Addiction is a disease that affects your brain and behavior. When you’re addicted to drugs, you can’t resist the urge to use them, no matter how much harm the drugs may cause. The earlier you get treatment for drug addiction (also called substance use disorder), the more likely you are to avoid some of the more dire consequences of the disease.
Drug addiction isn’t about just heroin, cocaine, or other illegal drugs. You can get addicted to alcohol, nicotine, sleep and anti-anxiety medications, and other legal substances.
You can also get addicted to prescription or illegally obtained narcotic pain medications, or opioids. This problem is at epidemic levels in the United States. In 2018, opioids played a role in two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths.
At first, you may choose to take a drug because you like the way it makes you feel. You may think you can control how much and how often you use it. But over time, drugs change how your brain works. These physical changes can last a long time. They make you lose control and can lead to damaging behaviors.
Addiction vs. Misuse and Tolerance
Drug misuse is when you use legal or illegal substances in ways you shouldn’t. You might take more than the regular dose of pills or use someone else’s prescription. You may misuse drugs to feel good, ease stress, or avoid reality. But usually, you’re able to change your unhealthy habits or stop using altogether.
Addiction is when you can’t stop. Not when it puts your health in danger. Not when it causes financial, emotional, and other problems for you or your loved ones. That urge to get and use drugs can fill up every minute of the day, even if you want to quit.
Addiction also is different from physical dependence or tolerance. In cases of physical dependence, withdrawal symptoms happen when you suddenly stop a substance. Tolerance happens when a dose of a substance becomes less effective over time.
When you use opioids for pain for a long time, for example, you may develop tolerance and even physical dependence. This doesn’t mean you’re addicted. In general, when narcotics are used under proper medical supervision, addiction happens in only a small percentage of people.
Effect on Your Brain
Your brain is wired to make you want to repeat experiences that make you feel good. So you’re motivated to do them again and again.
The drugs that may be addictive target your brain’s reward system. They flood your brain with a chemical called dopamine. This triggers a feeling of intense pleasure. You keep taking the drug to chase that high.
Over time, your brain gets used to the extra dopamine. So you might need to take more of the drug to get the same good feeling. And other things you enjoyed, like food and hanging out with family, may give you less pleasure.
When you use drugs for a long time, it can cause changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well. They can hurt your:
- Ability to learn
Together, these brain changes can drive you to seek out and take drugs in ways that are beyond your control.
Who’s Most Likely to Become Addicted?
Each person’s body and brain are different. People also react differently to drugs. Some love the feeling the first time they try it and want more. Others hate it and never try again.
Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted. But it can happen to anyone and at any age. Some things may raise your chances of addiction, including:
Family history. Your genes are responsible for about half of your odds. If your parents or siblings have problems with alcohol or drugs, you’re more likely as well. All genders are equally likely to become addicted.
Early drug use. Children’s brains are still growing, and drug use can change that. So taking drugs at an early age may make you more likely to get addicted when you get older.
Mental disorders. If you’re depressed, have trouble paying attention, or worry constantly, you have a higher chance of addiction. You may turn to drugs as a way to try to feel better. A history of trauma in your life also makes you more likely to have addiction.
Troubled relationships. If you grew up with family troubles and aren’t close to your parents or siblings, it may raise your chances of addiction.
Signs of Addiction
You may have one or more of these warning signs:
- An urge to use the drug every day, or many times a day
- Taking more drugs than you want to, and for longer than you thought you would
- Always having the drug with you, and buying it even if you can’t afford it
- Using drugs even if they cause you trouble at work or make you lash out at family and friends
- Spending more time alone.
- Not taking care of yourself or caring how you look
- Stealing, lying, or doing dangerous things, like driving while high or having unsafe sex
- Spending most of your time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of the drug
- Feeling sick when you try to quit
How to Prevent Addiction to Prescribed Painkillers
Most people who take their pain medicine as directed by their doctor do not become addicted, even if they take the medicine for a long time. Fears about addiction should not prevent you from using narcotics to relieve your pain, but it's smart to use caution.
But if you’ve misused drugs or alcohol in the past or have family members who have, you may be at a higher risk.
To avoid pain medicine addiction:
- Take the drug exactly as your doctor prescribes.
- Tell your doctor about any personal or family history of drug misuse or addiction; this will help them prescribe the medicines that will work best for you.
