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Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse: What is it?

Addictive substances, including alcohol, cigarettes and drugs

Published: July 15, 2023

Addiction is a widespread issue in the U.S. that countless people battle on a daily basis. Some people may not even know they have an addiction.

When it comes to addiction, it can be difficult to ask for help or know where to start. Understanding addiction can be a struggle in itself.

If you or someone you love is looking to learn more about the challenges of addiction, keep reading to learn everything you need to know.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction, or substance use disorder, is a medical condition that causes a person to become dependent or reliant on a substance such as drugs or alcohol.

Addiction can also occur with other types of substances, objects, or even behaviors. People with addictions often need the addictive substance in order to perform certain tasks, work, or even just get through the day.

Medical Definition of Addiction

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), a substance use disorder (SUD) involves patterns of symptoms caused by using a substance that an individual continues taking despite its negative effects.

Addiction vs. Substance Use Disorder

The DSM-V refers to an addiction as a SUD. But what is the difference between substance abuse and SUD?

Substance abuse is the act of abusing substances (which can occur in isolated instances), whereas a SUD is a pattern of compulsive substance use. When it comes to SUDs, the individual will typically experience recurrent consequences in the social, legal, occupational, or personal areas of their life.

For example, substance abuse may present as binge drinking, which occurs when a person drinks a lot of alcohol in one period of time. While this act does qualify as substance abuse, it doesn’t mean everyone who binge drinks has an alcohol use disorder.

Addiction vs. Dependence

Another important differentiation is addiction versus dependence. Addiction is a mental reliance on something, whereas dependence is a physical or chemical reliance.

A mental reliance causes the individual to feel as though they can only get through certain situations, emotions, or tasks if they are using the substance they’re addicted to.

On the other hand, a physical or chemical dependence causes the individual’s body to rely on the use of the addictive substance to function. Dependence is what makes quitting addictive substances dangerous, as the body will start to experience withdrawal symptoms.

Dependence only occurs with opioids and alcohol. That being said, some people with addictions do not have a dependence, but everyone who has a dependence has an addiction.

Types of Addiction

There are three main categories of addiction: alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and behavioral addiction.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction (alcohol use disorder, or AUD) is a medical condition that causes frequent or heavy alcohol use. As with substance use disorder, alcohol addiction is not the same as just alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse is the act of misusing alcohol, while alcohol addiction refers to a disorder caused by compulsive use despite negative effects.

Variations of alcohol abuse:

  • Binge drinking: drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in one sitting
  • Heavy drinking: binge drinking on a frequent basis or drinking most days of the week
  • High-functioning alcoholism: an alcohol addiction in which the individual seems functional and successful despite their drinking problem
  • Alcohol use disorder: frequent or heavy alcohol use despite any issues drinking causes emotionally, physically, or socially.

Alcohol addiction can appear very different from person to person, and some people may not even realize they have an addiction because of these differences. Yet any kind of alcohol addiction is dangerous and should be treated.

Drug Addiction

Drug addiction refers to frequent and uncontrolled use of any kind of drug, illicit or prescription. Drug addiction can occur with countless different substances.

Addictive drugs can include:

  • Prescription drugs: Medications such as sleeping medications, opioids such as oxycodone, other painkillers, sedatives, or benzodiazepines, can be prescribed to fix an issue, but become addictive making it hard to stop using the medication even if you don’t need it.
  • Illicit drugs: Drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana (cannabis), methamphetamine, hallucinogens, stimulants, bath salts, PCP, LSD, ecstasy, etc. These drugs are highly addictive and can be particularly dangerous as they are often unregulated. Some users may become addicted due to substances illicit drugs are mixed with, such as fentanyl.
  • Over-the-counter medications: These are medications you can purchase without a prescription. Some examples include Nyquil, Benadryl, and Sudafed. With easy access to these medications, it can be easy to abuse them and become addicted.
  • Vaping, cigarettes, and other inhalants: Though it is well-known that nicotine is addictive, the popularization of vaping has normalized nicotine use, so many people do not realize they have an addiction. Other inhalants can also be addictive, such as whippets.

