Understanding Drug Addiction

By Staff Writer

Drug addiction occurs when physical and psychological dependence to a particular prescription or over-the-counter medication or illegal street drug develops. About 95 percent of people who have a dependency on drugs or alcohol started using when they were teenagers.

While drug abuse involves repeated and/or excessive use of a drug to get a certain feeling or effect, it does not necessarily evolve into an addiction. So, what makes some people simply abuse drugs and other people become addicted to them?

Risk Factors for Drug Addiction

There is no single cause for the development of a drug addiction. The reality is that it is a combination of multiple factors that may cause someone to become addicted to drugs.

The primary risk factors that may lead to drug addiction include the following:

Peer pressure. This is especially true for teenagers who feel a strong need to fit in with their friends, but adults can also experience this type of pressure in certain social settings where they feel obligated to conform.
Family history. Researchers have not conclusively identified the link between genetics and environmental factors, but they do know that people who have a family history of drug addiction are at a higher risk for developing an addiction.
Physical pain that is untreated. Pain medications, whether they are prescription or illegal, can easily become addictive if they are taken without proper monitoring by a physician.
History of mental illness. Using drugs can make mental illnesses worse, and in some cases they can create new symptoms in patients. Statistically, people with mental illness are more likely to start using drugs.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

In addition to understanding the risk factors for developing a drug addiction, it is also important to recognize the signs and symptoms that may indicate that a loved one has an addiction. In learning about these symptoms, it is essential to realize that people who are addicted to drugs will go to great lengths to disguise the fact. Overall, obtaining the drug becomes the primary focus of addicted individuals, often to the point of impairing their judgment.

The following symptoms are physical signs that someone may be addicted to drugs:

Unusually slow movements, reaction time or speech.
Confusion or disorientation may be present with the use of certain drugs (such as barbiturates and opiates).
Excessive sleeping, usually in abnormal cycles.
Serious dental problems that are progressive in nature (especially with methamphetamine use).
Sudden, unexplained weight gain or weight loss.
Erratic cycles of increased energy, insomnia and restlessness.
Persistent cough (or bronchitis, especially with drugs that are smoked).
Changing clothes unexpectedly and for no apparent reason.
Sinus problems or frequent nosebleeds (for drugs that are snorted).

Emotional signs of abuse can include the following:

Temporary psychosis
Unresponsiveness or looking “spaced out”
Increased irritability or anger

The warning signs of abuse and addiction

Do you suspect that someone you love might be abusing drugs? Are you worried that your own drug or alcohol use is getting out of control?  How do you know when you or someone you love has a problem that needs to be addressed in residential treatment?

When it comes to evaluating a potential problem with drugs or alcohol, most professionals employ the following three categories: use, abuse and addiction. Depending upon a number of factors, use and abuse may or may not require residential treatment. When the problem progresses to addiction (or, in the case of alcohol, alcoholism), professional intervention is almost always called for.

Degrees of Problem Drinking

Moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day for women and two for men.

If you are drinking more than these amounts, you are moving out of alcohol use and into alcohol abuse. However, many alcohol abusers are still able to quit on their own. When they quit, they will not experience physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Binge drinking means having five or more drinks in one sitting. The object of binge drinking is to get intoxicated quickly. Binge drinkers are at risk for automobile accidents, physical and sexual assaults, falls, social embarrassment, hangovers, deteriorating family relationships, and arrests. Binge drinkers, however, are not necessarily alcoholics. They can often stop their behaviors without entering treatment centers.

From Use to Abuse

People who use illegal drugs at raves parties and other social occasions in order to relax and experience alternate states of consciousness are not necessarily drug addicts.

While drug abusers often create difficult problems for themselves such as getting in trouble with legal authorities and put themselves at risk of dying by overdose and at risk for addiction, they can usually quit on their own. They do not experience physical symptoms of withdrawal or extreme drug cravings the way drug addicts do when they quit.

Addiction means there is no choice but to keep using drugs or alcohol. Addicts and alcoholics will experience physical cravings and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they stop using drugs or drinking.

Another difference between abuse and addiction is the “lifestyle factor.”

  • An alcoholic’s or drug addict’s life revolves around drinking or using drugs.
  • Alcoholics often have drinking buddies and favorite places to drink, or else they drink alone at certain times of the day.
  • The same is true for a drug addict, who may spend most of his waking hours pursuing and using drugs.
  • Using drugs or alcohol becomes a person’s main priority in life, and they will sacrifice their career and family in order to continue in what they often know is a self-destructive lifestyle.


This simple four-question test will help you determine if your alcohol or drug use is getting out of control.

Do you ever think about CUTTING down on your substance use?

Do your family members or friends ANNOY you with their criticism and nagging about your substance abuse?

Do you feel GUILTY about your substance abuse?

Do you wake up thinking about drugs or wanting an EYE-OPENER – a drink the first thing in the morning?

If you answer yes to even one question, you may have a problem with substance abuse.

If you suspect your teen of drug abuse

Different drugs produce different symptoms. For example, a boy who is abusing steroids may develop “roid rage” or unexplained fits of anger. A girl who is addicted to painkillers may appear to be in a stupor all day long. In general, these are among the most common warning signs of adolescent and teen drug abuse:

  • Moodiness
  • Personality changes
  • Dropping old friends for new drug using friends
  • Drug paraphernalia in the teen’s room
  • Becoming secretive and uncommunicative
  • Hanging up on cell phone conversations or closing the computer when a parent enters the room
  • Stealing
  • Clothes and posters with drug associations
  • Loss of weight or sudden weight gain
  • Staying behind locked doors for hours on end
  • Sleeping all day long and staying up or out all night long
  • Skin lesions as a symptom of intravenous drug use
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Acting drunk, such as slurred speech, silliness, unsteady walk, etc.
  • Lethargy
  • Poor academic performance
  • Quitting after-school activities
  • Withdrawing from family activities

Effects of Drug Addiction

Denial is probably the largest effect of drug addiction. People who are addicted to drugs not only don’t want to admit it to themselves, they also don’t want to talk about it with other people, including close friends and family members. This can become very painful for those who are trying to help a loved one, as they find themselves in the unpleasant situation of dealing with an increasingly belligerent person who pushes them away and becomes more isolated.

The reality of drug addiction is that it affects not just the person who is addicted, but that person’s family, friends and coworkers as well. Because of this, it is essential that people understand not only what the signs and symptoms of drug addiction are, but what is involved in the recovery process.

To help someone through recovery, you need to be willing and able to provide that person with the emotional support they will need in order to be successful. Withdrawal symptoms can be extremely difficult and are most always unpleasant, so the addicted individual will also need the support of substance abuse professionals as they go through the recovery process.

For certain addictions, some type of outpatient therapy works best, but for others a residential treatment program for drug addiction may be the necessary course of action. In either case, therapy and support are essential to helping a drug addict overcome their addiction.

One of the most important things to remember about the treatment and recovery process is that it is ongoing. There are no quick fixes for drug addiction. Treatment is, instead, a lifelong journey that requires commitment from addicted individuals because they want to get well and live happier, healthier lives.