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What Is Addiction? Drug Misuse Information and Treatment Help

Addiction is defined as a chronic, yet treatable medical disease that is characterized by the repeated, uncontrollable use of substances. When a person has an addiction, they continue using alcohol, medications, or illicit drugs regardless of the consequences.
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What Are the Different Types of Addictions?

Addiction is most commonly associated with substance use disorders (SUDs), which involve the compulsive and problematic use of substances like drugs and alcohol. These fall under the larger class of substance-related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5).3,13

The DSM-5 separates substance-related addictions into 10 classes of drugs and provides diagnostic criteria that medical professionals use to determine appropriate care plans.

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drug addiction

What Is the Definition of Addiction?

Addiction can be defined as both a brain disorder and a mental illness. It’s characterized by the compulsive desire to seek out and use a substance despite the potentially harmful consequences of doing so, including long-lasting changes in the brain.4

The DSM-5 is published by the American Psychiatric Association and contains descriptions and symptoms of all diagnosable mental health disorders. It is used by clinicians to diagnose SUDs and help direct appropriate care, but it does not officially use the word “addiction” in its diagnostic criteria.

Warning Signs of Addiction

When a person has a substance use disorder, their behavior may appear different than it was before they began using substances. The repeated use of substances can lead to changes in a person’s brain functioning, which could potentially impact their judgment, cognitive abilities, decision making, and other behaviors.5


What Are the Causes of Addiction?

There is no single cause of an addiction. The causes of substance use disorders involve complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and a person’s life experiences.1 Researchers have identified a number of potential risk factors that may contribute to a person developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. These factors may stem from various areas, including a person’s biology, environment, and development.7

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?

Most drugs affect the brain’s reward system, generating a series of reactions that can lead to larger-than-normal releases of the neurotransmitter dopamine.4 As a result, people may experience a flood of pleasurable feelings (i.e. euphoria). Dopamine normally helps motivate positive behaviors, such as eating and spending time with friends and family. When there are surges of dopamine associated with drug use, however, it instead can motivate unhealthy behaviors, which may lead a person to keep using a drug over and over.3


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Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Types

People struggling with substance use should know that it is treatable and there are numerous options for substance use treatment. Effective treatment is characterized by individualized care that addresses the whole person, including physical, medical, social, psychological, and legal considerations.10

Types of Behavioral Treatment for Addiction

Behavioral therapy is often used to treat people struggling with addiction. This type of therapy helps people abstain from using substances by changing their thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes towards substance use. This can help them manage situations that could trigger cravings and/or use.15

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Medications Used in Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Medications can be effective in helping to manage withdrawal symptoms during detox from certain substances, reduce cravings, prevent relapse, and address co-occurring disorders.9 While medication can be helpful in certain circumstances, it’s not designed to be the only treatment. It’s common for people who simply detox to return to their drug use.9

Dealing With Relapse

Treatment for substance use can be effective, but it’s important that a person’s progress during treatment is continually evaluated in order to provide the appropriate level of care and ensure that the patient’s needs are being met.10,14 While relapse can be common, it’s estimated that about 40% to 60% of people with a SUD relapse—rates that are lower or similar to those of other chronic illnesses. Relapse does not indicate failure, but it may signify a need to reevaluate the treatment approach.11

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