Drug addiction

Mayo Brandtag

Definition

Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a dependence on a legal or illegal drug or medication. Keep in mind that alcohol and nicotine are legal substances, but are also considered drugs.

When you're addicted, you're not able to control your drug use and you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes. Drug addiction can cause an intense craving for the drug. You may want to quit, but most people find they can't do it on their own.

Drug addiction can cause serious, long-term consequences, including problems with physical and mental health, relationships, employment, and the law.

You may need help from your doctor, family, friends, support groups or an organized treatment program to overcome your drug addiction and stay drug-free.

Symptoms

Most drug addictions start with experimental use of a drug in social situations. For some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. The risk of addiction and how fast you become dependent varies by drug. Some drugs have a higher risk and cause dependency more quickly than others.

As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug to get high. Soon you may need the drug just to feel good. As your drug use increases, you may find that it's increasingly difficult to go without the drug. Attempts to stop drug use may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill (withdrawal symptoms).

Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

Recognizing drug abuse in family members

Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug use. Possible indications that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:

Recognizing signs of drug use or intoxication

Signs and symptoms of drug use or intoxication may vary, depending on the type of drug. Below you'll find several examples.

Marijuana, hashish and other cannabis-containing substances

People use cannabis by smoking, eating, or inhaling a vaporized form of the drug. Cannabis often precedes or is used along with other substances, such as alcohol or other illegal drugs, and is often the first drug tried.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Long-term (chronic) use is often associated with:

Synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones

Two groups of synthetic drugs — synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones — are illegal in most states. The effects of these drugs can be dangerous and unpredictable, as there is no quality control and some ingredients may not be known.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called "K2" or "Spice," are sprayed on dried herbs and then smoked, but can be prepared as an herbal tea. Despite manufacturer claims, these are chemical compounds rather than "natural" or harmless products. These drugs can produce a "high" similar to marijuana and have become a popular but dangerous alternative.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Substituted cathinones, also called "bath salts," are psychoactive substances similar to amphetamines such as Ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine. Despite the name, these are not bath products such as Epsom salts. Substituted cathinones can be eaten, inhaled or injected and are highly addictive. These drugs can cause severe intoxication that results in dangerous health effects or even death.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are prescription central nervous system depressants. They're often used and abused in search for a sense of relaxation or a desire to "switch off" or forget stress-related thoughts or feelings.

Phenobarbital, amobarbital (Amytal) and secobarbital (Seconal Sodium) are examples of barbiturates. Examples of benzodiazepines include sedatives, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax, Niravam), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Meth, cocaine and other stimulants

Stimulants include amphetamines, meth (methamphetamine), cocaine and methylphenidate (Ritalin). They are often used and abused in search of a "high," or to boost energy, to improve performance at work or school, or to lose weight or control appetite.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

Club drugs

Club drugs are commonly used at clubs, concerts and parties. Examples include Ecstasy or Molly (MDMA), gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol, or roofie) and ketamine. These drugs are not all in the same category, but they share some similar effects and dangers, including long-term harmful effects.

Because GHB and Rohypnol can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, confusion and memory loss, the potential for sexual misconduct or sexual assault is associated with the use of these drugs.

Signs and symptoms of use of club drugs can include:

Hallucinogens

Use of hallucinogens can produce different signs and symptoms, depending on the drug. The most common hallucinogens are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine (PCP).

LSD use may cause:

PCP use may cause:

Inhalants

Signs and symptoms of inhalant use vary, depending on the substance. Some commonly inhaled substances include glue, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt tip marker fluid, gasoline, cleaning fluids and household aerosol products. Due to the toxic nature of these substances, users may develop brain damage.

Signs and symptoms of use can include:

Narcotic painkillers

Opioids are narcotic, painkilling drugs produced from opium or made synthetically. This class of drugs includes, among others, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone and oxycodone. Some people who've been using opioids over a long period of time may need physician-prescribed temporary or long-term drug substitution during treatment.

Signs and symptoms of narcotic use and dependence can include:

When to see a doctor

If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, get help. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances for a long-term recovery. Talk with your primary doctor or see a mental health provider, such as a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

Make an appointment to see a doctor if:

If you're not ready to approach a doctor, help lines or hotlines may be a good place to learn about treatment. You can find these lines listed in the phone book or on the Internet.

