What We All Need to Know About Drug Addiction


The National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) describes drug addiction as “a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences to the individual who is addicted and to those around them.”

NIDA also offers the following facts about drug addiction:

  • Drug addiction is a brain disease because abusing these substances results in both the structure and functionality of the brain.

  • Though in most cases a person’s initial decision to ingest an illicit substances is a voluntary choice, the changes to the brain that can be caused by drug use can impair a person’s ability to control their cravings. Facing with increasingly intense urges and unable to think clearly, addicted individuals’ drug-seeking behaviors are far from voluntary or within their control.
  • As is the case with other chronic, relapsing disease (such as asthma, diabetes, and some types of heart disease) drug addiction can be successfully controlled with effective treatment. However, as is also true of other chronic conditions, drug addiction does not always respond immediately (or permanently) to treatment.
  • If a relapse does occur, this does not mean that a person is destined to live a life that is marred by addiction. Instead, relapse is simply a sign that the person’s treatment needs to be adjusted – or that other addiction treatment methodologies need to be implemented – in order to put the afflicted individual back on the path toward long-term recovery.

Drug Addiction is not a Character Flaw
As important as it is to understand the nature of drug addiction, it is equally essential to be aware of myths and misleading “facts” that are commonly used in the discussion of drug addiction.

Perhaps the most important myth about drug addiction is that it is a sign of inherent evil or weakness. Drug addiction is not a character flaw, nor is it an immoral choice that has been made by a bad person. Echoing the information provided by NIDA, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America provides a compelling refutation to the misguided though unfortunately common belief that drug addiction is the result of a lack of moral fortitude or personal willpower:

Drug addiction is a brain disease. Every type of drug of abuse has its own individual mechanism for changing how the brain functions. But regardless of which drug a person is addicted to, many of the effects it has on the brain are similar: they range from changes in the molecules and cells that make up the brain, to mood changes, to changes in memory processes and in such motor skills as walking and talking.

And these changes have a huge influence on all aspects of a person’s behavior. The drug becomes the single most powerful motivator in a drug abuser’s existence. He or she will do almost anything for the drug. This comes about because drug use has changed the individual’s brain and its functioning in critical ways.

Common Symptoms of Drug Addiction
Though addiction may vary depending upon a range of factors including the drug being used, the amount and duration of use, and the person who is using, the Mayo Clinic reports that the following symptoms are common indicators that a person has developed an addiction to a drug:

  • Feeling that you need the drug regularly and, in some cases, many times a day

  • Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug.
  • Failing repeatedly in your attempts to stop using the drug.
  • Doing things to obtain the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing.
  • Feeling that you need the drug to deal with your problems.
  • Driving or doing other activities that place you and others at risk of physical harm when you’re under the influence of the drug.

Drug Addiction Treatment
Though a devastating and potentially deadly condition, drug addiction can be effectively treated with the appropriate combination of medical supervision and therapeutic intervention. Some individuals have been able to overcome a drug addiction through outpatient therapy and continued counseling, while others have responded best to more long-term care in a residential drug addiction treatment facility.

Some individuals (particularly those who have been addicted to opiates such as heroin) may be treated with medications designed to safely wean them from the drug and prevent future cravings, while others are able to pursue long-term recovery without the use of medically-assisted recovery. Virtually every person who is addicted to drugs will need some form of therapy in order to pursue long-term recovery – but again, the specific type or types of therapy that work best can vary from person to person.

Determining the most effective means of treating a person who is addicted to drugs is a matter of understanding the nature and severity of the addiction, as well as any co-occurring disorders that may have led to or been exacerbated by the addiction.

As NIDA reports, “treatment can occur in a variety of settings, in many different forms, and for different lengths of time. Because drug addiction is typically a chronic disorder characterized by occasional relapses, a short-term, one-time treatment often is not sufficient. For many, treatment is a long-term process that involves multiple interventions and attempts at abstinence.