Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances and/or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. (American Society of Addiction Medicine)
In general, people begin taking drugs for a variety of reasons:
Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates—such as heroin—is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.
Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression may begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or relapse in patients recovering from addiction. People suffering from chronic pain conditions who are under the dual pressures of emotional and physical distress, are also at greater risk of developing a dependence on opioid-based pain medication.
Some people feel pressure to chemically enhance their cognitive or athletic performance; that pressure can play a role in initial experimentation, eventual addiction, and continued abuse of drugs such as prescription stimulants or anabolic/androgenic steroids.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of the strong influence of peer pressure. Teens are more likely than adults to engage in risky or daring behaviors to impress their friends and express their independence from parental and social rules.
As with any other disease, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person, and no single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs. In general, the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction. Protective factors, on the other hand, reduce a person’s risk of developing addiction. Both risk and protective factors may be either environmental (such as conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood) or biological (for instance, a person’s genes, their stage of development, and their gender or ethnicity).
Addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.
Most of the drugs that are abused target the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors. Overstimulating the system with drugs, however, produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforce the behavior of drug use—teaching the user to repeat it.
Chronic exposure to (and the abuse of) drugs disrupts the way critical brain structures interact to control and inhibit behaviors related to drug use. Drug addiction erodes a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions, while producing intense impulses to take drugs.
People who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction often have one or more accompanying health issues, which may include lung and cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, and mental disorders. Research has shown that tobacco smoke alone causes cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, blood, lungs, stomach, pancreas, kidney, bladder, and cervix. In addition, some drugs of abuse, such as inhalants, are toxic to nerve cells and may damage or destroy them either in the brain or the peripheral nervous system.
Beyond the harmful consequences for the person with the addiction, drug abuse can cause serious health problems for others, including negative effects of prenatal drug exposure on infants and children, negative effects of second-hand smoke, and increased spread of infectious disease. Overdose and potential death are also potential consequences of drug abuse.
Yes! Addiction is a treatable disease. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases. Research in the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of evidence-based interventions that can help people stop abusing drugs and resume productive lives.