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Understanding Drug Addiction, Substance Abuse and Treatment Options

Understanding Drug Addiction, Substance Abuse and Treatment Options
Written by Seth Fletcher on July 31, 2019
Last update: May 14, 2024
Recognized by the World Health Organization and most government health departments as a disease, addiction devastates the lives of thousands of people worldwide each year. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 21% of Canada’s population will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime, with alcohol being the most commonly abused substance. Drug addiction is a substance use disorder that is hard to overcome. It can impact people from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and income level. Drug and alcohol addiction can arise from a variety of circumstances, such as mental illness, trauma, abuse, and legitimate use of prescription pain medication. No matter what phase of addiction you are in, what substances are involved and how the addiction arose, there are treatment options available to suit your particular needs.

Abuse, Dependence and Addiction: Understanding the Terminology

The terminology surrounding addictions and drug use can be confusing. Many people use the terms “abuse” and “addiction” interchangeably, but there is a distinction. People can abuse a substance without necessarily being addicted to it – for example, someone can get drunk at a party without being an alcoholic. Similarly, not everyone who is addicted to a substance abuses that substances. This is a common scenario with opiates prescribed for chronic pain, where people become addicted through legitimate medical use of the substance. Some commonly used addiction terminology includes the following:
  • Normal substance use: moderate or prescribed use of a legally available substance, in a way that does not impact physical, psychological, social or cognitive functioning
  • Substance abuse: harmful or hazardous alcohol or drug use, with potential negative physical, psychological, social or cognitive effects
  • Addiction: compulsive, uncontrollable craving for a substance, paired with continued use of the substance in spite of negative consequences
  • Tolerance: a condition in which the body adapts to a substance over time, requiring more of it to achieve a certain effect
  • Physical dependence: a condition of heightened tolerance, in which the body requires a substance to the extent that withholding it can cause physical harm
  • Psychological dependence: an emotional state that arises from use of a substance over time, that can result in cravings, irritability, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts when the substance is withheld
It is important to note that a drug does not necessarily have to be an illegal substance in order for an addiction to form. Alcohol, for example, is neither illegal (not legally permitted under any circumstance) nor illicit (legally permitted under certain circumstances, such as prescription medications), but it is a drug that has potential to lead to addiction. Similarly, an opioid addiction can start as legitimate, medically supervised use of the drug.

Common Drug Addictions

There are many substances to which people commonly become addicted, including illegal street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, prescription sedatives and opioid painkillers, cannabis, alcohol, ecstasy, and household products such as paint thinner and glue. The signs and symptoms of addiction depend not only on the substance, but on individual factors such as the addict’s age and state of health, whether there are cooccurring addictions, and the circumstances leading to the addiction.

Street Drug Addictions

“Street drugs” is the name given to substances that are illegal to manufacture, distribute, possess or use. These drugs, which include heroin, cocaine and LSD, are particularly dangerous, largely because they are manufactured in laboratories that do not follow any safety protocols. Moreover, the drugs are commonly mixed, or “cut” with substances that are potentially harmful when ingested, such as talcum powder and chalk. In many cases, addictions to street drugs start with an individual trying a substance “just once”, not realizing that in some cases, dependencies can form after only one or two uses. Both the addiction and the withdrawal can come with dangerous physical and mental effects that can put the addict at risk of serious harm or death.

Prescription Drug Addictions

Prescription drugs include stimulants, sedatives, and pain relievers. Prescription sedatives, such as Xanax and Valium, slow down bodily functions to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, while prescription opioids, such as Percocet and Demerol, are used to treat chronic and acute pain. Most of these substances are recommended for short-term use, since prolonged exposure can lead to dependencies and addictions. Because prescription drugs can be obtained legally, many people underestimate their dangers. Their harmful effects range from slowing down cardiac and respiratory functions, to altering the neural pathways in the brain. Some prescription drugs carry a high risk of accidental overdose.

Marijuana Addictions

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is similar to alcohol in the sense that many people use it in moderation without suffering any adverse affects or developing an addiction. However, excessive use can affect the individual’s memory, attention span, and motor skills, while producing mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. In isolation, marijuana use does not carry a high risk of long-term physical harm, but many people who use marijuana also use other substances. Chemical interactions between substances can lead to unpredictable and potentially dangerous addiction and withdrawal symptoms.

