Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana and nicotine also are considered drugs. When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.
Drug addiction can start with experimental use of a recreational drug in social situations, and, for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. For others, particularly with opioids, drug addiction begins with exposure to prescribed medications, or receiving medications from a friend or relative who has been prescribed the medication.
The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction 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).
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.
Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:
• Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — daily or even several times a day
• Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
• Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
• Taking larger amounts of the drug over a longer period of time than you intended
• Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
• Spending money on the drug, even though you can’t afford it
• Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
• Continuing to use the drug, even though you know it’s causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
• Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
• Driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the drug
• Spending a good deal of time getting the drug, using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
• Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
• Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug
Recognizing unhealthy drug use 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:
• Problems at school or work — frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance
• Physical health issues — lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, or red eyes
• Neglected appearance — lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks
• Changes in behavior — exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering his or her room or being secretive about where he or she goes with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends
• Money issues — sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they’re being sold to support drug use
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 illegal drugs, and is often the first drug tried.
Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:
• A sense of euphoria or feeling “high”
• A heightened sense of visual, auditory and taste perception
• Increased blood pressure and heart rate
• Red eyes
• Dry mouth
• Decreased coordination
• Difficulty concentrating or remembering
• Slowed reaction time
• Anxiety or paranoid thinking
• Cannabis odor on clothes or yellow fingertips
• Exaggerated cravings for certain foods at unusual times
Long-term (chronic) use is often associated with:
• Decreased mental sharpness
• Poor performance at school or at work
• Reduced number of friends and interests