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Addiction is a condition that causes someone to seek and use a harmful substance or drug constantly. They continue to pursue these harmful behaviors despite knowing the consequences and seeing how they affect those around them.

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Understanding Addiction

One of the most significant risks of substance abuse is that it often results in drug addiction. Despite affecting millions of Americans each year, this disease is often misunderstood.

“A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth.”

—Dr. George Koob, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Let’s look at drug addiction and how it can be treated.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a brain disease characterized by repeated, compulsive behavior to continue a particular behavior.

For a person to be considered addicted to drugs, three things need to be present:

    • A strong compulsion to continue using a drug;
    • An inability to limit how much of a drug is used; and
    • A sense of anxiety if access to a drug is blocked.

Drug addiction is life-threatening due to the impact that drugs have on the body.

Long-term use can result in significant health problems and permanent physical damage to the body, including death by overdose.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, many treatment programs are available to help you get your life back on track before it’s too late.

What is Addiction? Video Thumbnail

Learn the basics of addiction in less than 3 minutes.

Duration: 2 min 18 sec

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a complex and often misunderstood condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a brain disease that causes compulsive behavior, making it difficult for those suffering from it to quit despite the negative consequences. In this video, we will explore the nature of addiction, how it affects the brain, and the difference between addiction and dependence. We will also discuss addiction statistics, various types of drug addiction, and treatment options available for those struggling with addiction.

1: Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a brain disease that compels a person to continue using a harmful substance or drug, despite knowing the consequences. It is characterized by a strong compulsion to use a drug, an inability to limit the drug’s use, and anxiety when access to the drug is blocked. This life-threatening condition can result in significant health problems and permanent damage to the body.

2. How Addiction Occurs in the Brain

Drug addiction occurs due to excitement, where the user seeks a rush or high, or avoidance, where the user takes the drug to numb negative sensations. Both scenarios can lead to a cycle of drug abuse, known as substance use disorder (SUD), resulting in addiction and dependence.

3: Addiction vs. Dependence

While addiction is a compulsive use of a drug despite consequences, dependence is when the user has developed a tolerance to a drug and requires more of it to achieve the same effect. Dependence is related to how the drug interacts with the user’s body, while addiction impacts the user’s decision-making and day-to-day life.

4: Drug Addiction Statistics

More than 1.4 million Americans sought treatment for drug addiction in 2019, according to the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services. Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background, and research shows that various factors contribute to an individual’s susceptibility to addiction.

5: Drug Addiction Treatment & Support

Recovery from addiction is possible with the help of healthcare professionals and a strong support system. Treatment options include detoxification, rehabilitation, and post-treatment support. Additionally, support groups and resources are available for friends and family members of addicts to help them cope with the challenges that come with having a loved one struggling with addiction.

How Addiction Happens in the Brain

Drug addiction can happen due to one of two behaviors:

  • Excitement. The user takes a drug because it gives them a rush; they are excited to use it in the future and look forward to it.
  • Avoidance. The user takes the drug because it makes them stop feeling a certain way (sad, anxious, etc.); the user takes the drug in the future to numb negative sensations.

In both scenarios, the drug user can get stuck in a cycle of drug abuse, resulting in addiction. This is also known as substance use disorder (SUD).

The drug user may eventually need more of the drug to feel the same effects and begin to experience intense cravings for the drug. The drug user may also continue using the drug to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. All of these effects are signs of dependence.

Addiction VS Dependence

Addiction and dependence are different, but these issues often go hand-in-hand.

Let’s examine the difference between addiction and dependence:

Drug Addiction

  • Compulsive use of a drug in a cyclical pattern despite consequences
  • The user’s need for the drug begins to negatively impact social commitments such as work, school, or family
  • The user continues drug-seeking behaviors and will seek out the drug by any means necessary

Drug Dependence

  • Developed tolerance to a drug and its effects
  • The user needs more of the drug to achieve the same effect as before
  • The user may now only take the drug to avoid the adverse side effects of withdrawal

Drug dependence will often lead to addiction, but one can also be dependent upon a drug without being addicted. Dependence relates to how the drug interacts with the user’s body, whereas addiction relates to how the user’s need for the drug begins to impact the user’s decision-making and day-to-day life.

Both drug addiction and dependence can harm the user’s physical and mental health. Numerous side effects can occur depending on the drug being abused, and risk factors vary from person to person depending on individual use factors.

Thankfully, treatment approaches for both dependence and addiction often go hand-in-hand.

Drug Addiction Statistics

According to the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 1.4 million Americans sought treatment for drug addiction in 2019.

Who Does Addiction Affect?

Drug addiction can happen to anyone.