Seek emergency help if you or someone you know has taken a drug and:

Staging an intervention

People struggling with addiction usually deny they have a problem and are reluctant to seek treatment. An intervention presents a loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.

An intervention should be carefully planned and may be done by family and friends in consultation with a doctor or professional such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or directed by an intervention professional. It involves family and friends and sometimes co-workers, clergy or others who care about a person struggling with addiction.

During the intervention, these people gather together to have a direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment.

Causes

Like many mental health disorders, several factors may contribute to development of drug addiction and dependence. The main factors are:

Changes in the brain

Physical addiction appears to occur when repeated use of a drug changes the way your brain feels pleasure. The addicting drug causes physical changes to some nerve cells (neurons) in your brain. Neurons use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. These changes can remain long after you stop using the drug.

Risk factors

People of any age, sex or economic status can become addicted to a drug. However, certain factors can affect the likelihood and speed of developing an addiction:

Complications

Drug use can have significant and damaging short-term and long-term effects. Taking some drugs can be particularly risky, especially if you take high doses or combine them with other drugs or alcohol. Here are some examples.

Other life-changing complications

Dependence on drugs can create a number of dangerous and damaging complications, including:

Preparing for your appointment

It may help to get an independent perspective from someone you trust and who knows you well. You can start by discussing your substance use with your primary doctor, or ask for a referral to a specialist in drug addiction, such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or a psychiatrist or psychologist. Take a relative or friend along.

What you can do

To prepare for your appointment:

Basic questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask questions anytime during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Be ready to answer them to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on. Your doctor may ask:

Tests and diagnosis

Diagnosing drug addiction (also called substance use disorder) requires a thorough evaluation and often includes an assessment by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. Blood, urine or other lab tests are used to assess drug use, but they're not a diagnostic test for addiction. These tests may be used for monitoring treatment and recovery.

For diagnosis of a substance use disorder, most mental health professionals use criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions. This manual is also used by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.

DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorder include a behavior pattern of drug use that causes significant problems and distress, regardless of what drug is used.

You may have a substance use disorder if at least two of these issues occur within a 12-month period:

Treatments and drugs

The treatment options explained below can help you overcome an addiction and stay drug-free.

Chemical dependence treatment programs

Treatment programs usually offer:

Detoxification

The goal of detoxification, also called "detox" or withdrawal therapy, is to enable you to stop taking the addicting drug as quickly and safely as possible. For some people, it may be safe to undergo withdrawal therapy on an outpatient basis. Others may need admission to a hospital or a residential treatment center.

Withdrawal from different categories of drugs — such as depressants, stimulants or opioids — produces different side effects and requires different approaches. Detoxification may involve gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

Counseling

As part of a drug treatment program, counseling — also called talk therapy or psychotherapy — can be done by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or licensed alcohol and drug counselor with an individual, family or group. The therapist or counselor can:

Self-help groups

Many, though not all, self-help support groups use the 12-step model first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Self-help groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, help people who are addicted to drugs.

The self-help support group message is that addiction is a chronic disorder with a danger of relapse. Self-help support groups can decrease the sense of shame and isolation that can lead to relapse.

Your therapist or counselor can help you locate a self-help group. You may also find support groups in your community or on the Internet.

Coping and support

Overcoming an addiction and staying drug-free require a persistent effort. Learning new coping skills and knowing where to find help are essential. Taking these actions can help:

Prevention

The best way to prevent an addiction to an illegal drug is not to take the drug at all.

Use care when taking an addictive prescription drug. Doctors prescribe these medications at safe doses and monitor their use so that you're not given too great a dose or for too long a time. If you feel you need to take more than the prescribed dose of a medication, talk to your doctor.

Preventing drug abuse in children and teenagers

Take these steps to help prevent drug abuse in your children and teenagers:

Preventing a relapse

Once you've been addicted to a drug, you're at high risk of falling back into a pattern of addiction. If you do start using the drug, it's likely you'll lose control over its use again — even if you've had treatment and you haven't used the drug for some time.


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Last Updated On: 2014-12-05

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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