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Drug Addiction

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What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive, habitual, and hazardous patterns of drug use. People can get addicted to all kinds of drugs, including:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Prescription opioids (Percocet, Hydrocodone, Morphine, Codeine, Oxycodone)
  • Cocaine
  • Crack cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin)
  • ADHD medications (Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, Concerta)

People who battle drug addiction often rely on their substance of choice to focus, concentrate, feel well, and function throughout the day. Drug use may become the first priority to the person, coming before things like work, family, and friends. Drug addiction is progressive and chronic and can affect every aspect of a person’s life.

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 10% of U.S. adults struggle with drug abuse at some point in their lives. Only 25% seek the treatment they deserve.

Why Do People Abuse Drugs?

People abuse drugs for many different reasons, and there are many types of drugs that may be abused for various purposes. For example, some people may abuse prescription painkillers to cope with chronic pain or depression while others may abuse meth or cocaine to get an energy boost, work longer, and stay awake. However, regardless of the drug being used, people often begin using drugs to cope with some type of underlying conditions.

Some common underlying causes and conditions that can contribute to drug abuse include:

  • Chronic stress
  • Depression
  • Grief and loss
  • Trauma and PTSD
  • Anxiety and panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety
  • Shame or guilt
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Chronic pain
  • Personality disorders

Many teens and adolescents may experiment with drugs like marijuana or prescription pills, however, most people don’t develop an addiction to drugs until their 20s or later. Still, there are many risk factors that can increase a person’s risk of addiction. These include:

  • Starting to use drugs or alcohol at a young age
  • Having a family history of addiction
  • Struggling with a mental illness, PTSD, or trauma
  • Being exposed to drug use at an early age

Few people are able to abuse drugs for a long period of time without developing physical dependence. And, addiction usually develops shortly after a person is physically hooked on a drug if it hasn’t developed already. Even drugs that are not thought of as highly addictive, like marijuana, can be problematic if abused chronically.

Drug Abuse vs. Drug Addiction

While it is nearly impossible to abuse addictive drugs long-term without getting addicted, not everyone who abuses drugs is addicted. In fact, there is a huge distinction between drug abuse and drug addiction.

Drug abuse refers to any drug use that is either illegal or goes against a doctor’s orders. Examples of drug abuse include:

  • Using cocaine at a party
  • Taking two Percocets when only one pill is prescribed
  • Crushing and snorting Xanax pills
  • Mixing two prescriptions that are not intended to be mixed together, like Xanax and Percocet

People who abuse substances may abuse them once in their lives, a couple of times a week, or on special occasions only. These individuals may not develop a physical or psychological addiction if they continue being able to control their drug use. However, drug abuse of any kind can be dangerous and lead to consequences, even if a person isn’t addicted.

Over time, some people who abuse drugs begin abusing drugs more frequently and in higher doses. These individuals may come to feel as though they cannot function successfully unless they are high or under the influence of their drug of choice. They may even want to stop, try to stop, but be unable to stay stopped. And, once addicted, many people will continue abusing drugs despite the consequences that occur.

There are three features that can help differentiate drug abuse from drug addiction. These are:

1. Tolerance – needed to increase the dose of substances used to feel the desired effects

2. Physical dependence – needing substances to feel normal and going into drug withdrawal without them

3. Psychological dependence – feeling as though substances are required to function and cope with daily life

What is Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?

Although the term “drug addiction” does not serve as a medical diagnosis, it is recognized as a legitimate health condition among the medical community. Drug addiction is formally known and diagnosed as substance use disorder (SUD).

Medical professionals refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-V) when diagnosing mental and behavioral health conditions. The DSM-V outlines specific criteria to help practitioners make formal diagnoses.

A patient must meet at least 2 of the 11 criteria outlined in the DSM-V over a one-year period of time to be diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD). A person’s SUD may be labeled as mild, moderate, or severe depending on the number of criteria they identify with. Anyone who meets more than 6 of the following criteria may have a severe SUD.

1. Wanting to stop using drugs or cut back on drug use but being unable to successfully do so

2. Using drugs more often or in higher doses than originally intended on multiple occasions

3. Experiencing intense urges to use drugs or drug cravings

4. Spending excess time, money, and resources on drugs or recovering from the effects of drugs

5. Noticing that using drugs interferes with one’s personal life

6. Continuing to use drugs despite a worsening mental or physical health problem

7. Continuing to use drugs despite drug abuse causing problems at school, home, or work

8. Abandoning activities that the person once enjoyed

9. Needing to use an increasing amount of drugs to feel the desired effects (tolerance)

10. Having withdrawal symptoms when not using drugs

11. Acting out on dangerous or illegal behaviors

People who are experiencing any number of these symptoms may have a drug problem. The more criteria a person identifies with, the more severe their drug dependency is thought to be.

Diagnosing Substance Use Disorder

If an individual or his or her loved ones suspect a drug problem, they should ask for help from a trusted healthcare provider right away. Addiction is progressive and deadly, so the more time goes by, the more consequences the struggling individual may face.

A doctor, counselor, or addiction specialist can provide an initial consultation to determine the patient’s treatment needs. During this consultation, the professional may gather information about the patient’s:

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Past treatment experiences if applicable
  • Medical history
  • Family medical history
  • Treatment goals
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Prescription medications
  • Insurance information

A thorough mental and physical health examination can help guide patients towards the right level of care for their needs.

Long Term Effects of Drug Abuse and Addiction

There are many potential long-term effects of drug abuse and addiction, and it often depends on what type of substance is abused. For example, heroin is known to lead to opioid overdose, track marks, and skin infections. On the other hand, methamphetamine abuse can lead to tooth decay, weight loss, and cardiovascular issues. Other drugs, like benzodiazepines or barbiturates, can cause memory loss, accidents, and other serious long-term effects.

Chronic drug use can also damage internal organs, leading to kidney failure, liver damage, heart disease, lung cancer, malnutrition, gastrointestinal damage, and so much more.

All types of substance abuse affect both the body and the brain and can make people more susceptible to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. In fact, nearly 50% of people who seek treatment for substance abuse also meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness.

When consumed, drugs produce pleasure and euphoria in the brain. They also activate the reward system and release large quantities of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. As a result, chronic drug users begin to associate drugs with reward. Then, drug users continue using drugs to get this reward, and ultimately develop a full-blown addiction. In the long term, drug addiction can:

  • mpair a person’s memory
  • Reduce cognitive function
  • Alter brain connections and neurotransmitters
  • Kill brain cells

Long-term substance abuse can cause irreparable damage to the brain and body, so the sooner a person gets help, the better. People who get sober early on are often able to treat their addiction and heal their bodies, reversing any potential damage.


The first step towards overcoming drug addiction is to abstain from using drugs. Unfortunately, just stopping getting high isn’t always easy for everyone – especially once physically and psychologically dependent. The good news is there are drug rehab centers in Massachusetts that are available to help with a comprehensive treatment program consisting of detox, rehab, and aftercare.

To learn more about drug addiction or to find a drug rehab in your area, contact one of our dedicated treatment professionals today.


Valerie Tecci, Program Director

Begin The Journey To Lasting Recovery

We believe everyone struggling with substance use disorder deserves the treatment they need. Our team is here to help you every step of the way.

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