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A drug or alcohol addiction can come about abruptly and is defined by a physical and psychological dependence on a substance. Many substances can cause an addiction, including alcohol, prescription medications and illicit drugs.

What Is Addiction?

Alcoholic manWhen someone develops a compulsive, drug-seeking behavior regardless of consequences, an addiction has likely formed. Many addictions are marked by a tolerance (needing more of the drug to get the desired effect) and the presence of withdrawal symptoms when stopping use.

There are many addictive substances that have different effects on people. While some addictions are both physical and psychological, others may be mostly psychological.

Addiction is complex: its psychological and physical nature often feed off one another.

Many people think of addiction and drug rehabilitation and picture something like a Hollywood movie — someone in a small room experiencing withdrawals like sweats, chills, hallucinations and seizures. Some substances (like alcohol, benzodiazepines and opiates) do trigger these withdrawal symptoms and more, but other drugs have less obvious side effects from quitting. The psychological effects of withdrawal are often much harder to overcome than the physical ones.

Recognizing and Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a disorder affecting a wide range of people. It doesn’t discriminate based on occupation, income, race, culture or personal willpower. Anyone can develop an addiction.

If any of the following apply, you may have a problem with drugs and/or alcohol:

  • Trouble controlling how much of a substance is taken
  • Trouble controlling how often a substance is taken
  • Trouble controlling how long a substance is taken (other than prescribed)
While their initial decision to use a substance is often voluntary, an addicted person’s need to use a substance is uncontrollable.

Repeated drug abuse changes the brain’s chemistry so that addicts continue using drugs even if they understand the harms their actions may cause.

Even those with strong wills and the desire to quit are often incapable of quitting on their own. Understanding how addictions develop sheds light on why it’s so hard to beat.

Diagnosing an Addiction

Identifying addiction is like diagnosing any other illness. The patient is examined for symptoms meeting specific, scientific criteria defining the illness in question.

One of the best tools for spotting addiction is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

The criteria outlined in the DSM are generally accepted and used by professionals to help determine the presence and severity of a substance use disorder. They include:

  • 1
    Lack of control – The substance is used in larger amounts or over a longer time than the person originally intended.
  • 2
    Desire to limit use – Wanting to cut back on use but being unable to do so.
  • 3
    Time spent – A considerable amount of time is spent trying to acquire a substance.
  • 4
    Cravings – The user experiences an intense desire or urge to use their drug.
  • 5
    Lack of responsibility – Substance use takes priority over work, school or home obligations.
  • 6
    Problems with relationships – Interpersonal relationships are consistently strained from drug use.
  • 7
    Loss of interest – User stops engaging in important social or recreational activities in favor of drug use.
  • 8
    Dangerous use – Continued use despite dangerous circumstances.
  • 9
    Worsening situations – Continued use despite worsened physical or psychological problems.
  • 10
    Tolerance ­– A need for larger amounts of the substance to achieve desired effects.
  • 11
    Withdrawal – This can be physical and emotional. Side effects may include: anxiety, irritability, nausea and vomiting.

The DSM diagnoses substance use disorders on a spectrum. If 2-3 of the above criteria apply to someone within a given 12-year period, they are considered to have a mild substance use disorder; the presence of 4-5 suggest a moderate disorder; 6 or more indicate a severe problem. If these apply to you or someone you care about, get in touch with us now for help.

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Warning Signs of Addiction

Addictions begin with experimentation with a substance. There are many reasons someone might initially try a drug, including curiosity, peer pressure or stress and problems at work or home.

If you are concerned someone you care about is struggling with addiction, there are several red flags you can look for. However, it’s important to remember everyone is different; it may be harder to detect an addiction in some people than in others. That being said, here are some general warning signs to be aware of:

  • Ignoring commitments or responsibilities
  • Problems at work, school or at home
  • Unexplained absences
  • Appearing to have a new set of friends
  • Considerable monetary fluctuations
  • Staying up later than usual or sleeping in longer
  • Lapses in concentration or memory
  • Being oddly secretive about parts of personal life
  • Withdrawal from normal social contacts
  • Sudden mood swings and change in behavior
  • Unusual lack of motivation
  • Weight loss or changes in physical appearance

No one expects to develop an addiction when they begin experimenting. However, continued experimentation can lead to addiction, often without the person realizing they have become addicted until they try to stop.

Addiction Statistics

Millions of Americans struggle with some form of addiction. If you are one of them, know you are not alone—and that many treatment options exist to help you overcome your addiction.

20million Americans

Over 20 million Americans over the age of 12 have an addiction (excluding tobacco).

100people per day

100 people die every day from an overdose. This rate has tripled in the past 20 years.

5million visits

Over 5 million of emergency room visits in 2011 were related to drugs or alcohol.

Find more addiction statistics here.

Substances that Cause Addiction

Numerous substances can lead to addiction. Some of the most common include alcohol, prescription painkillers, sleeping pills and illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Find out more about the various substances, drugs, prescription drugs and painkillers that can cause addiction after continued use or abuse.

Treatment for Addiction

For every person’s unique addiction situation, there is a recovery program tailored to help them overcome it. Get in touch with someone who can help you understand your treatment options now.

Sources & Author Last Edited: April 6, 2016

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Ruiz, P., & Strain, E. (2011) Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, Fifth Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2007). Science of Addiction. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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