Addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.
The term addiction does not only refer to dependence on substances such as heroin or cocaine. Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities such as gambling, eating, or working.
Addiction is a chronic condition that can also result from taking medications. In fact, the misuse of opioids — particularly illicitly made fentanyl — caused nearly 50,000 deaths in the United States in 2019 alone.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Many people, but not all, start using a drug or first engage in an activity voluntarily. However, addiction can take over and reduce self-control.
Drug addiction and drug misuse are different.
Misuse refers to the misuse of a substance at high doses or in inappropriate situations that could lead to health and social problems.
However, not everybody who misuses a substance has addiction. Addiction is “fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.”
For example, a person who drinks alcohol heavily on a night out may experience both the euphoric and harmful effects of the substance.
However, this does not qualify as addiction until the person experiences “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequence, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”
There is substance addiction and non-substance addiction. Some examples of non-substance addiction include:
Someone with addiction will continue to misuse the substance or activity in spite of the harmful effects it has.
The primary indications of addiction are:
When a person has addiction and stops taking the substance or engaging in the behavior, they may experience certain symptoms.
For those who have become physically dependent on a substance, abrupt discontinuation may provoke many unpleasant symptoms, and, in some cases, it may be fatal.
Anyone using substances, even socially, should discuss them with a doctor to ensure safe use and monitor for signs or symptoms of addiction.
However, a person with addiction may not be ready or willing to seek professional medical help, regardless of the negative impacts it is having on their health and wellness.
If a person experiences a substance overdose, those around them should seek emergency medical assistance immediately. A person who has recovered from an overdose may want to seek professional help to treat their addiction.
When a person is ready and wants help with their addiction, they may wish to contact a medical professional to discuss options for treatment. These options include rehab, therapy, detox, and medication.
Medicinal advances and progress in diagnosis have helped the medical community develop various ways to manage and resolve addiction.
Some methods include:
Addiction treatment is highly personalized and often requires the support of the individual’s community or family.
Treatment can take a long time and may be complicated. Addiction is a chronic condition with a range of psychological and physical effects. Each substance or behavior may require different management techniques.
A person with addiction can find many organizations that may help them. A person can also call a hotline for help with their addiction.
The following organizations can be helpful for a person with addiction:
A person can call the following hotlines for free assistance with and guidance for addiction:
Addiction is a serious, chronic dependence on a substance or activity. The prevalence of addiction costs the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
A person with addiction is unable to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it has harmful effects on daily living.
Misuse is different from addiction. Substance misuse does not always lead to addiction, while addiction involves the regular misuse of substances or engagements in harmful behavior.
Symptoms of addiction often include declining physical health, irritation, fatigue, and an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior. Addiction can also lead to behaviors that strain relationships and inhibit daily activities.
Stopping the substance or behavior often leads to withdrawal symptoms. People should not attempt to suddenly stop using a substance or engaging in a certain behavior without medical supervision.
Addiction treatment can be difficult, but it is often effective. The best form of treatment depends on the substance and the presentation of the addiction, which varies from person to person. However, treatment usually involves medication, counseling, and community support.
I have a family member with severe addiction, but they refuse to seek help. What is the best way to connect a relative with the care they need?
The best way to help a relative is to establish trust so that they will believe that you have their best interests in mind.
Make sure that any conversation about your concerns does not occur while they are under the influence. Avoid criticizing or shaming them for their addictive behaviors. Instead, say something like, “I care about you and am worried about your safety and health,” and share your observations about their behavior.
Remember, many people deny that they have problems for a long time. If that happens, do not challenge them. Just remind them that you care and ask permission to keep checking in with them.
This resource might help once the individual acknowledges the presence of addiction.
Vara Saripalli, Psy.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
Last medically reviewed on June 3, 2021