There has long been a negative stigma associated with drug abuse and addiction. While medical advances have changed the way we talk about the disease of addiction, millions of Americans try drugs like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin for the first time each year. Unfortunately, a large percentage of these people are unable to stop without help.

commonly abused drugs

Finding help for drug addiction often begins with understanding what it is, how it impacts people, and what signs and symptoms to look for. By understanding the impact substances have on the body, you can make better decisions for yourself and help loved ones who may be struggling with drug addiction.

Drug Abuse Facts and Statistics

Drug abuse statistics can be alarming, but the numbers also show a potential for help and healing. The National Survey on Substance Abuse and Health shows that while 21 million Americans aged 12 or older needed drug or alcohol treatment in 2016, only 3.8 million received it. These numbers remained similar through 2018.

how common are drug addictions

  • Other research sources on drug addiction show that:

    • Drug abuse takes a financial toll on all Americans. The use of illicit drugs costs the U.S. $11 billion in health care each year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, total yearly costs in terms of hospitalization, emergency medical care, lost work productivity, premature death, and criminal behavior surpassed $193 billion in 2007.
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that almost 3% of Americans aged 11 or older had used sedatives, tranquilizers, or stimulants without a doctor’s prescription in 2012.
    • Some statistics show a significant and steady increase in American opioid use, contributing to the nation’s growing opioid crisis. The CDC reports a 29.7% increase in opioid-overdose emergency room visits from July 2016 to September 2017. Wisconsin and Delaware saw the largest rise in overdose emergency room visits, with increases of 109% and 105%, respectively.
    • Stimulants like cocaine and meth can cause long-lasting damage to the brain, altering the way someone thinks, feels, and experiences reality. A study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that chronic cocaine use can lead to cerebral atrophy — a condition that causes the brain to shrink. Long-term cocaine use can cause cognitive impairment even after the drug is no longer used, and people who use methamphetamine may continue to experience hallucinations and psychotic episodes after quitting.
    • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 20.1 million people over the age of 11 struggled with a substance use disorder in 2016. Alcohol was the most prevalent addiction, with 15.1 million people dealing with an alcohol use disorder, followed by 7.4 million struggling with illicit drugs. In 2018, fewer people had an alcohol use disorder (14.8 million), but more people had an illicit drug use disorder (8.1 million).

Drug Abuse vs. Drug Addiction

Often used interchangeably, the terms “drug abuse” and “drug addiction” have unique implications and meanings. When comparing abuse and addiction, understanding the implications of the two terms can be helpful.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) once referred to substance abuse and substance dependence as diagnostic terms. In the updated fifth edition (DSM-5), however, these terms are replaced by the singular substance use disorder. This is further categorized into mild, moderate, and severe to refer to the physical and mental impairments caused by substance use.

Still, understanding substance abuse versus addiction can be confusing and even stigmatizing for some.

What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse typically refers to abusing substances — not necessarily being addicted to them. However, drug abuse can often lead to physical dependence or addiction, which is associated with overwhelming drug cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and more. 

Drug abuse can apply to a wide variety of substances, from prescription medication to illicit street drugs. The term is often used to discuss the improper use of substances, especially substances that can be used for medical purposes. Drug abuse is not limited to those with a history of addiction, as many people develop a substance use disorder after taking prescription medications like prescription painkillers. Regular drug abuse can lead to serious patterns of behavior that result in addiction.

how long does it take to become dependent on a drug

What is Drug Addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease involving compulsive drug seeking and use. This behavior occurs despite harmful consequences.

what causes addiction

Addiction can result from a variety of factors and catalysts, including genetic predisposition, circumstances, environment, trauma, and mental health disorders. While addiction often starts with drug abuse, it is not an indication of a person’s moral status or stability. In fact, many addictions spring from prescription drug use or casual use of legal substances.

definition of addiction

Criteria for Diagnosing a Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is often used as a synonym for what the DSM-5 describes as substance use disorder. This disorder is a culmination of symptoms that fall into four categories: impaired control, social impairment, risky use, and pharmacological criteria.

