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The Facts About Drug Abuse and Addiction

Estimates of substance use may vary, but it's clear that the United States has a problem.

A rolled bill hovers over three lines of cocaine.

Addiction rates are growing in the United States, with more than 21 million Americans reporting an addiction—for perspective, that's roughly the population of Florida. The Partnership to End Addiction reports approximately 1 in 10 Americans 12 years and older are battling a dependence problem.

People of all ages and from all walks of life are affected by addiction, and that can mean many different things aside from substance use: There's also gambling, sexual addiction and more.

Understanding the disease of addiction and learning about ways to treat it may help you or a loved one if it begins to take hold.

Substance use disorder

When a person repeatedly abuses substances, their physical health, mental state and behaviors begin to change. Over time, casual use of these substances can develop into an addiction, meaning the individual is now physically and psychologically dependent on the substance.

Having an addiction can actually change the way the brain's pleasure center works, causing someone with an addiction to experience intense cravings for the substance. According to the American Psychiatric Association, studies show addiction actually changes parts of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory and behavior control.

As a progressive disease, addiction becomes more severe the longer it goes untreated. Over time, individuals battling addiction will build up a tolerance to the substance they abuse, and when this happens, they start to crave more of the substance to experience its full effects or to satisfy their physiological dependence on it.

Risk factors for substance abuse

It's important to note addiction can affect people from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Substance use disorder can come in many forms, but there are some common risk factors to look out for:

  • Taking drugs at a young age: Use of an addictive substance at a young age can affect brain development and increase the risk of becoming dependent later in life.
  • Peer pressure: Social pressure can be a powerful force. People in situations where they are being pressured to engage in risky behaviors are more likely to partake.
  • Mental health issues: Mental health disorders can make you feel lonely and sad, among other emotions, and drugs can be a source of escape or temporary emotional support.
  • Family history: Drug addiction has a genetic predisposition, and you can be at higher risk if you have a blood relative with a history of substance abuse.

The reasons people start taking drugs in the first place vary widely, including a desire to feel high, to relieve stress, to provide an escape, to improve performance, to be part of a clique or merely out of curiosity, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Symptoms of substance use disorder

Individuals with an addiction may be fully aware of their problem, and may even have the desire to stop their substance use, but ultimately they may be unable to do so without substantial intervention and treatment.

Addiction is known to cause health problems, but it can also create difficulties in other areas, including at work and with relationships.

If you're worried about yourself or someone else, look for some common symptoms of substance use disorder:

  • Lack of control is characterized by an intense craving for a substance and the inability to cut back on or eliminate its use.
  • Risky use is defined as the willingness to use a substance despite the risks it takes to obtain it or use it.
  • Withdrawal occurs in individuals with an increased tolerance if they are unable to get and use greater amounts of the substance as time goes on.
  • Social problems are categorized as an increased failure to complete tasks and duties.

The good news is there are safe and effective treatments available for people struggling with addiction.

Substance use complications

Substance use disorder can cause myriad complications, some life-changing. Taking any drugs is inherently risky behavior, but certain substances can be particularly dangerous. Early intervention and treatment are paramount in keeping further complications at bay:

  • Major health issues: Problems can result such as brain damage, memory loss, confusion, psychotic behavior and seizures, among others. Overdose is also a common cause of accidental death.
  • Accidents: People under the influence are not thinking clearly and this can lead to dangerous events.
  • Infectious diseases: If you're addicted to drugs, you're at risk for HIV and other infectious diseases through sharing needles and unsafe sex.
  • Family and work issues: Addiction can get in the way of everyday life, including family relationships and work performance.
  • Financial problems: Substance abuse disorders are expensive habits to maintain, and unclear thinking can lead to finances spiraling out of control.
  • Legal issues: Serious legal issues can arise from selling and buying illegal substances, driving under the influence and any resulting legal issues will count against you during custody battles.

Beyond these complications, it's important to know substance use disorder can be fatal. If you find yourself or someone you love is suffering from addiction, immediate treatment is necessary to avoid dangerous consequences.

Treatment for substance use disorder

When a person with an addiction is at a point at which they recognize and acknowledge the problem, recovery can begin. One of the first steps to getting the appropriate treatment is reaching out to a health professional who can assess the symptoms and severity of the illness.

From there, one or more methods of treatment may be recommended. Often, a doctor will recommend individual or group therapy to treat addiction. In certain cases, medication therapy might be beneficial. However, since everyone's case is unique, treatment can differ depending on the patient. 

To sustain an individual's recovery, treatment must address their medical, psychiatric and social problems. Often, the addiction is rooted in other causes doctors will work to address as well.

Medication is often used to help control drug cravings and to relieve withdrawal symptoms as a person is weaned off a substance.

Some individuals also benefit from participating in rehab programs or self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Substance use disorder prevention

The best way to prevent drug or alcohol addiction is to abstain from the substance in the first place. Because that is not realistic for everybody, the next step is to be fully aware of the potential for addiction and the consequences that can follow.

Steps for prevention differ by the situation, but the following practices can help:

  • Take your prescribed medication only as instructed by your doctor. Be sure that your doctor knows about any history of addiction in your family.
  • Communicate with your children about the dangers of substance use and create an environment in which they feel comfortable discussing the topic. Set a good example with your own words and actions.
  • If you're looking to prevent a relapse, stick with your treatment plan and avoid any high-risk environments.
  • Get help as soon as you recognize a problem.

Substance use addiction is an incredibly challenging disorder, but you don't have to go through it alone. Communicate with your loved ones about urges, triggers and relapses. Commit to mental health management and establish a solid plan with your doctor for treatment.

Other addictions

While substance use disorder is one of the most common addictions, there are other activities that fall under the umbrella of addiction:

Gambling addiction is the uncontrollable urge to gamble despite the negative consequences on your finances, relationships and health. Gambling addiction is fairly common, with more than 2 million Americans suffering from the compulsion.

Sex addiction is not always recognized as a legitimate addiction, but it can have real consequences. Signs of sex addiction include risky sexual behavior, excessive porn consumption and excessive masturbation.

Food addiction includes a lack of control while eating and can include disorders such as binge-eating disorders. Eating food releases endorphins in our bodies, giving us a natural high, and food addicts will chase that feeling through overeating and food obsession.

Any activity or substance that becomes compulsive has the potential to become addictive and destructive. It's important to monitor your mental health and take note of any changes in behavior that give you cause for concern.


If you are suffering from addiction of any kind, it's imperative you seek help immediately. Early and consistent treatment can help you save your relationships, mental health and physical health.

Lean on your personal support system and be honest with your friends and family about what you're going through. Find organizations of like-minded people who can understand exactly what you're experiencing.

It's important to know that you don't have to go through this alone, and it's never too late to reestablish control over your addiction and get back to a healthy, happy life. Part of the features of addiction is that those with addiction will try to hide their behaviors. Try to remain as non-judgmental as you can so that your loved ones can reach out for help on their own.