According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2014. Almost 80% of individuals suffering from a substance use disorder in 2014 struggled with an alcohol use disorder.1Drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to change.2
Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.
These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease—people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug. As with other chronic health conditions, treatment should be ongoing and should be adjusted based on how the person responds.
What happens to the brain when a person takes drugs?
Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit” by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. This reward system controls the body’s ability to feel pleasure and motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. This overstimulation of the reward circuit causes the intensely pleasurable “high” that can lead people to take a drug again and again.
As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by making less of it and/or reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug—an effect known as tolerance.
They might take more of the drug, trying to achieve the same dopamine high. It can also cause them to get less pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food or social activities.
Long-term use also causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well, affecting functions that include:
Despite being aware of these harmful outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of addiction.2
Can drug addiction be cured or prevented?
As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. People who are recovering from an addiction will be at risk for relapse for years and possibly for their whole lives. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients.
The good news is that drug use and addiction are preventable. Results from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded research have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective for preventing or reducing drug use and addiction. Although personal events and cultural factors affect drug use trends, when young people view drug use as harmful, they tend to decrease their drug taking.
Therefore, education and outreach are key in helping people understand the possible risks of drug use. Teachers, parents, and health care providers have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and addiction.2
Treatment for Drug Abuse
Drug addiction can be treated, but it’s not simple. It must help the person do the following:
- Stop using drugs
- Stay drug-free
- Be productive at home, at work, and in society
Successful treatment has several steps:
- Behavioral counseling
- Medication (for opioid, tobacco, or alcohol addiction)
- Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse
Medications can be used to manage withdrawal symptoms, prevent relapse, and treat co-occurring conditions.3
Behavioral therapies help patients:
- Modify their attitudes and behaviors related to drug use
- Increase healthy life skills
- Persist with other forms of treatment, such as medication
Finding Treatment Services
Visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov to find a treatment service near you or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline:
- 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- 1-800-487-4889 (TTY)
Free and confidential information in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing substance abuse and mental health issues – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Road to Recovery
If you or a family member are recovering from drug addiction, focus on the following to help prevent relapse:
- Keep going to your treatment sessions.
- Try mindfulness breathing, yoga or meditation to reduce stress.
- Avoid triggers such as spending time with the people you used drugs with, places, things, or emotions that can make you want to use drugs again.
- Take care of your body to help it heal from the harmful effects of drug use and to feel better. Be sure to add daily exercise, and eat healthy foods.
- Find new activities and goals to replace the ones that involved drug use.
- Spend more time with family and friends you lost touch with; consider not seeing friends who are still using drugs.
- LifeRing: lifering.org
- National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse: www.ncapda.org
- SMART Recovery: www.smartrecovery.org
- The Partnership at DrugFree.org: www.medicineabuseproject.org
Get Help from Your Doctor
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you or someone you know is addicted to prescription drugs and needs help stopping or you’re not sure where to start. Reach out to your doctor if you are having withdrawal symptoms that concern you. Your doctor can help you get connected to the care you need.