Behavioral Addiction

Behavioral addiction is different from substance addiction. Behavioral addiction is a condition in which a person becomes addicted to a specific behavior or action. The behavior acts as a stimulating activity, which can result in addiction.

Some behavioral addictions include:

  • TV addiction: People can become addicted to watching television. This typically involves binge watching.
  • Internet addiction: Some people may feel compelled to spend excessive amounts of time on the internet.
  • Porn addiction: Some people may spend several hours in the day watching porn and find it difficult to stop.
  • Gaming addiction: People with this addiction may devote much of their time to playing a game, even if it results in consequences.
  • Gambling addiction: Gambling tends to increase adrenaline, making the behavior addictive and hard to quit.
  • Shopping addiction: Despite the financial consequences, people with a shopping addiction may not be able to stop buying things as a way to cope with negative emotions or events.
  • Social media addiction: With social media so prevalent in everyday life, many people may not recognize when their social media habit turns into an addiction.
  • Sex addiction: Some people are addicted to the act of having sex. This is another behavior that may be used to avoid or cope with problems.
  • Kleptomania: Stealing can be addictive for some individuals. This is another behavior that tends to cause a “rush,” making the act addictive.
  • Overeating: Eating can also become an addiction if used as a way to deal with emotions or challenges.
  • Exercising: Even exercising can be addictive when done in excess or used in an unhealthy way.

Signs & Symptoms of Addiction

Aside from knowing the various behaviors and substances that can spiral into addictions, it’s essential to also understand the signs and symptoms of addiction.

Many people don’t even know that they are developing an addiction. That being said, knowing the signs and symptoms can help you identify addiction in yourself or your loved ones.

Common symptoms and signs of addiction include:

  • An inability to stop using a substance or performing a behavior.
  • Intense focus or obsession with the addictive substance or behavior. For example, the drug of choice is always on your mind or you can’t focus without thinking about it.
  • Lack of control when using or performing the substance or behavior.
  • Physical or emotional withdrawal without the substance or behavior.
  • Using the substance or performing the behavior is affecting other areas of your life: social life, relationships, career, health, etc.
  • An increased tolerance for the substance or activity. In other words, you need to use larger amounts to feel the same effects you did when you first started using the substance or performing the behavior.
  • Using the substance or performing the activity in risky environments or circumstances.
  • Lying about use of the substance or activity.

There are a multitude of ways addiction can present in different people, some more obvious than others.

Causes of Addiction

Researchers believe that the cause of addiction can be traced to the way that a substance, object or behavior affects the brain.

That is, the substance or behavior works on the reward pathways in the brain, causing the brain to emit feel-good chemicals when a person takes the substance or performs the behavior.

With time and repeated use/behavior, this leads to the development of addiction — a mental reliance. Because of this, there is actually no certain cause of addiction, but rather, risk factors.

Risk factors are characteristics, situations, or circumstances that can make addiction more likely.

It is impossible to predict 100% accurately if someone will cause addiction. Read on to learn about factors in one’s life that may lead them toward addiction.

Risk Factors for Addiction

Risk factors are characteristics in different parts of your life — biological, psychological, family, cultural, etc. — that are linked with a higher likelihood of addiction.

Some addiction risk factors include:

  • A history of addiction in your family
  • Previous trauma
  • Mental illness such as depression or anxiety
  • Home environment during your childhood or adulthood
  • Peer pressure
  • School life
  • Engaging in substance abuse or addictive behaviors from a young age
  • Physical health conditions like chronic pain or surgery
  • Social settings that encourage substance use or certain behaviors

Disclaimer: someone who has these characteristics will not inevitably develop an addiction, they’re just more likely to.

Effects of Addiction

The effects of an addiction can differ very greatly from person to person based on countless factors. First and foremost, the type of addiction can determine which effects someone will experience.

