Drug Addiction 101

People who abuse substances often say they take them to have fun or get high. It’s not that simple for addicts, though. An addicted person can no longer control whether or not he/she uses. Mentally and physically, the addict feels compelled to have the drug. Addiction is considered a chronic disease with the possibility of relapse an ever-present reality.

What you should know:

  • Addiction is a disease that is complex but treatable.
  • Prolonged drug use affects brain function.
  • Illegal drugs are defined as controlled substances under federal and state law. They are monitored and enforced by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
  • Marijuana is the most-used illicit drug, with 19.8 million U.S. users age 12 and over, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which is published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • Six-and-a-half million Americans use prescription pain relievers non-medically, and 1.5 million are dependent on or abusing cocaine, according to SAMHSA’s 2013 NSDUH survey.
  • In 2013, 22.7 million people 12 and over who could have benefited from substance use treatment in a specialty facility did not receive that help. It’s a myth that someone must want to go into treatment for substance abuse for it to be effective, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Causes

For decades, researchers have been trying to figure out what leads people to become addicted to drugs. While there’s no single root cause of drug addiction, experts think a combination of the following are most likely to play a role:

  • Your role models. Your early years, including your mother’s and father’s parenting styles and whether one or both parents or even an older sibling abused substances can affect whether you experiment with drugs and go on to develop an addiction. Our early role models, for good or ill, influence our behavior. They can also teach us appropriate ways to handle problems, bounce back and persevere; these coping skills make it less likely someone will develop an addiction. A family history of substance abuse is also linked to an increased risk. For more on the role of genetics, go the Risk Factors section.
  • Your personal history. Stressful or traumatic events, living in poverty, the availability of illegal drugs, peer pressure and whether or not your friends and family use drugs – all are associated with a greater likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem.
  • Your psychological makeup. How you feel about yourself, especially your self-esteem during adolescence, your temperament, a tendency toward impulsive behavior and exhibiting aggressive or antisocial behavior early in life are thought to forecast later drug or alcohol problems as well as a tendency toward violence.

On the flip side, there are factors that can lower someone’s chances of having an addiction; these include developing good self-control, practicing religious beliefs, having healthy relationships with family and friends and being involved in social activities in the community, reports SAMSHA.

Symptoms of Drug Addiction

There are a number of signs that may indicate a substance abuse problem, including:

  • A change in friends and hangouts
  • An unexplained need for cash
  • Bloodshot eyes or enlarged pupils
  • Sudden weight changes (gain or loss)
  • Tremors in the hands
  • Slurred speech
  • Foul-smelling breath
  • Secretive behaviors
  • A drop in attendance at work or school
  • Lying
  • Belligerence
  • Changes in sleep, mood, motivation or attitude

Keep in mind that physical dependence on a drug or medication is not the same thing as having an addiction; a person may be dependent on a drug if he or she experiences withdrawal symptoms if the drug is stopped. Someone may also develop a tolerance to the substance so that he or she requires increasingly larger doses of a drug in order to achieve the same effect or high. And when a drug user comes off a substance, he or she may experience withdrawal symptoms that vary depending on the substance(s).  According to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) diagnostic manual, DSM-5, “Neither tolerance nor withdrawal is necessary for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder.”

Doctors, therapists and addiction counselors look at a variety of factors when deciding whether someone has a substance use disorder. If you or a loved one have two or three of the indicators below, it can point to a mild problem with drugs, while having four or five symptoms can underscore a moderate problem. Six or more of these symptoms may signal a severe substance use disorder. No matter how serious a drug problem is, recognizing the symptoms of drug addiction is the all-important first step to getting help – and recovering. So ask yourself these questions:

Are you or a loved one…

  • Using a substance over a longer time period of time than planned?
  • Making unsuccessful attempts to control or stop taking the drug(s)?
  • Spending a lot of time finding, using or recovering from using a substance(s)?
  • Experiencing cravings for a substance(s)?
  • Failing to show up or fulfill expectations at work, school or home?
  • Continuing to use an illegal substance(s) despite problems it’s causing in relationships?
  • Giving up activities once enjoyed in order to use a drug(s)?
  • Using a drug(s) regularly while in situations where it poses physical danger (such as driving, operating machinery or boating)?
  • Ignoring physical or psychological problems resulting from drug use?
  • Developing a tolerance for a drug’s effects?
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms or masking them with another substance(s)?

Risk Factors

The more you know about substance abuse, the better the chances of avoiding a drug addiction before it starts. Here are several red flags that raise the risk of becoming a substance abuser:

  • Inheriting the genes
    As mentioned above, your biological makeup has a lot to do with whether you’ll develop an addiction. In fact, the APA goes so far as to say that 50% of your susceptibility to becoming addicted is related to genetic factors. And when it comes to tobacco, genetics account for 75% of a person’s tendency to try smoking and 60% of their chances of becoming hooked. But DNA alone isn’t destiny. Besides the genes you’re born with, environmental factors, like how you were raised; whether you were sexually or physically abused; and whether you grew up in poverty or witnessed violence can also influence a person’s vulnerability to addiction.
  • Dealing with a mental health issue
    If you or someone you love suffers from a mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder schizophrenia or an eating disorder, among other conditions, substance abuse is likelier to become a problem. In 2013, nearly eight million U.S. adults had both a substance use disorder and at least one mental issue. And 2.3 million of that group had a co-occurring SUD and a serious mental health issue, which the NSDUH defines as “a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
  • Experimenting at an early age
    In 2013, nearly 9% of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17 were illicit drug users, and 1.3 million teens had a diagnosed SUD. While it’s possible to become an addict at any age, many teens are natural risk-takers, mostly because the parts of the brain in charge of self-control and good judgment are still developing in adolescence. That can make trying illicit drugs a lot more attractive. The trouble is, say experts at NIDA, “the earlier drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse.” And there’s some evidence to suggest that how a drug is taken – especially if it’s smoked or injected into a vein – may increase its risk of becoming addictive.

 

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