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Drug Abuse and Drug Addiction

(Drug Dependence)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Drug abuse is continued misuse of drugs even when faced with drug-related job, legal, health, or family difficulties.

Drug addiction is long-term, compulsive drug use. The person may attempt to stop using drugs, but repeatedly return to drug use despite physical, emotional, or social harm. Drug dependence means that the body has begun to require the drug in higher doses to have the same effect and to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Drugs that commonly abused include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • Sedatives
  • Methamphetamine (crystal meth, speed)
  • PCP
  • Ecstasy
  • GHB
  • Ketamine
  • Steroids
  • Inhalants
  • Prescription medicine that is used improperly, such as narcotic pain relievers, amphetamines, sleeping pills, or anti-anxiety medicine


The exact cause of drug abuse and dependence is unknown.

There are many theories, though. For example, some people may inherit certain genes that make them more likely to abuse drugs. Another theory is that people learn how to use drugs by copying the behavior of others. Also, changes that happen in the brain due to long-term drug use may reinforce a person's desire to keep using drugs.

Chemical Release in Brain

Drugs stimulate unnecessary chemical release in the brain. Long-term drug use may change brain function.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Drug abuse and addiction are more common in young men but can occur in anyone at any age. Other factors that may increase the risk of drug abuse and addiction include:

  • Family members with substance abuse problems
  • Early antisocial behavior, such as breaking the law or repeated lying
  • Social and peer pressure, which may include spending time with other drug users
  • Stress
  • Easy access to drugs
  • Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, panic disorder


It is common for a person to deny drug abuse and addiction.

Symptoms of drug abuse include:

  • Repeated work, school, or home problems due to drug use
  • Continued use of drugs even though it means risking physical safety
  • Recurring trouble with the law related to drug use (eg, driving while under the influence of drugs)
  • Continuing to use drugs despite drug-related problems in personal relationships

Drug abuse can occur without being physically addicted to a drug.

Symptoms of drug addiction include at least three of the following:

  • Craving for the drug
  • Inability to stop or limit drug use
  • Tolerance (taking greater amounts to feel the same effect)
  • Withdrawal symptoms that occur when the drug is stopped
  • Significant amounts of time trying to acquire drugs and recover from the effects
  • Drug use continues even when it causes or worsens physical or mental health problems


Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your doctor will also ask about:

  • Your history of drug use
  • Emotional problems that may have occurred while using drugs
  • Problems with work, school, homelife, or the law

Your doctor may order blood or urine tests to check for the presence of drugs.


While there is no cure for drug abuse or dependence, there are three main treatment goals:

  • To help you stop using drugs
  • To decrease the toxic effects of the drugs being used and to aid in symptoms of drug withdrawal, called detoxification
  • To prevent relapse

Successful treatment depends on you being able to recognize that you have a problem and having the desire to change. Recovery takes a long time. It is a difficult process. In some cases, you may need to go through treatment several times.

Treatment options may involve one or more of the following:

Medication may be recommended to help relieve withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse.

Therapy can help raise your awareness of issues and lifestyle choices that lead you to abuse drugs. Through therapy, you can improve your coping skills and problem-solving skills. You can also learn how to replace drug-using activities with healthier choices. It is also important that your family is involved in your treatment.

There are many organizations and support groups dedicated to helping people become drug-free. Two examples are the 12-step programs Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous. Members meet regularly to talk about their drug-related problems and their recovery. They provide a network of support.


To reduce your chance of drug abuse or addiction, take these steps:

  • Learn about risks related to drug use.
  • Do not spend time with people who are abusing drugs.
  • Learn ways to handle peer pressure.
  • Have a good relationship with your children to help reduce their risk of using drugs.
  • Seek therapy for anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Cocaine Anonymous


Narcotics Anonymous


National Institute on Drug Abuse



Centre for Addiction and Mental Health


Narcotics Anonymous



DrugFacts: treatment approaches for drug addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Available at: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction. Updated September 2009. Accessed March 28, 2013.

Drugs, brains, and behavior: the science of addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Available at: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction. Updated August 2010. Accessed March 28, 2013.

Opioid abuse or dependence. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated March 27, 2013. Accessed March 28, 2013.

2/4/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Schinke SP, Fang L, Cole KC. Computer-delivered, parent-involvement intervention to prevent substance use among adolescent girls. Prev Med. 2009;49;429-35.

Last reviewed June 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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