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What is Drug Abuse and Addiction?

Drug addiction is a complex yet treatable disease that can be successfully managed with professional treatment and ongoing recovery efforts.

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a chronic medical disease characterized by compulsive substance seeking and drug use that persists despite the detrimental effects of drug use.1 Addiction is considered to be a disease because of the brain changes that are accompanied by ongoing exposure to drugs.1 These brain changes may themselves be associated with changes in a person’s ability to make decisions or control their actions, which contributes to an inability to stop using the substance even if they it is causing harm.1

Taking drugs affects the brain’s key reward chemical, known as dopamine, which contributes to developing a self-reinforcing cycle of drug use.1 Over time, as dopamine activity subsides; the person may experience a subsequent low or crash, which can cause them to want to use again to feel good.1 Alternating between intense highs and lows fuels the cycle of abuse, because with repeated exposure, the brain becomes desensitized to dopamine and it needs more of the substance to experience previous results (known as tolerance).1

While the decision to start using drugs may be voluntary, the resulting brain changes contributes to an individual losing their ability to resist drugs over time.1 Not everyone who takes drugs will become addicted, there are numerous other factors that can contribute to developing a drug addiction, including genetics, the environment a person functions in, and developmental factors or individual lifetime experiences. Drug addiction is a complex disease, but it is also treatable and can be successfully managed. 

Drug Addiction Facts & Stats

Drug addiction is a worldwide problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 270 million people (or 5% of the world’s population) between the ages of 15 and 64 have used psychoactive drugs (including alcohol and nicotine) in the past year.2 Among them, 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders.2 About half a million people worldwide are estimated to die from drug-abuse related reasons every year.2

In the United States, 49.2% of people aged 12 and over reported having used illicit drugs during their lifetime; 19.4% said they had used illicit drugs in the past year, and 11.7% of people aged 12 and older reported that they were current drug users (meaning they reported using illicit drugs in the past month) in 2018, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.3 

In addition to the risk of addiction, taking drugs also carries with it a risk of life-threatening overdose. According to preliminary data released by the CDC, there were 71,327 drug overdoses in the United States in 2019, up 5.1% from the previous year.4

Substance abuse places a tremendous financial burden on society. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug abuse costs “more than $740 billion annually related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care [expenses].”5

Additionally, people who have mental health disorders like anxiety or depression may turn to drugs as a way of easing or reducing their symptoms.6 But people with these disorders can also develop substance use disorders. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that around 20% of people with anxiety or depression also have a substance use disorder, and around 20% of people with a substance use disorder also struggle with anxiety or depression.6

Risk Factors Contributing to Addiction 

Many factors can increase a person’s risk for drug addiction. While none guarantees an addiction will develop, they may increase a person’s chances for drug abuse. Most individuals at risk for drug abuse do not start using drugs or become addicted, and a risk for one person may be a protective factor for another. General risk factors for drug addiction include:1,7,8

  • Biological factors such as genetics, family history of substance abuse, gender, ethnicity, and whether a person has other mental health disorders.
  • Environmental factors such as poverty, an unsafe living environment, peer pressure, abuse, stress, lack of parental guidance or supportive role models, or childhood exposure to drugs or alcohol.
  • Developmental factors, meaning the ways that biological and environmental factors intersect at critical moments during development. For example, peer pressure and developmental brain changes in teenagers can lead to poor decision-making and excessive risk-taking behaviors.

Warning Signs of Addiction 

While the warning signs of addiction can vary from person to person, the American Psychiatric Association defines diagnostic criteria for a person struggling with drug addiction. Although only a doctor or appropriately trained mental health clinician can diagnose a substance use disorder, the criteria are useful warning signs that may indicate a problem with substance use.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), some warning signs of drug abuse to look for include:9

  • Having times when you used the substance more (or longer) than intended.
  • Wanting to stop or cut down on use but aren’t able to do so.
  • During or after using drugs, getting into situations where you increased your risk for getting hurt (driving a car, for example).
  • Spending a considerable amount of time getting drugs or getting over the effects of them.
  • Spending less time or giving up activities that are important or interesting to you or that gave you pleasure for the purpose of doing drugs.
  • Wanting drugs so much that it’s hard to think about anything else.
  • Using drugs (or being high) has hindered your ability to meet home, school, or job obligations.
  • Continuing to use drugs, despite them causing problems with family or friends.
  • Continuing to do drugs, despite them making you feel anxious, depressed, or contributing to a separate health problem, or after having experienced a memory blackout.
  • Needing more drugs to achieve the desired effect or the regular amount that you drink, no longer has the same effect.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of the drugs wear off, like restlessness, sweating, sleeping, seizure, or racing heart.

Anyone who has experienced at least 2 of the listed criteria within the same 12-month period may be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.9 

Effects of Drug Addiction 

Drug abuse and addiction have many negative effects on a person’s life including their physical health, social life, career, finances, and family. It can also begin to affect your loved ones and those around you.

