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Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a chronic mental disorder which affects millions of people in the U.S. It causes changes in brain function and results in a compulsive need to continue to consume drugs, regardless of consequences.

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug AddictionDrug addiction is a neurological disease which causes physical changes in the brain.  People who become addicted to drugs cannot simply “quit”.  They are driven by behavioral processes which have been caused by dysfunction of the areas of the brain which regulate impulse control, motivation and cognition.  They compulsively seek drug use, despite the damage that it may be doing to their lives, relationships and physical bodies.

In addition to the changes which occur in the brain, chronic drug use and addiction may result in harmful changes to other tissues and organs.  Left unchecked, drug addiction is considered to be a progressive disease which may result in death.

Estimates show that more than 26 million or about 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. may be struggling with drug addiction or substance abuse.

Common Drugs of Addiction

Though most people consider drug addiction to involve only illegal substances, prescription drugs, and other substances are also addictive.

The most commonly used addictive drugs or substances include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription Amphetamines or Stimulants
  • Methamphetamine
  • Prescription Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates or Sedatives

Other drugs of abuse which can be addictive:

  • K2 or Spice
  • PCP
  • LSD or Acid
  • Ecstasy
  • GHB
  • Ketamine
  • Prescription or Over-the-counter cough syrup

Drug addiction can result in physical dependence, psychological dependence or both.  In some cases, withdrawal can be painful, dangerous or even life-threatening if not managed medically.

What to Do If Someone is Addicted to Drugs

The sooner drug addiction is treated, the more likely that recovery will be successful.  Drug addiction treatment can be a complex process that may take a long-term approach to help prevent relapse.  Most chronic drug or substance addicts require an integrated approach and may require multiple interventions to be successful in recovery.

Counseling or behavioral treatment programs may be effective in helping to modify behavioral patterns and many people find support groups to be necessary.  Support groups including 12-step recovery programs offer a chance for the addict to share experiences and get help from others who have faced similar challenges.  They also offer an organized, instructional based approach to beat addiction and remain sober.

In some cases, a staged intervention may be necessary.  Interventions are structured meetings in which family or friends of the addict gather to inform the person about how they have been harmed and the future consequences of their continued substance abuse if treatment is not sought.  Interventions are often painful but may move the struggling addict to seek assistance for their disease.

Family members or loved ones of those suffering from drug addiction may also need counseling or support group assistance in changing their own behavior patterns which may be enabling the addict to continue using drugs.

Resources and organizations which may provide information, guidance or assistance include:

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – drugabuse.gov – A division of National Institutes of Health.  Research and academic organization focused on drugs and substances of abuse.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – samhsa.gov – Department of Health and Human Services agency.  Leads public health efforts to advance behavioral health and reduce the impact of mental illness and substance abuse.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous – aa.org – The most well-known recovery support group.  A fellowship of people who wish to quit drinking which advocates solution through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a book first written in 1939.  AA is based on a set of spiritual principles which outline the means to expel obsession to drink and recover and includes regular recovery support meetings, available in most communities around the U.S.
  • Cocaine Anonymous – ca.org – A 12-step program designed for addicts of cocaine and stimulant substances.
  • Narcotics Anonymous – na.org – A 12-step program designed for addicts of narcotic or opiate substances.
  • Dual Recovery Anonymous – draonline.org – A 12-step program designed for people who are suffering from addiction and who have a medically diagnosed mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety – sossobriety.org – Secular Organizations for Sobriety, also known as Save Our Selves.  A network of autonomous recovery groups which emphasize rational decision making, not based on religion.
  • LifeRing – lifering.org – LifeRing Secular recovery.  Peer-run abstinence-based addiction recovery based fundamental principals of sobriety, secularity, and self-empowerment.  Was originally the publishing arm of SOS, now a separate organization.
  • SMART Recovery – smartrecovery.org – Self-management and recovery training.  Tools for addiction recovery based on scientific research and group participation.

What are the Effects of Drug Addiction?

Abuse of drugs, whether legal, prescription, or illegal, causes changes which can affect the function of processes and structure of the brain and other organs.  Over time, use of drugs can cause the brain and body to become dependent upon the continued use of the substance in order to function normally.  This, along with a psychological compulsion, results in drug addiction.

In addition to the physical changes, drug addiction may cause changes in behavior that affect the well-being of the addict.  Changes may include impaired decision-making, nutritional deficits, relationship difficulties, and career challenges.  Ultimately, drug addiction may have a detrimental impact on personal health and may lead to death.

Signs of drug addiction may include:

  • Sudden changes in alertness, mood, and behavior
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Mental illness including psychosis
  • Health conditions including seizures, heart attack and stroke
  • Increased risk of infectious diseases such as Hepatitis and HIV
  • Sexual promiscuity or other risky behavior
  • Increased risk of overdose
  • Harmful withdrawal effects
  • Death

Drug addiction is a disease which includes a high risk of relapse.  A person who has quit using drugs and entered a recovery period may return to addictive behavior and substance abuse.  During the process of total recovery, relapse may occur a number of times.  It is important that the addict and loved ones not lose hope and continue to focus on recovery and finding the right support.

Though the scientific study has shown that addiction is a serious health disorder, many people still consider it to be a question of morality.  This leads to criticism and shame which will be internalized and is unhelpful to the recovery process.  In many cases, the drug addict is also faced with criminal punishment but is not given an opportunity to understand or change their ability to recover from addiction.  If not provided the skills and support, drug addiction is certain to continue and progress.

What Causes Drug Addiction?

