Understanding Addiction

Addiction causes, signs, risk factors, and treatment

Addiction is a treatable disease that affects up to 21 million Americans. Despite how common it is, the stigma that surrounds addiction prevents many from seeking treatment. Better understanding the risk factors associated with addiction as well as the treatment options available for those seeking help can mitigate the negative health and psychosocial consequences of the disease.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a disease that is characterized by compulsive and problematic use of substances, such as drugs and alcohol, that is significantly detrimental to a person’s life. Addiction is diagnosed according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as substance abuse disorder. Substances commonly abused include:

The diagnostic criteria includes several clusters of symptoms that broadly make up substance abuse including impaired control over substance use, social impairment, risky use, and pharmacologic symptoms. Together these criteria help encapsulate the areas wherein addiction can cause detrimental effects.

Substance abuse disorder diagnostic criteria

Diagnosis and severity of substance abuse and addiction is determined by the number of symptoms present. Substance abuse is considered mild if only 2-3 symptoms are present, moderate if 4 to 5 symptoms are present, and severe if more than 6 symptoms are present. The 11 diagnostic criteria are:

  • Increased consumption of a substance or for longer time period than intended
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down despite the desire to
  • Increased amount of time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from substance use
  • Intense cravings for the substance
  • Inability to fulfill personal and professional obligations
  • Continued substance use despite significant social or interpersonal problems
  • Reduced interest or enjoyment of recreational or social activities because of substance use
  • Continued use despite knowing that it exacerbates health or psychological problems
  • Engagement in risky behaviors in the course of substance use
  • Tolerance marked by the need for increasing doses to achieve the same effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms that occur when substance use is reduced or discontinued

Facts & Statistics

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics:

  • Over 50% of people older than 12 report using illicit drugs at least once
  • 59.2 million people have used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs within the last year
  • Of the 138.522 million Americans over 12 who drink alcohol, 20.4% of them suffer from substance abuse disorder
  • 70% of people who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop substance abuse disorder within the next 7 years
  • 2.7 million individuals suffer from opioid use disorder Taking opioids for longer than 3 months increases the risk of addiction 15 times
  • Over 70,000 individuals die from overdose every year in the US
  • 67.8% of drug overdose deaths were opioid-related

Common causes and risk factors of addiction

Addiction often doesn’t have one simple cause. The risk factors often work together to increase the likelihood that a person will develop substance use disorder. These risks include both biological factors and environmental factors.

From a biological standpoint, genetics, brain chemistry, and mental health can all play a role in the development of addiction. For instance, having a family history of addiction or certain mental health conditions can predispose individuals to addiction.

Environmental risk factors for addiction include elements of a person’s surroundings including their family, friends, community, and life stresses. For example, living with individuals that do drugs or drink alcohol may increase the likelihood of addiction. Not only can this teach addictive behaviors through observation from a young age, it can also provide easier access to drugs and alcohol. These patterns can also be seen in schools or neighborhoods where an individual spends a lot of time.

There are also certain factors that can mitigate the risk of developing addiction. For instance, having loving and supportive family and social relationships, having adequate access to community resources, and increased participation in enriching hobbies and activities such as team sports.

Health and psychosocial consequences of addiction

People that are addicted to substances like drugs and alcohol often see a decline in their overall quality of life as well as in mental and physical health.

The health effects can be far-reaching and include increased risk for:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C due to risky behavior related to drug use
  • Lung disease
  • Mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation
  • Injuries and accidents
  • Overdose

Consequences of drug and alcohol addiction can impact others as well. For instance:

  • Negative effects of drug and alcohol use while pregnant or breastfeeding on the child
  • Increased risk of secondhand smoke
  • Increased spread of infectious diseases
  • Increased risk of car accidents

Addiction FAQs

Addiction Treatments

Addiction treatment is designed to help individuals overcome their physical and psychological dependance on drugs and alcohol. Treatment for addiction addresses not only the drug use itself but other risk factors that contribute to the maintenance of substance abuse including biological factors, environmental factors, and sociocultural factors.

Depending on the severity of the addiction and the point in addiction when someone seeks treatment, several different types of treatment may be appropriate. Often, these treatments are sequential.

  • Medical detox is typically the first step in addiction treatment since individuals usually struggle to quit using substances without professional help. Detox provides a safe environment with medical supervision so a person can clear the drug from their body. Medical staff help reduce a person’s uncomfortable symptoms and monitor vitals for any changes that could be dangerous.
  • Inpatient treatment is a full-time program that is completed at a residential facility. This kind of rehab is helpful for those whose home environments are not stable or supportive. During inpatient addiction treatment, individuals attend individual and group therapy and spend their free time doing activities that encourage a healthier lifestyle like reading or exercising.
  • Outpatient treatment is typically appropriate for those whose addiction is mild or who are further along in their addiction treatment. During outpatient treatment, individuals can stay at home overnight but attend therapy and other rehab sessions to promote their recovery. Though the types of therapy and peer group activities are similar in inpatient and outpatient treatment, individuals in outpatient rehab have more flexibility which allows them to return to work and fulfill regular obligations.
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