Understanding Drug & Alcohol Addiction: Stats, Causes & Effects
Last Updated: September 19, 2023
Drug and alcohol abuse can cause addiction, leading to many health problems, but treatment can help those struggling with drugs and alcohol overcome addiction.
Addiction is a biological process that makes it difficult or impossible to stop using a substance. Drugs and alcohol can cause addiction that leads to many health problems and affects the person with the addiction socially, financially and legally.
What Is Addiction?
Addiction can develop when an addictive substance is used, especially heavily or over time. Addictive substances produce a brain effect causing a desire to use them again. Each use makes this desire stronger, leading to an addiction cycle.
The widespread availability, use and increased legalization of addictive substances and the promotion of opioids by pharmaceutical companies have caused addiction to become a prevalent health problem. In the U.S.:
- Thirteen percent of people aged 12 and older have used an illegal drug in the past month
- Over 25% of people have engaged in binge drinking in the last month
- Over 90,000 people die yearly from overdosing on opioids
- Over 14,000,000 people have an alcohol addiction
- Deaths from alcohol-related incidents are the third-leading preventable cause of death
What Causes Addiction?
Addiction occurs because addictive substances activate brain receptors that have a physical effect but also release brain chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins cause pleasure and the brain uses them to reward and reinforce certain behaviors.
Endorphins are beneficial when rewarding things like completing a difficult task or having intercourse. However, they create problems when artificially released by drugs or alcohol because they cause an extreme pleasure sensation that your brain is strongly reinforced to seek again.
You are more likely to keep using drugs or alcohol that release endorphins, which release more, making the cycle stronger. This cycle causes addiction, where you cannot stop using the drug or alcohol due to your brain craving it.
Signs of Addiction
Several signs of addiction typically fall into two categories: physical symptoms from substance use and psychosocial symptoms due to how addiction changes behavior.
Addiction’s physical symptoms depend on the substance being used but may include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Pupils that are larger or smaller than usual
- Slurred speech
- Illogical or hyper conversations
- Seeming overly relaxed
- A sudden burst of extreme energy followed by a crash
- Impaired coordination or problems walking
- Decreased inhibition in conversation
Addiction’s psychosocial symptoms differ but will generally be similar regardless of the substance used:
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Becoming more dishonest or secretive
- Becoming more withdrawn
- Sudden changes in social circles
- Decreased performance at school or work
- Increased legal or financial problems
Most Addictive Substances
Many potentially addictive substances exist, but some are commonly misused and more likely to lead to addiction.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused addictive substance worldwide. Alcohol is easy to access and plays a prominent role in socialization. Alcohol is a depressant that slows brain activity, causing relaxation and reduced inhibition and judgment.
Opioids are the most deadly addictive substance in the U.S., with over 100,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2021. Opioids are depressants that suppress neurological signals, ultimately affecting breathing in high doses while inhibiting your ability to respond as an overdose occurs. Opioids can range from weaker to stronger pills to powerful IV opioids.
Heroin is an illegal opioid typically injected into the veins. It is potent, addictive and carries serious risks because it is a potentially deadly opioid with dangers associated with using IV drugs.
Cocaine is a stimulant drug that provides extra energy and a feeling of increased capability, unlike opioids and alcohol, which cause relaxation and drowsiness. Cocaine is typically snorted or smoked and can lead to artificially elevated strain on the body, causing severe health complications.
Meth is a stimulant similar to cocaine. It is generally smoked and leads to abnormally elevated stress levels in the body, increasing the risk of serious health problems, such as a heart attack or stroke. Meth causes extreme energy level elevations followed by severe fatigue or a “crash.”
Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are legally used for medical reasons, primarily to treat anxiety. However, these depressants can be addictive, even if used as prescribed. Benzos are not generally considered as dangerous as alcohol but act on similar brain receptors.
Amphetamines are a class of stimulants primarily used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy. Although legal, amphetamines can lead to addiction and the use of more potent stimulants.
Marijuana is a commonly used addictive substance within its own drug category. While it is often thought of as a “safe” drug due to the unlikeliness of overdosing, it is still very addictive. Marijuana can lead to addiction and the use of more dangerous drugs.
Is There a Cure for Addiction?
Many experts consider addiction a life-long but treatable condition. While there is no cure, you can lead an addiction-free life after successful treatment and life changes. Because brain chemistry changes cause addiction, it typically requires medical treatment to recover.
Treating Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Professional treatment for alcohol addiction generally involves medical detox, in which your body eliminates the substance from its system. Medical detox provides medical supervision, support and medications to manage physical withdrawal symptoms and make detox as safe and comfortable as possible.
Once you have completed medical detox, you’ll enter rehab treatment. Rehab focuses on getting to the root of your addiction, unlearning unhealthy coping mechanisms and teaching new healthier behaviors. Once you graduate from treatment, you’ll receive aftercare resources, including a relapse prevention plan, online teletherapy, medical referrals, support groups, and other recovery resources.
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