Drug Addiction: Understanding the Patterns, Effects, and Treatment Options

Medically reviewed by Melissa Bronstein, LICSW

Drug addiction, or substance use disorder, is a mental health condition that can have lifelong impacts. Though it's a treatable illness, substance use disorder recovery often involves a lifelong cycle of relapse (recurrence of use), withdrawal, and abstinence.

This article will define drug addiction, outline signs and symptoms, present possible causes, and provide treatment options.

<p>FatCamera / Getty Images</p>

FatCamera / Getty Images

Support Resources

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How Is Drug Addiction Defined?

Drug addiction is a brain disease that falls into the category of substance use disorders. Generally, substance use disorders are defined as having no control over substance use or an inability to quit due to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), substance use disorders are defined as exhibiting:

  • One or more abuse criteria within a 12-month period and no dependence diagnosis. (This does not include nicotine.)

  • Three or more dependence criteria within a 12-month period.

  • Two or more substance use disorder criteria within a 12-month period.

People with substance use disorder struggle to stop using the substance and often experience painful physical or psychological symptoms when they try to.

Why Does Addiction Happen?

Biological, psychological, environmental, and socio-cultural factors can play a role in a person developing a substance use disorder.

Experiencing Drug Addiction Symptoms

Substance use disorder symptoms are categorized into addiction and withdrawal symptoms. Addiction symptoms are those that indicate a person may be addicted to a substance. Withdrawal symptoms are those that occur when a person tries to stop using a substance.

Addiction Symptoms

According to the DSM-5, addiction symptoms include the following:

  • An intense craving for the substance.

  • Continued use of the substance despite knowing its adverse effects.

  • Difficulty controlling substance use.

  • Increased tolerance of the substance over time.

  • Losing interest in other activities.

  • Losing interest in social, family, and work-related activities.

  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop using the substance.

  • Withdrawal symptoms after stopping usage of the substance.

Withdrawal Symptoms

People with substance use disorder usually experience several withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop their substance use. These might include:

  • Chills

  • Diarrhea

  • Feelings of discomfort

  • Irritability

  • Lack of interest in activities and relationships

  • Sleep problems

  • Stomach cramping

  • Sweats

Severe withdrawal can lead to dangerous and life-threatening health issues. If you experience withdrawal symptoms, seek medical attention for support with withdrawal management.


While increased tolerance and dependence must be present for a formal substance use disorder diagnosis, many people become addicted to substances before developing physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of Drug Addiction in Others

Substance use disorder usually occurs in a cycle with three stages:

  1. Intoxication: The period when a person has taken a substance and experiences its effects.

  2. Withdrawal: The period after substance use has stopped. Uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms usually accompany this stage.

  3. Preoccupation: The period when a person is not actively using a substance or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when thoughts about the substance consume them and they anticipate their next use.

Over time, a person with an addiction will start to experience these stages more frequently and more intensely. Additional signs that may indicate a person is using or addicted to a substance include:

  • Changes in appearance, such as bloodshot eyes, weight changes, or changes in clothing

  • Changes in social activities or interests

  • Getting defensive when asked about substance use

  • Spending or needing money

  • Spending time with new people or spending time alone

Prevalence of Addiction

Addiction affects millions of people each year, causing over 11 million deaths from smoking, alcohol abuse, and illegal drugs.

Drug Addiction Treatment Options

Substance use disorder treatment can include various interventions, such as:

  • Clinical support groups: Support groups run by mental health providers. Speak to a mental health provider for local or online support group recommendations.

  • Inpatient rehabilitation: A person stays at a rehabilitation center for a period—often 30 days or more—to encourage and support recovery. Inpatient treatment can include individual, group, or family therapy, medication, and other treatment approaches.

  • Individual therapy: Involves working directly with a licensed mental health professional, such as a certified substance abuse counselor, to identify recovery goals, learn coping tools, and develop a treatment plan.

  • Medication: Healthcare providers can prescribe certain medications to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. These medications will differ depending on the type of substance.

  • Outpatient rehabilitation: A treatment facility where the person does not live or stay overnight but attends appointments for medical needs, individual therapy, or group support.

  • Peer-support meetings: Supportive sessions that are run by others facing addiction. These include groups like Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Heroine Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous.

Regardless of the treatment approach, each method offers education about addiction and recovery. This may include topics like making life changes to support recovery, being honest, seeking help when needed, and practicing self-care.

Steps to Finding Treatment

To locate treatment facilities in your area, try calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for a list of options. You can also visit SAMHSA's treatment locator website, the American Addiction Centers location finder, or, if you have health insurance, call your insurance company for in-network services. For questions about medical detoxification, talk with your healthcare provider.

To locate a substance abuse mental health provider, you can use a therapist-finder tool, such as the NIAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator, or contact your health insurance for a list of in-network providers.

Related: How to Overcome Drug Addiction

Effects of Drug Addiction

Substance use disorder is dangerous and can be fatal for those who do not seek treatment. Other health risks from substance use include:

  • Cancer

  • Diseases that result from sharing needles used for injection, such as HIV and hepatitis C

  • Heart problems

  • Lung disease

  • Skin infections

  • Stroke

Substance use disorder can negatively affect a person's relationships, finances, employment, and other aspects of their life.

Related: The Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain and Body

Addiction Causes and Risk Groups

Though anyone can develop substance use disorder, certain people may be at higher risk of addiction. This includes those who:

  • Are experiencing significant stress or distress.

  • Are from lower socioeconomic households.

  • Had behavioral problems as a child, especially with anger.

  • Had minimal adult supervision as children.

  • Have access to substances.

  • Have tried substances before.

  • Struggle with low self-esteem or self-worth and find it challenging to say no to peer pressure.

Most people who develop substance use disorder do so for a combination of reasons, including genetics and environmental factors.

Gateway Drugs

Many people develop substance use disorder after first using a gateway drug, which is often a drug that is more widely available and socially acceptable.

Living With Drug Addiction

Substance use disorder is a lifelong battle. Most people relapse even after stopping substance use for extended periods. There is a risk for recurrence of use at every phase of recovery. The phases of recovery include:

  • Abstinence stage: The person is not using the substance. This stage usually lasts one to two years.

  • Post-acute withdrawal stage: The person has already experienced physical withdrawal symptoms and starts to have mainly emotional and psychological withdrawal symptoms. This stage often lasts up to two years.

  • Repair stage: The person works on repairing any negative experiences from addiction. This stage usually lasts two to three years.

  • Growth stage: The person begins working on skills to help them move forward and hopefully avoid a future relapse. This stage often starts between three and five years after initially stopping the substance use.

Relapse Is Common

The relapse or recurrence of use process begins weeks or months before a person actually takes the substance. Early intervention increases the chances of returning to sobriety. About 85% of adults living with substance use disorder will relapse within a year of quitting their substance use.

A person who is recovering from substance use disorder is always at risk of relapse. The stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional: The person does not think about using the substance and may experience denial, isolation, and treatment avoidance, such as no longer attending substance use disorder groups or meetings and poor self-care.

  • Mental: The person starts to think about using the substance again but may not want to. They may experience cravings, think about the past when they were using the substance, and start to plan their use. It's also common for people to substitute another substance for the one they had been taking in the past.

  • Physical: The person takes the substance again.


Drug addiction, or substance use disorder, is a serious mental illness that affects a person's health, relationships, finances, and well-being. People with substance use disorder usually struggle with relapse for their entire lives and often go through continuous cycles of intoxication, withdrawal, and preoccupation with the substance. Though there are risk factors for developing substance use disorder, anyone can develop it. Treatment is available for people struggling with substance use disorder.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.