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Drug Addiction Explained — A Comprehensive Guide

April 13, 2020
all about drug addiction explained

The following blog has been reviewed by an expert. For more information, please see our editorial policy.

Drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a condition which has become a concern all over the world. Many people don’t understand what drug addiction is and how someone gets addicted to drugs.

They think that people who get addicted to drugs are either not willing to quit or lack the willpower to do so.

But in reality, it is a more complex problem than that. Drugs change the brain chemistry of a person in such a way, it becomes very difficult to quit, even if you want to.

In this guide, you will learn about the following —

  1. What is drug addiction?
  2. Causes of drug addiction
  3. Types of drug addiction
  4. Signs of drug addiction
  5. Effects of drug addiction
  6. Prevention from drug addiction
  7. Drug addiction in India
  8. Drug addiction treatment

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a complex neurobiological disorder, which affects a person’s brain and behaviour in a way that they lose the ability to resist the urge to use drugs.

It isn’t just about illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine. You can get addicted to substances like medication drugs, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and other legal drugs as well.

Drug dependence usually starts with an experiment. Initially, you take drugs because you like the way it feels. You think it’s a one-time experience and you can handle it.

Also, many people start using drugs as self-medication or to cope with stress.

But repeated misuse of drugs physically changes how your brain works. It makes you lose self-control and messes with your ability to avoid the desire to take drugs. These changes in the brain can be long-lasting.

People who are in recovery from drug abuse are likely to return to drug use even after years of being in recovery from drug addiction. This is called drug relapse.

Causes of Drug Addiction

The reaction of drugs on a human mind varies widely from person to person.

Each person’s body and mind works differently. Some people love to use drugs, and others hate it after their first try.

Rather than a single factor, multiple factors contribute to the addiction to drugs.

  • Genetics & Family History – Your genes may mean a greater predisposition to addiction. Your body and brain react to a particular drug the way your ancestors reacted to it. If your parents or their parents had a history with drug abuse, your chances of being addicted to drugs increase drastically.
  • Environmental Cause – Your environment also plays a vital role in developing drug dependence. Because the environment influences behaviour, if a child grows up in a home with a drug addict, it’s highly likely that he is going to struggle with drugs too. Other environmental factors which can contribute to drug addiction include the following –
    • Abuse of drugs among friends and peers
    • Lack of social support
    • Troubled relationships
    • Stress in life
    • Low socioeconomic status
  • Psychological Cause – Although genetics and environment play a significant role in drug addiction, psychological factors also contribute to the problem. Sexual or physical abuse, negligence from parents and peers, domestic violence, everything can lead to psychological stress. And people turn to drugs to let off this stress. Over time, this misuse of drugs can become an addiction.
  • Other psychological causes
    • Mental disorder such as depression
    • Lack of friends in school or any social setting
    • Huge academic pressure
    • Traumatic events

Types of Drug Addiction

There are different types of drugs in the market, and each type of drug causes different kinds of effects in your body.


Opioids, also called narcotic drugs, are often used as a pain reliever. They work by lowering the pain signals received by your brain. They also change the way your brain responds to pain.

Opioids are usually safe to use. But if consumed in an uncontrolled way, opioids can become very addictive. Opioid drugs alter brain chemistry by influencing dopamine release and hijacking the reward pathway. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that makes you feel good.

After too much use of opioids, your brain starts to depend on it and stops producing its own.

Commonly Abused Opioids

  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Paregoric
  • Sufentanil
  • Tramadol

Short-Term Effects of Opioids

  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Physical agitation
  • Slurred Speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Anxiety attack


Common depressants are prescribed to help with symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, panic and acute stress reactions. It works by slowing down the activities of the brain and putting the body in a state of relaxation.

Depressants can build up drug tolerance quickly. And because of the way it affects brain chemistry, if consumed regularly without a doctor’s prescribed guideline, it can lead to addiction.

Commonly Used Depressants

  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • GHB
  • Alcohol

Short-term Effects of Depressants

  • Enhanced mood
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Weakness, headache and lightheadedness
  • Impaired judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed breathing
  • Amnesia


Stimulants are a category of substances which include both medical drugs, illegal street drugs and commonly used substances such as caffeine and nicotine.

Stimulants affect the brain by temporarily increasing functions like awareness, alertness, energy and mood. Stimulants also increase the level of dopamine inside the mind.
It gives you a sensation of euphoria. This sensation makes it more difficult to stop the harmful pattern of stimulant abuse.