Medical professionals use these criteria to diagnose and treat substance use disorders based on a person’s behavior over a 12-month period. Substance use disorders are then broken down into specific drug types, such as opioid use disorders, alcohol use disorders, and more.

criteria for diagnosing addiction

  • Criteria for diagnosing addiction:

    1. If a substance is frequently used for longer periods of time or at a higher dosage than originally intended.
    2. Efforts to control or lesson substance use are unsuccessful.
    3. A significant amount of time is spent on obtaining, using, and dealing with the effects of substances.
    4. A heightened urge or desire to regularly use substances is present.
    5. Regular drug use prevents completion of obligations at home, school, or work.
    6. Recurrent substance use despite continued social or relationship issues related to drug use and its effects.
    7. A reduction or abandonment of valuable or important social activities in favor of drug use.
    8. Substance use taking place during dangerous situations or times (driving, caring for children, etc.).
    9. Continued substance use despite underlying medical or physical issues that are exacerbated by the drug.
    10. Development of tolerance, which can involve:
      • An increased dosage amount to achieve the desired effects.
      • Decreased effects or responses to the same amount of a particular substance.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

Addiction is an all-consuming disease that uses much of an individual’s time, energy, and resources. There are many physical, mental, and emotional signs of addiction. If you or a loved one are experiencing a combination of these signs, treatment may be a stepping stone for long-term recovery. Looking for signs and symptoms of drug abuse can be the first step toward identifying an addiction:

  • Common signs of addiction:

    • Unintentional weight loss
    • Loss of sleep
    • Skin problems (lesions, scratch marks, rashes, pimples, bruises, needle marks)
    • Cool, unnaturally pale skin
    • Bloodshot eyes
    • Unusual odors (chemical smells or strong body odors)
    • Tremors or loss of motor coordination
    • Slurred speech
    • Frequent nausea
    • Irregular heart rate
    • Shallow breathing

Many of the brain structures and processes involved in addiction are also used in cognitive tasks like reasoning, learning, and memory. With heavy drug use, a person may have difficulty learning or remembering information, or they may lose focus when trying to concentrate on a task. In addition to short-term physical and psychological impacts, long-term drug use can also alter mental health.

Mental Impacts of Drug Use

Drugs affect the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves, as well as how they look. However, substance use disorders are often accompanied by co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. Some people may use drugs as a form of self-medication for these issues, while other people may develop a mental health disorder after taking substances. Either way, it’s important to look out for psychological and behavioral changes in friends or loved ones who might be struggling with addiction:

  • Common psychological and behavioral signs of addiction:

    • Anxiety
    • Restlessness
    • Uncharacteristic lying
    • Confusion
    • Memory loss or blackouts
    • Stealing money or medications
    • Irregular sleep patterns
    • Self-isolation
    • Depression
    • Mood swings
    • Unusual personality changes or mood swings
    • Failure at school or on the job
    • Increased secrecy
    • Legal problems

When a person is struggling with both a mental illness and a substance use disorder, it can be difficult to identify and treat the issues of each. Many treatment facilities focus solely on the symptoms of substance use without treating the mental health issues that may contribute to addiction. Finding a center that specializes in co-occurring disorder treatment can help identify the roots of a substance use disorder and equip patients with the tools they need for lifelong recovery.

Severe Side Effects of Drug Use

Different drugs affect the body and brain in unique ways. However, there are many similarities in the way drug addiction can damage the body and cause life-threatening symptoms.

The physical dependence on a drug can cause serious withdrawal symptoms if a person suddenly stops using the substance or severely reduces the dose. The withdrawal process itself can be uncomfortable and dangerous. Some of the classic signs of withdrawal include tremors, cold sweats, involuntary movements (jerking, twitching or shaking), nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, and bone pain. Because withdrawal can be dangerous, proper medical detox can be a life-saving step in recovery.

  • Some of the most severe side effects may include:

    • Insomnia
    • Loss of appetite and weight loss
    • An abnormally slow or rapid heart rate
    • Slow or rapid breathing
    • Increased blood pressure
    • Heart attack
    • Stroke
    • Respiratory distress
    • Fever
    • Muscle spasms
    • Seizures
    • Increased risk of accidental injuries
    • Exposure to blood-borne diseases (for IV drug users)

Drug Addiction Treatment

Like any other life-threatening disease, drug addiction requires intensive treatment by credentialed specialists. While some may be able to find recovery alone, true healing is a lifelong process that typically requires continued support.

