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What is Addiction?

Addiction is a type of substance use disorder that is chronic, often relapsing, and results in brain changes that make it harder to stop use. Addictions can develop as people use alcohol or other substances over time and as a result, the brain’s structure changes. Some symptoms of addiction are loss of control over use, continued use despite negative consequences, social problems, and needing more of the substance to get the same effect.

Myths About Addiction

  • Addiction is a moral failure
  • All people who use alcohol or other substances are addicted
  • People who abuse alcohol or other substances
    • can just stop using if they want to
    • cannot be productive members of society
    • are bad people who deserve to be punished
    • are usually homeless and/or have a criminal history
  • Treatment doesn’t work
  • Relapse equals failure

Why Do People Start Using Alcohol or Other Substances?

People begin using alcohol or other substances for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the reasons that people start using:

  • Trauma
  • Challenging relationships
  • Stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Partner substance use
  • Sensation seeking
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression

Substance Use Spectrum

Not all people who use alcohol or other substances are addicted

Diagram showing the spectrum of substance use from use, misuse, substance use disorder, and addiction

Categories of Substances

People can misuse or become addicted to a variety of substances. Substance misuse includes not taking prescription medications as prescribed. The major categories of substances that can lead to substance use disorders including addiction are:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids (Oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, codeine, heroin)
  • Stimulants (Cocaine, Methamphetamines)
  • Depressants (Alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines)
  • Hallucinogens (LSD, mushrooms, mescaline)
  • Inhalants (Glues, paint thinner, gasoline, aerosol sprays)
  • Cannabinoids (Marijuana, hashish)
  • Nicotine

What Are Behavioral Signs of Substance Misuse?

When looking for signs of substance use disorder, if you or someone you know meets at least 2 of the criteria below, you may benefit from substance use treatment.  

Mild Substance
Use Disorder

2-3 Symptoms

Moderate Substance
Use Disorder

4-5 Symptoms

Severe Substance
Use Disorder

6 or More Symptoms

Behavioral Signs

  • Substances, marijuana and/or alcohol are often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than was intended
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to use or obtain substance(s), marijuana and/or alcohol, or recovery from its effects
  • Craving, or a strong desire to use
  • Recurrent misuse resulting in failure to fulfill major work, school, or home obligations
  • Continued misuse despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance
  • Important social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of misuse
  • Recurrent misuse in situations in which it is physically hazardous
  • Continued misuse despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substances, marijuana and/or alcohol
  • Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    • A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance(s), marijuana and/or alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect
    • Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of substances, marijuana and/or alcohol
  • Withdrawal is manifested by either of the following:
    • The characteristic of withdrawal syndrome for the substance(s), marijuana and/or alcohol
    • The same (or closely related) substance(s), marijuana and/or alcohol are taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment Works!

Substance use disorder is treatable. With help, a person can recover. Treatment helps people to change destructive behaviors, avoid relapse, and minimize the medical and social complications of substance use.

What Does Good Treatment Look Like?

  • No single approach is appropriate for everyone. Individualized treatment plans based upon a person’s particular problems and needs are critical to their success.
  • Treatment addresses multiple needs of the person, not just their substance use. This can include addressing a person’s medical, social, legal, and/or vocational problems.
  • Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical. The length of treatment depends on the type and degree of the person’s needs. Recovery is a long-term process and may require additional treatment episodes.
  • Behavioral therapies include individual, family and/or group counseling. Behavioral therapies address a person’s motivation to change, provides goals to stop using, replaces substance use activities with constructive and fulfilling activities, and improves problem-solving and relationship-building skills.
  • Medications can be an important element of treatment for many patients, when combined with behavioral therapies. Medications may be useful to reduce cravings, stay in treatment, and avoid relapse.
  • A person’s treatment needs must be continually assessed and treatment modified to ensure it meets their changing needs.

The Best Programs Provide a Combination of Therapies and Other Services to Meet a Patient’s Needs

Diagram showing services and therapies
Diagram showing services and therapies