Drug & Alcohol Addiction

Jillian Foglesong Stabile
Calendar icon Last Updated: 01/25/2024

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What is Drug Addiction?

Addiction is classified as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder that affects one in ten Americans. By continually using a substance, whether it’s a prescription drug or an illicit drug like heroin, the body begins to become physically and psychologically dependent.

Most drugs provide the brain with a surge of dopamine, a neurochemical that creates a pleasurable high. As use continues, tolerance develops, and the brain becomes unable to produce its own dopamine without help from the drug. These drug-induced changes that occur in the brain and the body are the reason it’s so difficult to quit using. Without a steady supply of the drug of choice, you will experience withdrawal symptoms that are both physically painful and mentally uncomfortable – some can even become life threatening when you attempt to reduce or stop drug use.

Millions of Americans are dependent on prescription drugs, but a large portion of this group ultimately turns to illegal drugs as a cheaper and more accessible way to maintain their habit. If you or someone you love is currently abusing a substance and unable or unwilling to stop, help is available.

Risks of Drug Addiction

A treatment gap exists in the United States where over 22 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder, yet only 10% receive the treatment they require. This is often due to a combination of factors, including a lack of recovery resources, lack of funding or insurance to pay for rehab, shame related to the stigma of addiction, and denial they are suffering from drug addiction.

The opioid epidemic plaguing America is fueled by prescription opioids, fentanyl, and illicit heroin. Nearly 110,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2022, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A total of 109,680 overdose deaths occurred in 2022, the highest number ever recorded in a calendar year. In 2021, the country saw 109,179 overdose deaths, which held the record until 2022. Unfortunately, preliminary CDC data for 2023 shows we’re on track to break the record a third straight year, with more than 111,000 people dying from drug overdose during a 12-month period ending in April of 2023.

Types of Commonly Abused Drugs

The types of drugs abused tend to vary in the effects they cause and the symptoms they produce. What they have in common, however, are the risk factors posed and the damage they cause.

  • Cocaine: One of the most commonly abused stimulant drugs in the U.S. with over 2.1 million Americans admitting to use of this drug. Cocaine is highly addictive and leads to thousands of emergency room visits annually.
  • Crack: Made from cocaine, crack is more potent, and creates severe health risks including lung trauma, addiction, and overdose. This drug is smoked, producing a short-term high in its users.
  • Ecstasy: Also called MDMA, ecstasy is a stimulant drug that distorts a person’s sense of space and time. After long-term ecstasy abuse, the brain will require months or even years to rebalance its chemicals.
  • Hallucinogens: This group of drugs changes thoughts, and feelings, distorting reality around its user. Long-term use can cause psychosis, mental health issues, and death.
  • Heroin: This is one of the most abused, and most deadly, illicit drugs in the U.S. Heroin claimed over 15,000 American lives in 2016, with overdose rates tripling in the past five years. Heroin can create serious health problems, including overdose and death.
  • Ketamine: This drug is used in hospitals and veterinary clinics, but it is also abused at street level to produce feelings of sedation and hallucinations. Ketamine is highly addictive both physically and psychologically.
  • Marijuana: Although legalized in some states, the risks associated with long-term marijuana use are proven. Users can experience mental health issues, such as depression, as well as physical dependence and addiction. Marijuana is often linked to DUI crashes.
  • Meth: Over 1.5 Americans are currently addicted to meth, making it one of the most abused substances. Meth is “cooked” using cheap ingredients and dangerous chemicals, resulting in high rates of overdose and death. Users can smoke, inject, or snort this drug.
  • Opiates: From naturally occurring opiates like heroin to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the U.S. is entrenched in an epidemic the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Fentanyl is responsible for up to 80% of opioid-related deaths across the nation, as it’s often secretly added to street drugs or pressed in counterfeit pills.
  • Bath Salts: An addictive substance that is snorted to produce dopamine levels that are ten times higher than what cocaine produces. Bath salt intoxication can lead to overdose and death.

What Are the Signs of Drug Addiction?

Abusing drugs causes unique symptoms, depending on the drug and amount used. Obviously, overdose remains the main concern for most drugs. If someone is exhibiting the following symptoms, call emergency services immediately:

  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Fingertips or lips turning blue
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Loss of consciousness or drowsiness
  • Pinpoint pupils or extremely dilated pupils
  • Limp arms and legs
  • Chest pains
  • Slowing or stoppage of breathing
  • Slowing heart rate
  • Vomiting

Remember when calling emergency services to disclose as much information as possible about the drugs that were taken, and the dosages. Even if they are illegal substances, most overdose calls are responded to by EMTs who are more interested in saving a life, than calling up criminal charges.