Drug addiction treatment options range from medical detox and inpatient care to 12-step programming, pharmacotherapy, and outpatient services. Throughout a continuum of care, patients are offered resources, skills, and support to ensure that they’re making progress toward recovery goals.

  • Drug Detox

    Detox, short for detoxification, is the first phase in many substance abuse treatment programs. During detox, patients are monitored by…Learn More

  • Addiction Medications

    Medication-assisted treatment can help reduce withdrawal symptoms, make cravings more manageable, and reduce urges after leaving a treatment center.Learn More

  • Inpatient Treatment

    Inpatient or residential treatment provides intensive therapy, 24-hour monitoring and a full spectrum of rehab services for patients who need…Learn More

  • Outpatient Treatment

    Outpatient therapy is ideal for those who have completed a residential treatment program. Consistent meetings with a therapist on a…Learn More

  • Teletherapy

    With teletherapy, people with substance use disorders can receive therapy services over the internet or phone. Learn the options, benefits,…Learn More

  • Aftercare & Sober Living

    Sober living homes offer a safe place for those in recovery to live and begin to rebuild their life alongside…Learn More

Other FAQs About Drug Addiction

  • How common are drug addictions?

    According to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 7.4% of Americans aged 12 or older meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. Globally, the figure is lower; the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 3% of adults around the world suffer from a substance use disorder. At first glance, these numbers may seem small. However, these statistics do not reflect the number of people who have tried illicit drugs, or who have abused illicit substances or prescription medications. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 11% of Americans have tried illicit drugs in the last month alone. Anyone who uses drugs recreationally or experimentally is at risk of developing dependence and addiction.

  • What is the difference in addictions to specific substances?

    “Drug addiction” is a general term that refers to the compulsive need to seek and use substances in spite of harmful consequences. However, drugs vary in their addictive properties, and social trends can influence the popularity of certain drugs. The commonly abused substances include:

    • Marijuana has become one of the most widely used drugs in the United States. The Journal of the American Medical Association notes that while the prevalence of marijuana use in the U.S. hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, the prevalence of marijuana abuse and addiction has greatly increased. A 2019 Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks drug use among American teens, shows that marijuana use has remained high among high school students in recent years. Meanwhile, disapproval of cannabis among teens has declined. Marijuana was not always considered to be addictive, but recent studies have shown that this drug can cause symptoms of dependence and addiction, including cravings, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and agitation.
    • Cocaine / Crack Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant and one of the most popular drugs of abuse in the United States. Its euphoric, energizing effects are not only seductive but also highly addictive. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that nearly 874,000 American adults tried cocaine for the first time in that year. Crack cocaine, a more potent form of the drug, is estimated to be between 75% and 100% more powerful than the powdered form. Crack is highly addictive and causes changes in brain chemistry that quickly lead to compulsive abuse and dependence.
    • Methamphetamine. Known as “meth” and many other street names, methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The effects of meth are similar to the effects of cocaine, but methamphetamine is generally less expensive and easier to obtain. The production of meth in underground labs around the U.S. has become increasingly common, contributing to the rise in addiction.
    • Opiates encompass a group of potent pain-relieving substances, which includes all drugs that are derived from opium. Some of these drugs, such as morphine and codeine, are classified as non-synthetic opiates. Others, such as heroin, hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone, are produced synthetically in laboratories. Until recently, heroin was considered to be the most addictive of the opiates. Today, however, opiate pain medications have surpassed heroin and cocaine in their popularity as drugs of abuse. According to Harvard University, the number of opiate addicts in the U.S. increased threefold between 1991 and 2001. This is largely due to the increase in nonmedical use of drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid). Additionally, a 2018 SAMHSA report shows that 2 million Americans have an opioid use disorder and more than 500,000 have a heroin use disorder.
    • Hallucinogens are psychoactive drugs that affect the way someone experiences the world around them. A few of the most popular hallucinogenic drugs include ecstasy, LSD, PCP, and mushrooms. The effects of hallucinogenic drugs can range from pleasant sensory distortions and feelings of empathy to terrifying hallucinations and violent impulses. These psychedelic substances are popular among young people, many of whom are introduced to hallucinogenic drugs at clubs, raves, concerts, or parties. Although hallucinogenic drugs are commonly believed to be non-addictive, clinical research has shown that drugs like ecstasy can cause signs of physical and psychological dependence, including withdrawal symptoms, obsessive thoughts, and cravings.
    • Pharmaceutical drugs. When it comes to prescription drug abuse and addiction, opiate pain medications are the most widely abused. The CDC notes that in 2012, over 250 million prescriptions were written for painkillers like Vicodin, Norco, and Percocet. In 2017, more than 17,000 people died from overdoses on narcotic pain relievers. However, opiates aren’t the only prescription medications that can cause dependence and addiction. Other commonly abused prescription drugs include benzodiazepines (Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Xanax), stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta), and prescription sleeping pills (Ambien, Lunesta).