Some detrimental effects of drug abuse and addiction include:10

  • Poor physical health and an increased risk of diseases such as lung or heart disease, stroke, cancer, nerve damage, and mental health conditions.
  • Dental problems (particularly among people who use methamphetamine).
  • An increased risk of bloodborne disease infections (particularly among injection drug users), such as hepatitis C or HIV, as well as infections of the heart and skin.
  • Worsened mental health, especially if you have a co-occurring psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety, or depression.
  • Risk of overdose or death.
  • Harm to others, such as:
    • Negative impact on your unborn baby or to your child if you are breastfeeding. This includes neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition that occurs when your baby goes into withdrawal after birth. Symptoms can include problems sleeping or feeding, tremors, or seizures. Children who were exposed to drugs in the womb may also experience developmental problems such as disturbances in attention, behavior, and thinking.
    • Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents. Nearly 12 million people aged 16 and older reported driving while under the influence of illicit drugs in 2016, according to NIDA.

Treatment for Drug Addiction 

Drug addiction is similar to other chronic relapsing diseases like heart disease or asthma. It cannot be cured, but it can be successfully managed and treated. Treatment is designed to help people learn to abstain from drug use and develop effective coping mechanisms for common triggers, such as stress, so they can lead clean and sober lives. According to NIDA, treatment can help counteract the negative effects of substance abuse on your brain and behavior.11

The type of treatment you receive can vary based on your individual needs. People often start with medical detox, which helps clear the substance from your body in a safe and supervised setting. They then move on to participate in some form of inpatient (or residential) care—especially if they have serious or long-standing addictions—or outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment may be used as either a step down from inpatient care or as of the first line of treatment for people whose addictions are less severe or for those who may do well in a less supportive environment.

Depending on the substance of addiction, you may receive medications as a way to help manage withdrawal and addiction symptoms.11 Most inpatient and outpatient rehabs also implement a variety of individual and group therapies. These usually include:11,12

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is designed to help change negative and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
  • Contingency management, which relies on positive reinforcement for meeting goals, usually through a type of reward system.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy, which is designed to increase motivation and willingness to change.
  • Family therapy, because addiction doesn’t just affect you—it impacts everyone in your family. Additionally, if the family environment influenced the development of your addiction, it often plays a critical role in recovery.
  • 12-step, or mutual-help group participation, is a highly structured, individual, manual-guided approach where a person works through their history of substance use and learns how it is negatively impacting their life. It also helps to identify triggers of substance abuse and encourages you to engage in 12-step or other mutual help support groups as a form of social support both during and after treatment.

Like other chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, relapse is normal and may occur anytime during addiction recovery. However, it does not mean that treatment has failed, but it may suggest the need for a different type of treatment or an adjustment to your current treatment plan. According to NIDA, addiction relapse rates are as high as 60%. 11 As a comparison, relapse rates for hypertension and asthma are estimated to be 50% to 70%.11

Finally, it’s important to engage in some form of aftercare; recovery doesn’t end once treatment has been completed. Aftercare is supportive care designed to help you stay sober and avoid relapse. It may consist of 12-step mutual help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, non-12-step groups like SMART Recovery, or individual and/or group counseling. Some people benefit from supportive living environments, known as sober living homes, which can help them transition from formal treatment back to their normal lives.

Seek Help for Addiction

As operator of Alcoholrehab.com, American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers a toll-free hotline so that you may speak with our admissions navigators about your treatment options any time of day. AAC operates a nationwide network of treatment centers and is dedicated to making recovery accessible to all persons in need.

With locations across the country, we’re able to provide a number of unique settings as your backdrop for recovery.  If you’d like to learn more about our approach to treatment, facility locations and/or what treatment may involve, call us today. All calls are 100% confidential and there’s no pressure to make a decision right away. We’re excited to discuss your path to recovery with you!


[1]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Understanding drug use and addiction DrugFacts.

[2]. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Drugs (psychoactive): Impact.

[3]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). National survey on drug use and health: Trends in prevalence of various drugs for ages 12 or older, ages 12 to 17, ages 18 to 25, and ages 26 or older; 2016 – 2018 (in percent).

[4]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Provisional drug overdose death counts. National Center for Health Statistics.

[5]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Costs of substance abuse.

[6]. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Substance use disorders.

[7]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). High-risk substance use among youth.

[8]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011). Preventing drug use among children and adolescents (in brief): What are risk factors and protective factors?

[9]. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Substance Use Disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol 5; 483-485.

[10]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction: What are the other health consequences of drug addiction?

[11]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction: Treatment and recovery.

[12]. Mee-Lee D, Shulman GD, Fishman MJ, Gastfriend DR, Miller, eds. (2013). The ASAM Criteria: Treatment Criteria for Addictive, Substance-Related, and Co-Occurring Conditions. 3rd ed. The American Society of Addiction Medicine.