Commonly Used Stimulants

  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine (e.g. Adderall)
  • Caffeine
  • Methamphetamine(e.g. Desoxyn)
  • Methylphenidate (e.g. Ritalin, Concerta)

Stimulant users tend to develop rapid drug tolerance. Tolerance occurs when people have to take more of a substance to achieve the same level of high. This type of behaviour also increases the risk of overdose.

Short-Term Effects of Stimulants

  • Euphoria
  • Increased energy, sociability
  • Increased vigilance
  • Reduced appetite
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Muscle shake or tremors


Hallucinogens are a type of drug which alters the perception of reality and causes hallucinations. There are two types of hallucinogens: classic hallucinogens (psychedelics) and dissociative hallucinogens.

Hallucinogens are sometimes considered less dangerous than other kinds of drugs like heroin. But hallucinogens can cause dependency, addiction, and long term adverse side effects.

Commonly Used Hallucinogens

  • LSD
  • Psilocybin (mushrooms)
  • DMT
  • Mescaline (peyote)
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • Salvia
  • Ketamine

Hallucinogens cause people to see and hear things that feel real but don’t exist. For some people, these cause intense anxiety, panic attack and terrifying thoughts.

Short-Term Effects of Hallucinogens

  • Altered perceptions
  • Sense of relaxation, well-being
  • Unclear thinking
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive sweating
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Nausea
  • Numbness


Most commonly known as “weed” or “marijuana”, cannabis can be a mixture of leaves, flowers or stems from cannabis plants. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main active component of cannabis that leads to drug abuse.

Cannabis produces relaxation sensation, mild euphoria, increased appetite and distorted perception of space and time. If used for a prolonged time, you can develop an addiction to cannabis. Research has also shown that excessive use of cannabis can cause brain damage and memory impairment.

Commonly Used Forms of Cannabis

  • Marijuana (dried flowering tops and leaves)
  • Hashish (dried cannabis resin and compressed flowers)
  • Hash oil (extracted THC from hashish)

Short-term Effects of Cannabis

  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Relief from stress
  • Increased appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Altered judgment
  • Poor coordination
  • Impaired memory
  • Paranoia

Signs of Drug Addiction

The signs and symptoms of drug addictions vary, and some drugs have a higher risk of getting addicted to them than others. Here are some of the symptoms of drug dependence:

  • Feeling an intense urge to use drugs or medication frequently. Maybe several times a day.
  • You need more substance to get the same effect because you built a tolerance for the drug.
  • You feel alive when you are on the drug. When the drug wears off, you feel shaky, depressed, and confused. You may not feel hunger and may have headaches or run a fever.
  • You can’t stop yourself from taking the drug.
  • You are doing everything you can to make sure you get drug supplies, even if you can’t afford it.
  • Your social life is a wreck. You have a hard time bonding with co-workers, friends or family.
  • Your personal health declines. For example, you may start to gain or lose weight. You have bad breath or red eyes.
  • You start to steal money to buy drugs.
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking drugs.

Effects of Drug Addiction

Drugs are chemicals which affect the brain and body. Different drugs have different compounds and affect the human body differently. Effects of drug abuse also depend on the way you consume it. There are few ways a drug can be consumed, like injection, inhalation and ingestion.

If the drug is injected into the bloodstream, it works almost instantaneously. But when ingested, it takes time for the drug to get into the bloodstream. According to the WHO, around 31 million people worldwide have drug abuse disorder, and among them, 11 million consume drugs by injecting it.

Effect of Drug Addiction on the Brain

All types of drugs affect the brain’s reward system. Drugs physically change how your brain functions and interfere with the ability to make decisions. Misuse of drugs can also lead to various behavioural changes and problems, both short-term and long-term.

Here are some effects of drug addiction in your brain:

  • Altered brain functions
  • Loss of rational decision-making
  • Loss of self-control
  • Drug viewed as necessary to survival
  • Inability to feel pleasure without drugs

Effect of Drug Addiction on the Body

Prolonged use of drugs not only affects your mind, but it also affects many other organs in the human body. Here are some common effects of drug misuse on the human body:

  • Drug abuse damages the immune system and makes you vulnerable to infections.
  • It causes heart conditions, including abnormal heart rates, heart attacks and the collapse of veins.
  • Drugs cause nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting.
  • Some drugs increase the risk of liver failure due to the excessive strain on the liver.
  • Misuse of drug abuse causes permanent brain damage, including memory loss, and problems with decision-making and focus.