For example, someone who is addicted to heroin will experience very different effects than someone who is addicted to alcohol.

Another factor that can affect the outcome of addiction is the length of time someone has spent abusing the substance. The longer you abuse a substance, the riskier the addiction typically becomes. This can create different effects.

On a similar note, those who are abusing multiple drugs at once or drugs and alcohol will have a different experience than those who are addicted to one substance.

If the person has co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction can worsen these issues or feed off them.

That being said, there are several widespread effects that many people experience with addiction.

Short-Term Addiction Effects

There are many general, short-term effects people experience when addicted to a substance.

Short-term effects of addiction include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Distorted senses
  • Euphoria
  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased or increased heart rate
  • Decreased or increased blood pressure
  • Increased activity or energy
  • Respiratory issues
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Anxiety or paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Erratic behavior
  • Engagement in risky behaviors
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Respiratory failure
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Insomnia

Long-Term Effects of Addiction

While short-term effects of addiction can be dangerous, long-term effects can also pose serious health problems.

Long-term effects include:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Infertility
  • Liver damage
  • Memory loss
  • Central nervous system damage
  • Paralysis
  • Kidney failure
  • Overdose
  • Fatality

Diagnosing Addictions

There are many ways to diagnose addiction. Whether you feel comfortable seeking professional help or just want to determine if you may have an addiction from home, there are countless options to identify a substance use issue.

Two main diagnosis methods are medical evaluations and self-assessments.

Medical Evaluations

If you’re comfortable with it, the best way to get an addiction diagnosis is to see a healthcare provider. They can determine if you have a SUD and offer recommendations for programs to help you understand how your addiction may be affecting you.


If you’re not comfortable seeing a healthcare professional quite yet, there are countless self-assessments available for free online.

For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a free booklet for families to learn about substance abuse, its symptoms, and more. Health clinics can use substance use assessments provided for free by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) online.

While these assessments will not provide an official diagnosis, the results can help you understand whether your substance use is dangerous or abusive.

In order to enter an inpatient rehab program, you may be required to get a referral from a doctor. In other words, you will need to have a doctor diagnose your addiction and send you to a particular facility.

When to Get Help for Addiction

It can be hard to know when it may be time to get help for your addiction. To make things a little more clear, here is a list of questions you can ask yourself to determine if you may need to seek addiction recovery help.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you struggle to stop using drugs or alcohol?
  • Have you tried and failed to stop using the substance?
  • Do you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about drugs or alcohol when you’re not using them?
  • Do you feel out of control when you use drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you feel unable to function or perform basic tasks without drugs or alcohol?
  • Is your drug or alcohol use affecting your relationships? Career? Friendships? Health? Finances?
  • Do you have to drink more or use more drugs to feel the way you did when you first started using the substance?
  • Do you use drugs or alcohol in unsafe environments or circumstances?
  • Do you hide or lie about your drug or alcohol use?

Treatment for Addiction

After receiving a diagnosis or determining that your substance abuse is dangerous, it’s essential to seek treatment to help you start your journey toward recovery. Here are some of the most effective treatment program options.

Common Types of Addiction Treatment

There are several different kinds of addiction treatment rehab centers commonly offer.

Addiction treatment options include:

  • Inpatient treatment
  • Outpatient treatment
  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Partial hospitalization treatment
  • Detoxification
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Behavioral therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Aftercare
  • Sober living

Each treatment option offers different kinds of support, so one type may be more well-suited to your substance abuse needs.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Addiction Treatment

Two of the most common addiction treatment types are inpatient or residential and outpatient treatment.

Inpatient treatment is a kind of treatment that offers 24-hour supervision by requiring that the individual stays in a designated facility for an extended period of time.

On the other hand, outpatient treatment does not require the individual to stay at a facility for an extended amount of time. Instead, this kind of addiction treatment is either completed from the person’s home or at a facility for a portion of each day or week.