  • What causes addiction?

    There are many factors that contribute to drug addiction, including genetic makeup, family background, social influences, neurological factors, and environmental issues. Having a close family member who is addicted to drugs, or growing up in an environment where drug use is widely accepted, can increase a person’s chances of developing dependence and drug addiction. A co-occurring mental illness also makes someone vulnerable to addictive drug use.

    Even now, many people assume that drug addiction is caused by a failure of willpower or by weak character. However, the medical community now recognizes that addiction is a brain disease — not a character flaw. The repeated use of drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth, or prescription opiates causes profound changes in the structure and function of the brain. These substances interfere with the way the brain processes and responds to neurotransmitters, chemicals that control emotion, energy levels, pain response, judgment, sleep patterns, and metabolism.

    The more someone uses these drugs, the more their brain and nerves come to rely on these substances to produce feelings of pleasure, excitement, relaxation, or euphoria. Drug addiction occurs when repeated use of a drug changes the brain in such a way that the user can no longer function normally without it.

  • How long does it take to become dependent on drugs?

    There is no hard and fast rule on how long it takes for an individual to become dependent on drugs or develop a drug addiction. The length of time can depend on the type of drug being used, the amount of the drug taken, and whether a combination of drugs (including alcohol) is used. Other factors, such as physical and psychological health, can also influence drug dependence.

    Drugs like cocaine, meth, heroin, and benzodiazepines are known to cause physical and psychological dependence very quickly. For some users, the signs of drug tolerance and physical dependence can develop after only a few uses. For others, it may take weeks or months for addiction to develop.

  • How long does drug withdrawal last?

    Drug withdrawal can last from a few days to a week or more. Some of the late signs of drug withdrawal, such as anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairment, may linger after the detoxification phase. There are many factors that can influence the duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms, including:

    • The primary drug of abuse
    • The length of time the drug has been used
    • Dosage
    • Age
    • Size
    • Physical condition
    • Psychological health

    With opiate abuse (heroin, morphine, OxyContin, Vicodin), withdrawal symptoms usually start within a matter of hours and last for several days. With stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine, withdrawal may be more extensive and include cravings, depression, and anxiety lasting for several months. Withdrawal from prescription medications like benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan) may require a drug taper to clear the chemicals safely from a person’s system.

  • What should I do if I believe a loved one has a drug addiction?

    If you’ve noticed the signs or symptoms of drug addiction in someone you love, don’t hesitate to intervene. Many people are reluctant to talk to a friend or family member about drug addiction, either because they’re afraid of jumping to conclusions or because they don’t want to make the problem worse. Although it’s never easy or comfortable to bring up the topic of substance abuse, reaching out to an addicted person could stop the progression of a fatal disease.

    Here are a few steps you can take to communicate your concerns while protecting yourself and your loved ones from the repercussions of addiction:

    • Initiate a one-on-one conversation: If you don’t bring up the topic of drug addiction, it’s unlikely that your loved one will initiate the discussion. Denial is one of the strongest side effects of addiction, and it’s all too easy for spouses, partners, or children to ignore the problem. Have an honest, heart-to-heart talk with your loved one about how their behavior is affecting you and other people in your home.
    • Seek advice and support from others: Counselors, therapists, and support groups can be valuable sources of advice when you’re trying to deal with an addicted loved one. A substance abuse therapist can give you pointers on how to communicate effectively with someone who’s in denial. Additionally, 12-step groups like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon can offer helpful support and coping strategies.
    • Start researching treatment options: It’s never too soon to start exploring drug treatment programs for your loved one. Rehab facilities, recovery services, and detox programs are listed publicly. You can also use the internet to find recovery centers in your community or out of state.
    • Work with an intervention specialist: If your loved one is in strong denial about the problem, they will probably refuse to get treatment or even to listen to you. A substance abuse counselor or interventionist can help you plan a formal meeting to confront your loved one with the consequences of their behavior and propose a treatment plan.

