • inpatient rehab treatment: residential treatment that includes therapy as well as room and board
  • outpatient treatment: a broad term that encompasses all forms of non-residential addiction care
  • intensive outpatient programs (IOP): non-residential but highly structured addiction treatment
  • partial hospitalization programs (PHP): the most intensive form of outpatient addiction treatment available. It is often used as a bridge between inpatient care and standard outpatient services.
  • aftercare: follow-up services that may occur after rehabilitation
  • sober living: housing communities for people in recovery. These communities are free of drugs and alcohol and provide structured peer support.

FAQs About Substance Abuse

Addiction is an overwhelming topic, and it’s natural to have questions about it. Here you’ll find answers to some commonly-asked substance abuse questions.

How Do I Know If I’m Addicted To Substances?

Addictions have varying levels of severity.

Some signs of addiction include misusing medication, feeling a need to use substances, thinking about substances often, and continuing to use substances in spite of negative consequences.

A doctor or therapist can provide additional information and medical advice.

How Do You Cope With An Addiction?

Coping with an addiction is not an easy effort, but it is possible. Options such as rehab, therapy, and support groups can help people develop healthy coping skills.

Does Depression Cause Addiction?

While depression may not cause addiction directly, depression and addiction can overlap. Some people may use substances as a way to deal with depression symptoms.

Furthermore, depression is a common condition among people who also have an addiction.

Are Some People More Susceptible To Addiction Than Others?

Yes, some people have a greater risk for addiction than others. Factors that increase a person’s risk for addiction include stress, trauma, family history, and genetics.

Because stress and trauma play such a large role in addiction, the following issues are common in our society:

What Are The Five Stages Of Recovery?

The five stages of recovery are:

  1. Precontemplation: When people are not ready to receive treatment, they may defend their substance use and deny that they need help.
  2. Contemplation: At this stage, a person considers getting addiction treatment in the future.
  3. Preparation: The person takes some early steps to overcome substance abuse.
  4. Action: The person seeks treatment from professional providers.
  5. Maintenance: The person keeps up with lifestyle changes that they’ve established during treatment.

What Is A Relapse Prevention Plan For Substance Abuse?

Before a person exhibits the signs of relapse, it can be helpful to have a relapse prevention plan. Prevention plans include identifying potential triggers and creating strategies to deal with them.

How Do I Pay For Rehab?

Some people have access to insurance coverage for addiction treatment. Other options include payment plans, scholarships, and choosing a less expensive treatment plan such as outpatient care.

If I Go To Rehab, What Do I Do With My Pet?

It is sometimes possible to have support animals at rehab, but many rehabs do not allow pets.

Different pet care options exist for people who want to seek treatment. These options include temporary pet foster care, extended kennel stays, and asking a friend or family member to care for the pet.

How Many People Are Addicted To Drugs In The U.S.?

More than 21 million people in the United States have a substance use disorder. Drug addiction rates in the U.S. vary by location, age, and other demographics.

Find A Massachusetts Rehab Center

Drug addiction is complicated, but it is a treatable condition. With support and evidence-based care, recovery is possible.

Spring Hill Recovery Center offers multiple levels of care, including both inpatient and outpatient treatment options.

If you or a loved one need addiction treatment, contact our drug rehab center in Massachusetts to learn more.

  1. National Institute On Drug Abuse — 10 Percent Of US Adults Have A Drug Use Disorder At Some Point In Their Lives https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/10-percent-us-adults-have-drug-use-disorder-some-point-their-lives
  2. National Institute On Drug Abuse — Commonly Abused Drugs https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/cadchart_2.pdf
  3. Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration — Co-Occurring Disorders And Other Health Conditions https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/medications-counseling-related-conditions/co-occurring-disorders
  4. Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration — Key Substance Use And Mental Health Indicators In The United States: Results From The 2020 National Survey On Drug And Health https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt35325/NSDUHFFRPDFWHTMLFiles2020/2020NSDUHFFR1PDFW102121.pdf
  5. United States Drug Enforcement Administration — Fentanyl https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl
  6. United States Drug Enforcement Administration — Synthetic Opioids https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Synthetic%20Opioids-2020.pdf

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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