How Quickly Can I Become Addicted to a Drug?

Powdered cocaine
Cocaine in white powder form. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Question: How Quickly Can I Become Addicted to a Drug?

Answer: Unfortunately, the answer to this question is "it depends."

There are too many factors involved to provide an easy answer. The biological make-up of your body, how sensitive you may be to a certain drug and the chemical make-up of the drug itself can all play a role in if or how quickly that you might become addicted.

Some people might be able to use a drug many times without suffering any ill effects, while another person might take the same drug and have a bad reaction or even overdose theĀ first time they use it.

Likewise, one person may become addicted to a drug the first time they use it, while another person might never form an addiction.

Some Drugs More Addictive Than Others

Just as there are vast differences between the people doing drugs, there are also big differences between the drugs themselves. For example, you may never use enough powdered cocaine to become addicted to it, but you might become addicted to crack cocaine or heroin the first time you try it.

Sometimes addiction can sneak up on you slowly and insidiously. As you continue to use the drug, you can slowly build up a tolerance to it, which means that you no longer get the same feeling or "high" that you once got by taking it.

Tolerance Is a Key Symptom of Addiction

To counter the build-up of tolerance, the common response is to increase the dosage or the frequency of the drug. You end up taking more and more of the drug to try to get back to that same "high" that you used to get.

As you continue to build tolerance, you continue to increase the amount of the drug and before you know it you are chemically dependent upon the drug. You find that you suddenly are compelled to take the drug just to feel "normal" again.

Changing the Brain's Reward System

Research tells us that repeated use of a drug actually begins to make chemical changes in the brain that alters the brain's reward system.

When someone continues to use a substance even when it no longer provides them pleasure, it's called the pathological pursuit of rewards, or addiction.

Usually, it takes some time for a drug to begin to change the brain's reward system to the point the person forms an addiction, but some drugs can do so very quickly.

The bottom line is, all drugs can potentially have life-threatening consequences, and individuals can have very different reactions to the same drug. If you are particularly sensitive to the effects of a certain drug, trying it even once could potentially be dangerous.

Back to: Drug Abuse FAQ

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Frequently Asked Questions." The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction. Accessed February 2014

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