Drug addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder (SUD). An SUD develops when a person’s continued use of alcohol and/or drugs causes significant issues, such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. An SUD can range from mild to severe.

Addiction is a complex, chronic brain disease characterized by drug craving, seeking, and use that persists even in the face of devastating life consequences. Addiction results largely from brain changes that stem from prolonged drug use—changes that involve multiple brain circuits, including those responsible for governing self-control and other behaviors. Drug addiction is treatable, often with medications (for some addictions) combined with behavioral therapies. However, relapse is common and can happen even after long periods of abstinence, underscoring the need for long-term support and care. Relapse does not signify treatment failure, but rather should prompt treatment re-engagement or modification.

There is no easy answer to this common question. If and how quickly you become addicted to a drug depends on many factors, including your biology (your genes, for example), age, gender, environment, and interactions among these factors. Vast differences affect a person’s sensitivity to various drugs and likelihood of addiction vulnerability. While one person may use a drug one or many times and suffer no ill effects, another person may overdose with the first use or become addicted after a few uses. There is no way of knowing in advance how quickly you will become addicted, but there are some clues—an important one being whether you have a family history of addiction.

The signs of drug use and addiction can vary depending on the person and the drug, but some common signs are:

  • impaired speech and motor coordination
  • bloodshot eyes or pupils that are larger or smaller than usual
  • changes in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
  • changes in mood or disinterest in engaging in relationships or activities

If a person is compulsively seeking and using a drug(s) despite negative consequences, such as loss of job, debt, family problems, or physical problems brought on by drug use, then he or she is probably addicted. And while people who are addicted may believe they can stop any time, most often they cannot and need professional help to quit. Support from friends and family can be critical in getting people into treatment and helping them to stay drug-free following treatment.

If you know someone who has a problem with drugs and needs help, call SummitStone Health Partners at (970) 494-4200 or text TALK to 38255.

Many substances, including alcohol, nicotine, medications, and illicit drugs, can have negative effects on the developing fetus because these substances reach the fetus through the placenta. Nicotine has been connected with premature birth and low birth weight, as has the use of cocaine. Heroin exposure results in dependence in the newborn, requiring treatment for withdrawal symptoms. Drug use during pregnancy is also linked to brain and behavioral problems in the baby, which may lead to cognitive challenges for the child. It is often difficult to tease apart the various factors that go with drug use during pregnancy—poor nutrition, inadequate prenatal care, stress, and psychiatric comorbidities—all of which may affect a baby’s development.

Drug addiction can be effectively treated with behavioral therapies and—for addiction to some drugs such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol—with medications. Treatment will vary for each person depending on the type of drug(s) being used. Some might need multiple courses of treatment to achieve success. Research has revealed 13 basic principles for effective drug addiction treatment discussed in NIDA’s Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.

Detoxification is the process of allowing the body to rid itself of a drug while managing the symptoms of withdrawal. Detox alone is not treatment, but is often the first step in a drug treatment program. Treatment with behavioral therapy and/or a medication (if available) should follow detox.

Withdrawal describes the various symptoms that occur after a person abruptly reduces or stops long-term use of a drug. Length of withdrawal and symptoms vary with the type of drug. For example, physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal may include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold flashes. These physical symptoms may last for several days, but the general depression, or dysphoria (opposite of euphoria), that often accompanies heroin withdrawal may last for weeks. In many cases, withdrawal can easily be treated with medications to ease the symptoms, but treating withdrawal is not the same as treating addiction.

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

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