WebMD Logo Icon
WebMD Connect to Care helps you find services to manage your health. When you purchase any of these services, WebMD may receive a fee. WebMD does not endorse any product, service or treatment referred to on this page. X

Dependence vs Addiction: What's the Difference?

By Lan Pham, John McGuire
When it comes to substance use disorder, it's helpful to know the difference between drug dependence and addiction. Here’s what you need to know.

Drugs are chemical compounds that change how your body or mind works. When people hear the word “drugs,” they usually think of illegal drugs. However, prescription medicines and beverages like alcohol are also drugs. And around 60% of Americans over 12 years old reported using alcohol, tobacco, or illicit substances within one month of providing data for the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Certain drugs can cause the phenomenon of dependencewhich is related to, but not the same asdrug addiction. Here, we cover the difference between drug dependence and addiction. We also explain how knowing this distinction can help you seek treatment.

What is Drug Dependence?

You can define drug dependence by the effects that the drug has on you. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug dependence is defined by the presence of withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using a drug.

Withdrawal symptoms vary based on the substance being used, but they are often uncomfortable. For instance, caffeine will typically cause mild withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and irritability, while opioids can cause more serious withdrawal symptoms like rapid heartbeat, hallucinations, and seizures. 

NIDA also notes that tapering off of a drug, rather than stopping it abruptly, is typically required for a more comfortable withdrawal process once someone has become dependent. It's also important to note that the presence of dependence does not automatically indicate addiction. 

What is Addiction?

Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is different from drug dependence because addiction describes a diagnosable medical condition. Is addiction a disease? Yes, it is. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, drug addiction is a chronic brain disease caused by a combination of factors—including brain circuitry, genetics, social environment, and life experiences.

NIDA defines addiction as the compulsive use of drugs that occurs despite negative consequences. Other characteristics of addiction include:

  • The inability to stop using a drug
  • Failure to fulfill work, social, or family responsibilities
  • Tolerance and withdrawal—which may or may not occur, depending on the substance being misused

Physical dependence can occur as a result of long-term use of a drug—including use that has been guided by prescription, NIDA notes. Therefore, physical dependence on a drug is not synonymous with addiction, although dependence is often present with addiction.

How Do I Know if I Need Help?

If you have some of the signs of drug dependence or addiction, how can you tell when it’s appropriate to seek treatment? “Signs and symptoms of addiction can vary from person to person, but if you are asking yourself whether or not you need help, more often than not you do,” Tucker Woods, DO, an Addiction Medicine Specialist and Chief Medical Officer at Restorative Management Corp, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.