  • How should I tell my loved ones that I have a drug addiction?

    The best way to tell your loved ones that you’re addicted is to be as honest and as open as possible. Be prepared for the possibility that they won’t understand your disease — even today, many people don’t realize that addiction is a chronic condition on the same level as diabetes, cancer, or hypertension. Your loved ones may criticize you; they may even try to persuade you that you don’t have a problem. It’s important to stand firm in your new self-awareness and stay on track with your plan for treatment.

    If you fear that your loved ones will reject or judge you, consider inviting them to a session with a substance abuse counselor or a 12-step meeting. Educating your loved ones about the realities of drug addiction may make them more receptive and supportive. Having the support of professionals and peers will also help you stick with your convictions about recovery.

  • What types of medications are available to treat drug addiction?

    Addiction medications make the recovery process easier by easing the cravings and side effects associated with withdrawal. In the advanced stages of recovery, some people continue to take these medications in order to maintain their sobriety.

    Addiction medication should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision. These drugs can have serious side effects, including physical dependence and tolerance. Ironically, the medications used to treat opiate addiction have addictive properties themselves.

    Medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of drug addiction include:

    • Methadone is a synthetic opioid that has been prescribed since the 1960s as a form of treatment for heroin addiction. When taken in small, controlled doses, methadone allows heroin addicts to withdraw gradually and to maintain a drug-free life.
    • Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid that is prescribed to help addicted individuals manage cravings and reduce the need for opiates. Buprenorphine was FDA-approved in 2002 and is sold under a number of brand names, including Suboxone, Butrans, and Buprenex.
    • Naltrexone was approved by the FDA in 1994 for the treatment of alcoholism. However, it is currently prescribed for the treatment of opioid addiction. Sold in oral or injectable forms (ReVia and Vivitrol), naltrexone can help block the effects of opioids on the brain, which makes opioid use less pleasurable. Naltrexone is prescribed for opiate users who have been through the withdrawal phase and are motivated to stick to a recovery program.

    Other medications are prescribed to help manage the pain, muscle spasms, nausea, and anxiety of drug withdrawal. When they are used as part of a comprehensive recovery plan, these medications can make withdrawal more tolerable, increasing the chances that the patient will progress to the next stage of recovery.

  • What are the recovery rates for people with a drug addiction?

    With the help of professional drug treatment programs, many people with addiction have learned to live meaningful, drug-free lives. Relapse rates among recovering opiate users are as high as 90%, according to a study published in the Irish Medical Journal. However, study participants who completed an inpatient treatment program were more likely to avoid relapse and remain drug-free.

    Drug addiction is a chronic disease, and relapse is one of its major symptoms. It’s important for people in recovery to realize that relapse is the rule rather than the exception. Relapse prevention therapy can help addicted people learn how to avoid relapses, or at least how to minimize the severity of a relapse if they do slip. The sooner someone seeks help after a relapse, the sooner they’ll get back on track with their recovery program.

    Recovery rates are higher for patients who have access to aftercare support after they are discharged from treatment. Aftercare services include case management, alumni groups, community referrals, counseling services, sober housing, medication management, and more. These services provide a source of stability and support for people in recovery while they transition back to daily life in the community.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use or a co-occurring mental health disorder, The Recovery Village is here to help. Contact us to learn more about addiction treatment plans and recovery programs that can work well for your situation.

More on Specific Substances and Illicit Drugs

“Drug addiction” is a general term that covers a very broad range of substances, from prescription medications to illegal street drugs. Technically, alcohol is a drug, as well. Each of these substances has specific side effects, risks, and withdrawal symptoms.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.