An Overview of Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a severe and chronic disorder that impacts roughly 10% of the U.S. adult population. The disease is complex, and the way it manifests, and the reasons why a person misuses drugs, all vary significantly from one individual to the next. Unfortunately, half of all Americans have been impacted by drug abuse and addiction. Further studies indicate that a staggering one in three people knows someone addicted to opioids.

Also called substance use disorder, drug addiction impacts a person on a physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral level. Although symptoms manifest in a person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, addiction truly originates in the brain and is a brain disease. Epithets and pejoratives like junkie, dope fiend, or crackhead dehumanize the people who are afflicted with this disorder. While society has stigmatized drug addicts for centuries, the scientific and medical communities regard addiction as a disorder in need of medical treatment and counseling. Despite the severity of addiction disorder, it is a treatable, manageable condition.

What is drug addiction?

Drug addiction, or substance use disorder, is a health condition that directly impacts a person’s brain chemistry, motivations, and behavior. When someone is addicted to drugs, they have an uncontrollable desire to get high and use drugs regardless of the consequences. Trying to quit or cut back on drugs leads to painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine addiction all fall under the category of substance use disorder.

No matter what happens, people who are addicted can’t just quit using drugs. This is why some people will have multiple DUI felony convictions, or severe physical health problems and still use and abuse drugs and alcohol. Addiction completely hijacks the brain’s risk and reward neural pathways, which directly impact a person’s behavior and ability to assess risk.

People can become addicted to a substance after just one use. Experimenting with recreational drugs at parties or raves is a risk factor for later addiction disorder, although it is impossible to accurately predict who can experiment with a drug and not become addicted, and who will become addicted after a single use.

Also, some substances are more addictive than others. One hit of heroin can cause immediate and severe addiction, while someone can drink in social settings and not become addicted to alcohol. People can also spend years binge drinking, but not become addicted for a long time.

Prescription medications, although they are legal and given by a doctor, can also be addictive. Stealing a prescription, or taking a family member or friend’s prescription can lead to addiction just as easily as taking medicine as prescribed by a doctor. People who were prescribed legal opioid medicines can go on to develop an addiction to heroin once their legal supplies are exhausted.

What are the risk factors for addiction?

How quickly a person becomes addicted, and the risk of addiction vary for each person and every drug. Some substances come with a higher risk profile for addiction, and people who use these drugs can become addicted very quickly, even after just one use.

Also, tolerance is a significant part of the disease of drug addiction. The brain and the body will become used to a particular dose of a drug, and need more of that substance to get the same desired effect. People who are becoming dependent on a drug and going down the road to addiction will start taking more and more of the substance to get the same, intense high they got the first time they tried the drug. Unfortunately, this completely hijacks the body’s systems and leads to physical dependence.

Once a dependence occurs, people will need to have the drug present in their system at all times to feel normal. Quitting cold-turkey or reducing their drug use leads to painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawals can be potentially dangerous and are one of the reasons why many people who are addicted won’t seek treatment.

What drugs are the most addictive?

Practically any substance comes with a risk of addiction, and even certain behaviors, such as gambling, can be addictive. However, some drugs are more addictive than others. The top three most addictive substances are:

1. Cocaine


Cocaine is a stimulant drug in powder form that is processed from the coca plant of South America. An estimated one million people are addicted to cocaine in the U.S. When cocaine is manufactured into a rock formation, it is called crack cocaine. In most cases, users will either snort, smoke, or inject cocaine. Crack cocaine is typically smoked, while the powder form of the drug can be snorted, rubbed into the gum line, or dissolved into liquid and injected.

The drug produces an intense, quick high that causes increased alertness, focus, and energy. People will typically binge cocaine because the high is short-lived. Once it wears off, users will experience a severe crash that is characterized by lethargy, depression, and cravings for cocaine.

2. Heroin, Opioids, and Opiates


These drugs activate and bind to the brain’s natural opioid receptors. The drugs are highly effective at blocking and diminishing both physical and mental pain, and they produce an intense, soft, and warm euphoric high that is incredibly addictive. The high produced with these drugs occurs because the substances create an increased supply of dopamine in the brain.

Unfortunately, the over-prescription of powerful opioid medications in the 1990s and 2000s has led to a marked increase in addiction to these drugs. People who took opioid prescriptions as directed can even become dependent and addicted. Illegal heroin can be cheaper and easier to access than prescription opioids, leading to an increase in heroin addiction rates. Opioid drugs are the main culprit behind the rise in overdose death rates since 2014. Since 2017, it was estimated that more people had died from the opioid crisis than in the Vietnam War.

An estimated 25% of people who try heroin for the first time will become addicted to the drug. Around half a million people in the U.S. are thought to be addicted to heroin. Withdrawal symptoms from opioid narcotics like heroin are incredibly intense and severe and are similar to the symptoms experienced when someone has the flu. Depression and anxiety are also common, prolonged withdrawal symptoms. Cravings to use are also intense once someone quits heroin or opioids, which gives these substances a high-risk profile for relapse.

3. Alcohol

Alcohol may be legal, but it is a potentially dangerous and addictive substance. The fact that alcohol use is socially acceptable and widespread also increase the substance’s addiction risk profile. Among youths aged 15 to 24, alcohol is a significant factor in the leading causes of death for this age group – suicide, violence, and accidents.

Alcohol impacts the brain’s dopamine levels and increases positive feelings and risk-taking behavior. The substance also depresses the central nervous system, decreasing respiratory rates, and blood pressure. People who drink to excess will also take risks they wouldn’t normally engage in, and their cognition and motor skills will be impaired. These effects of alcohol are the main culprit behind the increased numbers of accidents, injuries, and assaults among people who drink.

Abusing alcohol frequently can lead to dependence and addiction. People who are dependent on alcohol and try to cut back can experience a range of painful and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. For people addicted to alcohol, it is critical that they detox under the care and supervision of skilled medical professionals.

What are the signs and symptoms of drug addiction?

Some of the symptoms of drug addiction will vary slightly depending on what substance a person is abusing. For example, people who abuse alcohol will exhibit slurred speech and will also smell like alcohol. People addicted to heroin may appear sluggish and have track marks on their skin. But in general, drug addiction, no matter what substance someone is abusing, has a set of behavioral and emotional symptoms that are present for any drug.

  • Denial of drug use and of having an addiction problem

  • A compulsion to continue using despite the negative consequences

  • Hiding drug use and increased secretiveness

  • Changes in mood and behavior

  • Changes in weight and sleeping patterns

  • Financial, legal, and relationship problems

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms during cessation or cutting back on drug use

What can someone do to get help?

Addiction is characterized by an increase in denial and delusion about how severe and devastating a person’s drinking or drug use has become. For many people who are addicted, they won’t even realize they have a problem unless a friend or loved one points it out them. Others may know they are addicted but are afraid of what will happen if they attempt to detox and go through withdrawals.

Education about addiction treatment options is key to overcoming these fears and starting down the path to recovery. Speaking to a qualified team of drug abuse counselors is vital for understanding the different rehab options people can utilize and how to manage and overcome withdrawal symptoms with help from medical professionals.

Are you or a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol? The counselors at Mission Harbor Behavioral Health are standing by to answer your questions and assist you and your family with addiction treatment. 

Please contact Mission Harbor today to learn more about our detox and rehab treatment plans.