Inpatient treatment is recommended for individuals with an addiction that is severe enough that they feel they need full-time support or supervision. It can also be the best option for people who live alone or don’t have anyone such as a family member to help them through recovery.

Outpatient treatment may be better for people who have already gone through inpatient treatment or who have a mild case of addiction.

Addiction Recovery Aftercare

Aftercare is another important part of addiction recovery. Aftercare services are provided after someone has completed addiction recovery. They are intended to help support the transition out of addiction treatment and encourage people to stay in recovery.

For those in inpatient treatment, aftercare may be an outpatient or step-down program. These programs often require the individual to check in periodically or come to a facility for a short part of each day or week to continue their journey toward recovery.

Sober Living and Supportive Resources

Another great resource following addiction recovery is a sober living house, halfway house, or support groups.

Sober living houses are typically a transitional living option for people who have just finished addiction treatment. As the name suggests, they are free of drugs and alcohol which can help reduce the risk of relapse during this transition.

Halfway houses are similar, however, they are a transitional living option for people in other situations as well, such as those who have just gotten out of prison.

Lastly, support groups are groups designed for individuals either going through addiction treatment or those who have completed treatment to discuss the challenges, successes, and emotions related to recovery.

All of these options can help provide support as well as safe environments to reduce the risk of wanting to turn back to your addiction.

Addiction Prevention

Prevention should always be the first step when it comes to avoiding addiction and fostering harm reduction. So how can you prevent addiction?

Addiction prevention methods can include:

  • Educating teens and children about the dangers of illicit drug use
  • Teaching about and modeling ways to drink alcohol responsibly
  • Asking for help if you feel you are on the road to addiction
  • Using over-the-counter and prescription medications responsibly
  • Only taking prescription medications when you really need to
  • Avoiding social situations that encourage risky substance abuse
  • Abstaining from substance abuse if you have family history of addiction

Addiction Prognosis

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40-60% of people with SUDs relapse. Put another way, 40-60% of people recover from addiction.

Stress cues and contact with the addictive substance are the most common causes of relapse, so it’s important to be mindful of these things as you recover.

All of this being said, addiction is a manageable condition with the proper support and can be a thing of the past.

Find Help for People With Addiction

Addiction is a complex and personal health condition. It can occur with the use of countless substances and even behaviors. It can also present very differently between people.

There are numerous short-term and long-term harmful consequences that may come with addiction, but diagnosis and treatment options are widely available.

If you or someone you know is facing alcohol or drug addiction, call our helpline today to learn about treatment options near you.

Addiction FAQs

​​What defines an addiction?

Addiction is defined by repeated and excessive use of a substance or performance of a behavior. Being unable to stop using a substance is typically defined as an addiction.

What is addiction and why does it happen?

Addiction is a condition that causes a person to compulsively use a substance. Scientists believe addiction occurs due to the way a substance or behavior affects the brain with the first use, but there are many risk factors that can make addiction more likely to occur.

Are there any good addictions?

Simply put, no. While there are healthy habits you can work into your life that can have a positive effect, anything you do or use addictively is not healthy, as addiction will interfere with other parts of your life.

What’s the best treatment for addiction?

Medication-assisted treatment (like buprenorphine) alongside therapy or counseling has been shown to be the best treatment for opioid and alcohol addiction, according to research. Inpatient treatment is the most effective treatment for addictions overall.

How much does addiction treatment cost?

Addiction treatment cost can vary greatly, but many facilities accept health insurance, offer scholarships, or provide sliding scale pricing.

Is addiction curable?

Addiction cannot be cured, but it can be treated. This is because we don’t know what causes addiction. Through treatment, it is possible to stay in recovery from addiction.

Is relapse inevitable for addiction?

Relapse is not inevitable for addiction. However, it is an expected side effect of recovery. It can be challenging to stay in recovery, but it is possible with the right treatment, support, and mindset.

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