Not all first-time users will become addicted to a substance, and health professionals continue researching why this is the case. So far, research indicates that many factors are involved in addiction—from a person’s unique brain chemistry to environmental factors that impact the user. There is a positive correlation between illegal drug use (which includes both illicit drug use and prescription drug abuse) and marginalized individuals who may have had more struggles than others throughout their lives.

According to SAMHSA, the largest age group that sought treatment for drug addiction in 2018 was between the ages of 26 and 35. Of the two million drug users who sought treatment that year, 64% were men and 35.9% were women.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) aims to predict the future of drug addiction by watching trends in drug use amongst young people. They report the following statistics:

  • Lifetime drug use for 8th graders has steadily increased from 2017 to 2020.
  • Lifetime drug use for 10th and 12 graders has not changed dramatically between 2017 and 2020.
  • Alcohol use for all groups (8th, 10th, and 12th grades) reached an all-time high in 2020.
  • For college-aged students, marijuana use reached an all-time high in 2020.
  • While the first-time vaping spike has decreased, teen vape use remains steady.

As for overdose, over 70,000 people in the US died in 2019 from drug-related overdoses. While that is certainly not a small number, the data shows that many more people seek treatment than die yearly due to addiction. The goal of our site is to help guide you toward that same recovery scenario.

Different Types of Drug Addiction

A person can become addicted to illicit or prescription drugs, but treatment for drug addiction will be relatively similar for both drug types. While drug abuse exists for both types of drugs, there are notable trends among both.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are painkillers, depressants, and stimulants, which include:

On the other hand, the most commonly abused illicit drugs are:

Alcohol and nicotine are among the most addictive drugs, but they are neither prescription nor illegal to consume unless the user is underage.

Drug Addiction Treatment & Support

No matter your relationship with addiction, know there is always hope.

Addiction is a treatable disease, and recovery is possible with the help of health professionals and a strong support system.

For Addicts

Many treatment options are available for various levels of addiction and dependence to help you achieve a drug-free life. A healthcare provider can help you develop a treatment plan that’s right for your individual needs.

Many treatment programs are available to help you through addiction recovery. You can read more detail on our recovery page, but here is a general overview of the treatment process:

Detoxification (Detox)

The overall recovery process will usually begin with some detox program. This will help the drug get out of your system. Medical detoxification while under supervision will usually help you avoid the more negative withdrawal side effects.

Rehabilitation (Rehab)

You will receive care at a treatment center to help you in your early days of sobriety. Typical drug addiction treatment will combine vitals monitoring and drug tests with behavioral therapies.

There are both inpatient rehab and outpatient options, including residential treatment. This stage is designed to treat all aspects of addiction by combining psychiatry with physical healthcare to ensure successful sobriety in the future.

Post-Treatment Support (Aftercare)

After treatment, most recovering addicts will continue to receive support through post-treatment programs that will help them maintain their sobriety and avoid returning to drug use and addiction.

For Friends and Family Members of Addicts

Drug addiction affects more than just the addict themselves.

Friends and family members of a drug addict also deal with negative repercussions caused by the addict’s behavior. However, many resources are available to help you cope with this process and better understand addiction.

From worrying about the addict’s well-being to destructive interactions, addiction can also seriously affect your mental health and well-being. Thankfully there are support groups all over the US for the loved ones of addicts to provide you with guidance and healing.

These groups are available in person and online through group therapy, meetings, support forums, and chat boards.

What About Addiction Relapse?

It is important to remember that relapse is common and doesn’t mean the treatment has failed you or your loved one.

Addiction is a chronically relapsing disease, like asthma or high blood pressure. While an addict’s treatment is designed to help them avoid returning to drug use, relapse does not indicate failure.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has the following to say about addiction and relapse:

“​​Relapse rates for people treated for substance use disorders are compared with those for people treated for high blood pressure and asthma. Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses. Therefore, substance use disorders should be treated like any other chronic illness. Relapse serves as a sign for resumed, modified, or new treatment.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Drug Addiction

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a disease that compels someone to continue to use a drug regardless of how it may impact their lives. An addict will often do anything to continue acquiring the drug.

What are the signs of addiction?

Someone who is addicted to a substance may exhibit the following:

  • Change in their behavior or routines
  • Changes in their personality
  • Poor hygiene
  • Financial problems or sudden need for money

What is the difference between dependence and addiction?

Addiction is the compulsion that drives a person to continue to use a drug regardless of any negative consequences. Dependence is what happens when a person’s body needs more of the drug to feel the effects, or when a person continues to take a drug in order to avoid negative side effects of withdrawal.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 25). Most commonly used addictive drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, February 25). Overdose death rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, July 1). Understanding drug use and addiction drugfacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
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  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017, September 8). Biology of addiction. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  9. WebMD. (n.d.). 5 commonly abused prescription drugs. WebMD. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from

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