Remember, it’s common for people to develop a tolerance to pain medication and to need higher doses to get the same level of pain relief. This is normal and is not a sign of addiction. With addiction, you may need to use higher doses, but it’s not for pain relief. Still, talk to your doctor if this effect becomes troubling.
Don't Wait; Get Help Now
If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, talk to your doctor.
Getting better from drug addiction can take time. There’s no cure, but treatment can help you stop using drugs and stay drug-free. Your treatment may include counseling, medicine, or both. Talk to your doctor to figure out the best plan for you.
Drug overdoses can be accidental or intentional. They occur when a person takes more than the medically recommended dose. However, some people may be more sensitive to certain medications, so the low (more dangerous) end of a drug may be toxic for them; a dose that is still within the range of acceptable medical use may be too much for their bodies to handle.
Illicit drugs, used to get high, may be taken in overdose amounts when a person's metabolism cannot detoxify the drug fast enough to avoid unintended side effects.
Exposure to chemicals, plants, and other toxic substances that can cause harm are called poisonings. The higher the dose or the longer the exposure, the worse the poisoning. Two examples are carbon monoxide poisoning and mushroom poisoning.
Drug Overdose Causes
The cause of a drug overdose is either by accidental overuse or by intentional misuse. Accidental overdoses result from either a young child or an adult with impaired mental abilities swallowing a medication left within their grasp. An adult (especially seniors or people taking many medications) can mistakenly ingest the incorrect medication or take the wrong dose of a medication. Purposeful overdoses are for a desired effect, either to get high or to harm oneself.
Young children may swallow drugs by accident because of their curiosity about medications they may find. Children younger than age 5 (especially age 6 months to 3 years) tend to place everything they find into their mouth. Drug overdoses in this age group are generally caused when someone accidentally leaves a medication within the child's reach. Toddlers, when they find medications, often share them with other children. Therefore, if you suspect an overdose in one child while other children are around, those other children may have taken the medication, too.
Adolescents and adults are more likely to overdose on one or more drugs in order to harm themselves. Attempting to harm oneself may represent a suicide attempt. People who purposefully overdose on medications frequently have mental health conditions. These conditions may or may not have been diagnosed before.
Drug Overdose Symptoms
Symptoms of a drug overdose include (but aren't limited to):
- Problems with vital signs (temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure) are possible and can be life-threatening. Vital sign values can be increased, decreased, or completely absent.
- Sleepiness, confusion, and coma (when someone cannot be aroused) are common and can be dangerous if the person breathes vomit into the lungs (aspirated).
- Skin can be cool and sweaty, or hot and dry.
- Chest pain is possible and can be caused by heart or lung damage. Shortness of breath may occur. Breathing may get rapid, slow, deep, or shallow.
- Belly pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are possible. Vomiting blood, or blood in bowel movements, can be life-threatening.
Drug Overdose First Aid
Your doctor, your local poison center, or the emergency department of your local hospital may be able to help determine the seriousness of a suspected drug overdose. After a drug overdose, you'll need immediate and accurate information about the specific name of the drug, the amount of the drug ingested, and the time when the drug was taken. Often, the bottle the drug came in will have the information needed.
Some doctors' offices are equipped to handle overdoses; others are not. Some doctors' offices advise their patients to go to a hospital's emergency department. In life-threatening circumstances, an ambulance should usually be summoned by calling 911. You are not expected to know when a drug overdose is serious. If you cannot reach a qualified professional by telephone to discuss the overdose, it would be prudent for you to take the overdosed person to the nearest hospital's emergency department or medical facility.
Take caution when dealing with a drug overdose. Each person responds differently, and reactions are hard to predict. Many people who are directed to go to the emergency department may not have any physical signs of poisoning. Others will become quite ill.
- A person unwilling to go to the hospital may need persuasion by trained professionals in emergency medical services (paramedics and ambulance personnel) or law enforcement. You may call 911 for these services. Family members can often help persuade the person to seek medical care.
- Anyone who is with a person who overdoses on drugs can assist by finding all medication or chemical containers and bringing them to the emergency department doctor.
Know that doctors and other medical professionals will NOT turn you into the police or “tell" on you. They’re only there to help, so do not hesitate to go to the hospital or take a loved one.