How well a person’s body tolerates drugs is highly individual and depends on many factors. You may know someone who becomes too sleepy to function even after a normal dose of over-the-counter allergy medications. On the other hand, you may know someone for whom normal dosages of certain drugs (including prescription painkillers) simply do not work.

A person’s level of drug tolerance is related to their susceptibility to addiction, but the link is not as direct as many people think. People can become tolerant to drugs without being addicted to them. By the same token, people can be addicted to drugs to which they have not developed a tolerance. Here’s what you should know about drug tolerance and drug addiction.

What Is Drug Addiction? 

Drug addiction is a disease with physical, mental, and behavioral aspects, and it can be a consequence of developing a tolerance to a drug and taking it long enough that physical dependence has developed. What differentiates an addict from someone with drug dependence or a drug tolerance is that the addict cannot stop taking the substance, regardless of the negative consequences that result. Addiction can cause a person to spend all their money, do questionable or illegal things to get money to support their habit, leave their family, lose their job, or end up in jail. With a severe addiction, none of these consequences is enough to turn things around. In these cases, drug addiction detox and rehabilitation are necessary to recovery.

What Is Drug Tolerance?

Drug tolerance has to do with how effective a particular dose of a particular drug is in a particular person. With some drugs, tolerance can build over time. Narcotics or opiates are particularly subject to the development of tolerance, which is one reason why doctors must be careful about prescribing them. When a person develops a tolerance to a drug like Lortab, it simply means that it takes more than it once did in order to provide the same level of relief. Drug tolerance does not necessarily mean a person will go on to develop an addiction, but it can be unsettling nonetheless.

What Is Drug Dependence?

Drug dependence is a physical phenomenon. It simply means that if a person takes a drug for a period of time and then stops taking it abruptly or suddenly lowers the dosage, he or she will experience physical symptoms, which may range from annoying to serious. Physical withdrawal symptoms can happen with ordinary substances that people regularly consume (like caffeine), but they’re most strongly associated with alcohol and opioids. Dealing with drug dependence alone often involves a carefully planned tapering off of the drug to minimize discomfort and health risks.

Addiction and Self-Destructive Behavior

Because full-blown addiction includes destructive behavior towards others and towards oneself, there can come a time when an addict must be put into treatment or incarcerated before the addiction precipitates something catastrophic. This is not to make light of the hard work required to overcome physical drug dependence without addiction. That requires hard work too. But addiction is unique in that self-destruction and destruction of the lives of loved ones is not enough to overcome the addictive behavior.

Drug tolerance and even drug dependence can develop without resulting in addiction. However, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between drug dependence and drug addiction. It is often the behavioral component that lets loved ones, employers, doctors, and law enforcement know that a person has the disease of addiction.

The good news is that with a holistic approach to treating addiction, a person can not only overcome physical drug dependence but can overcome psychological tendencies that make relapse more likely. If you have questions about drug tolerance, dependence, and addiction, or if you or someone you love is addicted, we hope you will contact us at any time. Reaching out is the first step to recovery.

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.