Social Effects

Apart from these, there are social effects of drug abuse that are also damaging:

  • Damaged relationships with family and friends
  • Losing job
  • Financial trouble
  • Sexual abuse
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Legal consequences (e.g. going to jail).

Prevention From Drug Addiction

When it comes to prevention from drug abuse, there is no foolproof way. But you can certainly do some things that will help you protect yourself and your loved ones from becoming addicted to drugs.

  • Educate yourself – Learn about the physical, biological, and social effects of drug misuse. Evaluate the risk factors like losing a job, isolation from society, dropping out of college. No one sets out to be addicted to drugs, so be careful in thinking using a drug “just once” will not be harmful.
  • Learn healthy ways to cope with stress – Stress is one of the primary reasons that drive people to drug misuse.
  • In this fast-paced world, stress is inevitable – And sometimes to escape from stress, people turn to alcohol and drugs. In the end, this can make life more miserable and stressful. To avoid this, you should learn to handle stress without using drugs. Take up exercising, read a book, volunteer for a good cause, create something. Anything positive that will give you a sense of fulfillment and take your mind away from using drugs to relieve stress.
  • Develop close bonds with family – Research has shown that people who have a close relationship with their families are less likely to abuse drugs. A loving family works as a support system and helps you deal with your pressures in life. It helps you to keep a distance from addictive substances.
  • Choose your friends mindfully – Teenagers and young adults are easily influenced by others. Often they start to explore different addictive drugs to impress their friends and portray themselves as “cool”. Find friends who won’t force you to do harmful things or be okay with possibly facing rejection when you turn down drugs.
  • Develop a healthy lifestyle – There is no better prevention of drug problems than adopting a healthy lifestyle. Being active and fit makes it easier to manage stress. This, in turn, helps to reduce the urge to use drugs or any other harmful substances to manage stress.

These are some of the preventive measures one can take to avoid drug addiction. But if you already developed an addiction, it is advisable to seek professional help and treatment for your drug problem.

Drug Addiction in India

The problem of drug addiction is on the rise in India. Read our comprehensive blog on drug addiction in India to learn more about this problem.

Drug Addiction Treatment

There is no cure for drug addiction. But there are some treatment procedures which can help you to overcome addiction and stay clean.

The first step towards treatment is acknowledging that you have a drug abuse problem in the first place. Once you recognise the problem, there is a wide range of treatments that can be possible.

Most people go through a combination of different types of treatments.


Detoxification is typically the first step of treatment. The goal is to stop the drug, while managing withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes this may be a taper, or reducing drug intake slowly and eventually stopping it.

While in detoxification, it is natural to see withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms are different for different kinds of drugs and require different approaches. It is best to reduce the dose of the drug gradually or have a medication that helps mitigate withdrawal symptoms.

Behavioural Therapy

Behavioural therapy is the standard treatment for drug addiction after detoxification. It can be done by one-on-one sessions, in a group, or family basis, depending on the requirements.

Here are the different types of behavioural therapies.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

It helps the individual to recognise and change thinking towards drug abuse.

Multidimensional family therapy (MDFT)

This kind of treatment is designed to help the family, particularly in addressing youth problems and disorders.

Motivational interviewing (MI)

It helps to encourage the individual to resolve ambivalent feelings and find internal motivation for change.

Self Help Groups

Being a part of a self-help group is very beneficial in recovering from drug dependence. It involves meeting with other individuals with similar addictive disorders and sharing experiences with each other. It boosts motivation and reduces the feeling of loneliness.

These self-help groups also become a great support system for its members.


Medication is not a standalone treatment for drug addiction. However, it may help during the detoxification to manage withdrawal symptoms.

A person may take medication to prevent drug relapse and reduce cravings in the long-term. But it should always be coupled with other methods such as behavioural therapy or rehabilitation.

Drug addiction has become a serious concern worldwide. It affects not only the victim but also their family, friends, and entire society. Drug addiction treatment is possible. Treatment is challenging but effective.

However, do not try to do it alone. Whether you take rehab, join a self-help club, or go to therapy, always reach out to someone, with whom you can find support in overcoming this problem in your life.