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The 5 Most Addictive Drugs, and How You Can Get Help

By Neha Kashyap
Learn more about the most addictive drugs and how to get help.

According to 2019 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data, about 20 million Americans live with a drug or alcohol addiction. In the past month:

  • 35.8 million people used an illegal drug
  • 140 million people drank alcohol
  • 45.9 million people smoked cigarettes

Addiction is a compulsive need to use a substance despite the consequences, and there are some drugs that could be more addictive than others. 

The 5 Most Addictive Drugs

Heroin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin is the fastest acting and most abused opioid. Opioids are drugs that relieve pain and provide a euphoric “high.” Opioids include prescription painkillers, like oxycodone and morphine, or illegal drugs like heroin and street fentanyl. 

According to a 2020 review published by the National Institutes of Health, about 80 percent of heroin users began with abusing prescription opioids, and about 400,000 Americans aged 12 and older live with heroin addiction. 

Cocaine/Crack. Cocaine is a highly addictive illegal powder. It’s a stimulant, which means its users become more alert, active, and euphoric before crashing. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, crack is a type of smoked cocaine that is faster acting but almost chemically identical. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, five and a half million people used cocaine, including crack, in 2019, and about a million of those people were addicted.

Methamphetamines. Methamphetamines, also called meth or crystal, are highly addictive stimulants that cause a physical high and euphoric feelings. According to a 2019 report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about two million people aged 12 and older used meth in 2019, and half of those were addicted. Long-term meth abuse can cause brain damage, psychosis, and organ failure. About 15 percent of overdoses in the US in 2017 involved meth and half of those overdoses also involved an opioid, says the NIDA.

Alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the brain’s reactions and functioning. It also reduces anxiety in lighter doses. The availability of alcohol and its popularity can make it more addictive, Antonello Bonci, MD, founder of Global Institutes on Addictions in Miami, Florida, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

"In terms of the sheer number of people addicted, alcohol is the substance with the highest number of cases worldwide,” Bonci says.

Nicotine. Nicotine, the addictive chemical found in tobacco products like cigarettes, can be just as addictive as heroin or cocaine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking cigarettes can cause cancer, heart and lung disease, diabetes, and strokes.

“Prior studies have attempted to define the addictiveness of drugs of abuse as a function of harm to self and harm to others. In this framework, the most harmful drugs include alcohol, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, and tobacco,” Harshal Kirane, MD, medical director of Wellbridge Treatment Centers in New York state tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

It’s never too late to begin the path to sobriety. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

Treatment & Resources: General Information