You may also notice behavioral changes due to drug use, which could indicate an addiction:

  • Prioritizing drugs over hobbies, activities, or obligations
  • Missing school or work
  • Criminal activity to maintain drug use (e.g., stealing)
  • Problems maintaining relationships with friends and family
  • Mental health issues such as anxiety, and depression

What Are the Stages of Addiction?

Although drug side effects may vary, there are five universal stages of addiction experienced, regardless of substances abused:

Stage 1: Initial Use

When a user first tries a drug. Over half of all people will try a drug before they reach 18 years old. Many drugs carry a risk of addiction from their first use, such as meth.

Stage 2: Experimentation

The substance is used socially, with friends, and without cravings. The substance can be used casually, at parties, or now and again.

Stage 3: Regular Use

When use starts to become a habit, instead of a casual experiment. Users may start to have the drug every weekend, or after work each day. They will also begin to use on their own; it will be less of a social event.

Stage 4: Dependence

Tolerance sets in, and requires the user to have more of a substance to achieve the same effects as before. The user is now physically dependent on the drug and will need to continue using to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Negative health consequences may start to set in, along with behavioral changes.

Stage 5: Addiction

The user is unable to stop using and is not deterred by negative consequences of their drug use. They prioritize getting high above all other obligations. Drug addicts may start to isolate themselves, may lose interest in regular activities, and may start to miss school or work. They may partake in drug-seeking behavior and will take on riskier activities to score their drug of choice. At this stage, most users will be in denial about their addiction, attempting to hide their use from friends and family. Users are now physically and psychologically dependent on this drug and will need treatment to stop their addiction.

When to Seek Help for Drug Addiction

If you are unable to stop using or are experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to reduce the dosage, you should get help with your addiction. Withdrawal episodes result from growing brain chemical imbalances that ultimately disrupt the brain’s ability to maintain the body’s systems as normal.

While withdrawal effects can vary between alcohol and drug use, as well as variations seen from one person to another person, some of the most common types of effects experienced include:

  • Profuse sweating
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances, such as problems falling asleep, staying asleep or waking early
  • Feelings of depression
  • Bouts of anxiety
  • Hypersensitivity to light, sounds, and touch
  • Muscle aches
  • Muddled thinking
  • Cravings

The longer a person keeps abusing drugs and alcohol the more severe withdrawal effects become. Also, if you have any significant health problems that arise from use, you should seek help immediately.

Treatment Options Available for Drug Addiction

Detox Treatment

Detox treatment provides you with the supports needed to stop abusing drugs or alcohol. These supports typically take the form of:

While not everyone who enters recovery will require an in-house detox program, those with long histories of substance abuse or chronic users will most definitely require some form of professional detox treatment help.

Inpatient Treatment

Long-term drug and alcohol addictions often leave people in poor physical and mental health. Both inpatient and residential treatment programs operate as live-in treatment environments, so a person lives at the treatment facility for the duration of the program.

Inpatient care is recommended for most people, as it allows therapists to work intensively on personal issues, away from your home and the usual triggers for relapse.  Inpatient programs provide ongoing medical, psychological, and addiction treatment. These programs tend to run anywhere from two weeks to three months, depending on the severity of the addiction.

Inpatient programs offer medication-assisted treatment to help wean you off the drug slowly and reduce withdrawal symptoms. This is ideal for long-term drug users.

Outpatient Treatment

If you’re at the early stages of drug and alcohol addiction and still have work and family obligations to meet, an outpatient treatment program offers the type of flexibility you’ll need. In effect, residential and outpatient programs offer the same types of services only you don’t have to live at the facility with outpatient treatment. However, they take longer to complete, as therapists work at a slower pace, only seeing patients a few times per week.

Services offered may include:

These types of interventions help you replace the destructive thinking and behaviors that drive substance abuse with a mindset that can support a drug-free lifestyle.

Sober Living Programs

For people coming off severe drug and alcohol addiction, going from a treatment program to regular, everyday life can be risky regarding the pressures and temptations that daily life brings. Sober living programs act as a bridge between the treatment program environment and going back home. It is essential to set up aftercare treatment, to help promote successful long-term recovery. Therapy programs can assist in treating underlying mental health issues, as well as identifying strategies for avoiding relapse.

Types of Drug Addiction

Medical Reviewer
Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD
Family Physician
Read Bio
Jillian F, MD is a board-certified Family Physician who enjoys full scope Family Medicine including obstetrics, and women’s health, as well as caring for children and adults of all ages. She manages a number of health conditions including mental health and patients with a history of substance abuse.