Most people begin using drugs voluntarily.  In some cases, drug addiction begins with the legitimate use of prescription medications but usually, it begins with recreational use.   People generally use drugs to change the way they feel.  Drugs may produce feelings of euphoria, excitement, reduce depression, treat emotional pain or allow one to ignore negative feelings.  Some people may be pressured to try a drug or may begin with occasional use, assuming that it will not lead to addiction.  Unfortunately, for some people, a single use of a particular drug may induce a greater desire to repeat the first experience, leading to a spiral of abuse or “chasing the high”.

Less commonly, drug addiction may begin with the use of prescription medication which may be medically necessary.  The number of prescription pain reliever or opiate addicts has skyrocketed in recent years.  Patients who begin taking prescribed opioids pain relievers may find themselves taking more medication and for additional reasons and becoming addicted to the medication.  If prescriptions run out, withdrawal symptoms may drive them to begin using illegal drugs that are more easily obtained, such as heroin.

What are the Risk Factors for Drug Addiction?

There is no certain way to predict whether or not someone will develop a drug addiction but there are some risk factors.  Risk factors include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Lack of supervision in children and teens
  • Family or friends abusing drugs
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Criminal activities
  • Poor academic or school performance
  • Mental health issues or illness
  • Poverty

Scientists studying drug addiction have estimated that more than half of a person’s tendency to become a substance addict may come from genetics, but early negative experiences play a significant role.

The type of drug that is used can also have an effect on whether or not a person will become addicted.  Some drugs will be more likely to produce a physical dependence which may lead to addiction such as opiate painkillers, heroin, antianxiety agents and alcohol, while others produce euphoria to create a psychological dependence such as cocaine and amphetamines.

How a drug is consumed or used may also play a role in addiction.  The more quickly a drug enters the bloodstream, the more euphoria is experienced as a “better” high.  Drugs which are injected produce the fastest result, followed by inhalation, and nasal absorption.  Oral use or drugs that are swallowed, are the slowest method of drug use but may last for longer periods of time.

What are the Warning Signs of Drug Addiction?

Warning signs of drug addiction may develop quickly but others may emerge over a longer period of time.  Warning signs that indicate a drug addiction may be developing include:

  • Intense urge to use or take drugs
  • More frequent urges to take drugs
  • Need to take larger quantities of drugs to achieve the same results
  • Feeling physical withdrawal symptoms
  • Need to take drugs to function normally
  • Decreased desire to socialize
  • Feelings of apathy or disinterest in normal activity
  • Worry about the next source of drugs
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Lack of personal care or hygiene
  • Hiding drug use
  • Continuing to use drugs after attempting to quit
  • Intense denial of drug use

Warning signs may be difficult to spot as drug use is often hidden from others.  The person who is addicted to drugs may become intensely protective of their drug use and may deny their symptoms or become defensive when confronted.   The more quickly the problem can be acknowledged, the faster treatment can begin.

What are the Signs of Drug Abuse

A person may begin abusing drugs long before drug addiction has developed and while drug abuse does not always lead to addiction, signs of drug abuse may be key to understanding what is going on with a drug addict.  Signs of substance abuse include:

  • Mood swings or erratic behavior
  • Symptoms of paranoia
  • Constricted (pinpoint) pupils of the eyes
  • Dilated (wide) pupils of the eyes
  • Slurred speech or incoherent writing
  • Lethargic behavior
  • Loss of motivation
  • Excessive physical activity or kinetic behavior
  • Drop in work productivity or school performance
  • Frequent absence or lateness to school, work or home
  • Changes in physical appearance such as weight loss
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Excessive spending
  • Selling personal belongings
  • Unusual need or requests for money
  • Stealing money or valuable items
  • Excessive need for secrecy
  • Defensive behavior
  • Difficulty remembering details or events

Specific signs and symptoms of drug abuse will depend upon the type of drug being used.  Stimulants, sedatives, hallucinogens and other categories of drugs have a specific profile of effects.  If signs of abuse are noticed, the user may become more secretive, but it is always best to discuss and seek help even when uncertain.

How can Drug Addiction be Prevented?

The best way to prevent drug addiction is to avoid using drugs at all.  Use of illegal drugs should always be avoided but not all addictive substances are illegal.  Alcohol and some intoxicants are available for social use but may put the user at risk for addiction.  Prescription medications may be prescribed to treat pain, anxiety or mental health conditions and should be strictly supervised.

Young people should be educated as to the risks and dangers of drug abuse and the consequences of addiction which may include health risks and serious penalties in the criminal justice system.

Factors that may decrease the chance of developing drug addiction:

  • Appropriate supervision
  • Strong parental or adult guidance
  • Positive family relationship
  • Self-discipline skills
  • Academic performance
  • Involvement in sports or extracurricular activity
  • Educational awareness

Many schools have instituted drug prevention programs to raise awareness but much of the work must be done outside of school, at home and in the community.  Preventing early use of substances like cigarettes and alcohol is a key step in reducing the development of drug addiction.  Educating children about the dangers of these and other substances will help them avoid drug addiction in the future.

The risk of substance abuse and drug addiction increases during stressful life events or important transitions.  Increasing awareness about the dangers of addiction, mental health conditions and reducing the stigma of both can help to increase the possibility that a person struggling with addiction will seek assistance rather than continue to turn to substances as self-treatment.

Prescription drug abuse, particularly painkillers, has been on the rise and has become an epidemic in the U.S.  Prescription painkiller abuse may affect the original patient but may also threaten loved ones or even children of those who have access to the medication.  The federal government and the medical community are taking steps to reverse this dangerous trend by recommending opioid use for short-term treatment and/or under close supervision only when medically necessary.  Read more about opioid addiction.

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