What Is Drug Addiction?

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Question: What Is Drug Addiction?

Answer: Drug addiction has been characterized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a complex and chronic brain disease.

People who have a drug addiction experience compulsive, sometimes uncontrollable, craving for their drug of choice. Typically, they will continue to seek and use drugs in spite of experiencing extremely negative consequences as a result of using.

Characteristics of Addiction

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is characterized by:

  • Inability to consistently Abstain
  • Impairment in Behavioral control
  • Craving; or increased “hunger” for drugs or rewarding experiences
  • Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships
  • A dysfunctional Emotional response

Although the above five characteristics are usually present in most cases of addiction, ASAM noted that these five features cannot be used to diagnose addiction. "The diagnosis of addiction requires a comprehensive biological, psychological, social and spiritual assessment by a trained and certified professional," ASAM's website says.

Behavioral Manifestations of Addiction

When friends and family members are dealing with a loved one who is addicted, it is usually the outward behaviors of the addicted person that are the obvious symptoms of addiction.

Those behaviors are primarily centered around the addict's impaired control:

  • Excessive frequency of drug use inspite of attempts to control
  • Increased time using or recovering from drug effects
  • Continued use in spite of presistent problems
  • A narrowing of focus on rewards linked to addiction
  • An inability to take steps to address the problems

    Inability to Abstain

    Research has shown that prolonged drug use causes a chemical change in the brain of the addict that alters the brain's reward system that prompts compulsive drug seeking in behavior called the pathological pursuit of rewards.

    Also, according to ASAM, "Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death."

    Chronic Disease, Relapses

    For many addicts, addiction can become a chronic illness, meaning that they can have relapses similar to relapses than can happen with other chronic diseases - such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension - when patients fail to comply with their treatment.

    These relapses can occur even after long periods of abstinence.

    Do you think you may be addicted? Take the Drug Abuse Screening Quiz

    Back to: Drug Abuse FAQ


    American Society of Addiction Medicine. "The Definition of Addiction (Long Version). 15 August 2011.

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

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