Household Product Addictions

Although addictions to household products can affect people of all ages, teenagers are the most susceptible. Substances like paint thinner, lighter fluid, glue and hairspray are attractive to this demographic, largely because they are easy to obtain. Not only do household products contain ingredients that are potentially lethal to humans, addictions to these products can be a precursor to other drug addictions. Regardless of the substance, recognizing the signs of addiction, either in yourself or in someone you know, can save a life. Addictions can affect everything from the individual’s physical and mental health to their job and their family relationships. People can die, not only from deliberate and accidental overdoses, but from withdrawal symptoms. Some common drug addictions and their effects are as follows:
  • Prescription Sedatives: impaired vision, aggressiveness, chronic fatigue, slow reflexes, sexual dysfunction, breathing problems, unconsciousness, fatal overdose
  • Prescription Stimulants: blood vessel blockage, paranoia, hostility, seizures, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, fatal overdose
  • Marijuana (cannabis): memory loss, body tremors, impaired motor skills, increased heart rate, respiratory problems, anxiety, depression, impaired judgment
  • Alcohol: heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, anxiety, depression, pancreatitis, impaired motor skills, impaired judgment, blurred vision, aggressiveness
  • Prescription Painkillers: sleep apnea, drowsiness, respiratory depression, premature births, loss of consciousness, fatal overdose
  • Street Drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.): impaired vision, impaired motor skills, elevated or depressed heart rate (depending on the drug), anxiety, paranoia, restlessness, hallucinations, tremors, insomnia, infection from shared needles, loss of consciousness, fatal overdose
  • Household Substances: heart problems, tissue destruction, respiratory problems, loss of consciousness, organ failure, dizziness, impaired judgment, aggression

The Stages of Drug Addiction

Stage 1: Drug Introduction

Every drug addiction starts with the introduction of a substance into the body. In most cases, the individual does not intend to become addicted, but uses the substance for the first time for a specific purpose, such as relief from physical pain, to achieve a state of euphoria, relief from insomnia, or as a social activity.

Stage 2: Drug Abuse

Most people who become addicted first go through a period of drug abuse. During this time, the drug use becomes excessive or destructive. For example, someone might start to seek out alcohol for the express purpose of relieving stress. Although there can be a fine line between drug abuse and addiction, during this stage the physical and mental dependencies are weaker, and withdrawal is generally less difficult.

Stage 3: Drug Addiction

During active addiction, the drug user experiences intense cravings for the substance and may go to extreme measures, such as stealing money, in order to obtain it. Alcohol or drug use continues and may become progressively more frequent, in spite of the addict experiencing negative consequences. Many addictions are accompanied by physical dependencies, where the body actually needs the drug in order to function, and mental dependencies, where withholding the drug causes extreme anxiety.

Stage 4: Drug Withdrawal

Drug withdrawal is the process whereby the drugs or alcohol work their way out of the bloodstream. This comes with a variety of withdrawal symptoms, the timing and intensity of which depend on both the type of drug and the individual. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms appear within several hours; in other cases, it can take days. Initial withdrawal symptoms, which may include increased or decreased heart rate and breathing, tremors, digestive difficulties such as nausea and diarrhea, usually peak in the first couple of days and start to subside after about a week. The individual may experience prolonged symptoms, such as anxiety, paranoia and impaired memory, can last for several weeks or months. Because withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable and frightening, and in some cases, potentially fatal, people who wish to withdraw from a substance area advised to seek out medically supervised detox. During this process, the individual is monitored by a doctor to ensure their comfort and safety, and to ensure that symptoms are immediately dealt with as they occur.

Drug Addiction Treatment

Our addiction treatment services are designed to treat a variety of drug addiction and substance abuse problems. Because everyone is different, our treatment plans are customized for each individual. The treatment approach that is recommended for you or your loved one will depend entirely on your unique needs and circumstances. What works well for one person could be counterproductive for another, so we do not start any treatment without first getting to know you, and doing a thorough assessment. The treatment services that we provide fall into three broad categories: inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and aftercare.

Inpatient Drug Addiction Treatment

Inpatient treatment for drug abuse or addiction is provided around the clock while you are staying at the addiction treatment centre. We provide a variety of treatment methods, including group therapy and family counseling. Because proper nutrition is a critical part of building or maintaining your health during recovery, we provide chef-prepared meals made with high quality ingredients. Many people fear that being in a rehab facility will feel like being in hospital, but this is not the case. Our luxury accommodations in beautiful surroundings will make you feel right at home. You will not have to deal with the stresses and pressures of the outside world – with all of your survival needs taken care of, you will be able to focus on your recovery. Our inpatient treatment program provides support at all hours of the day and night, as well as medically supervised detox for those who need it.

Outpatient Drug Addiction Treatment

We recognize that inpatient services are not the answer for everyone. Outpatient programs provide a way to treat your drug addiction while continuing to live at home. You simply return to our facility for your scheduled appointments for group therapy, individual counseling or family counseling. Our outpatient programs are an effective way of overcoming an addiction, particularly for individuals who have a strong support system at home. One of the benefits of this method of treatment is that you have immediate opportunities to practice your newfound life and coping skills in the “real world”, unlike inpatient clients, who have to go through a period of adjustment upon completion of their programs.

Extended Aftercare Services

We understand that addiction is a lifelong challenge, and that the road to recovery does not end when your treatment program is complete. By following our extended aftercare program, you can greatly reduce your risk of relapse. During this phase, you will have access to educational sessions, check-in appointments to monitor your progress, and emergency assistance if you fear that you at risk of a relapse.

The Evolution of Drugs and Addiction

Many common drug addictions and substance abuse disorders are not new problems and have been around for decades. However, new chemical compounds get developed all the time. When governments or pharmaceutical companies remove or control a commonly abused substance, new drug alternatives are created. If it isn’t the latest drug to be developed, it just might be a new household chemical discovery. With that in mind, it is easy to understand why drug addictions are so prevalent, and why addiction is one of the most difficult problems for many societies to solve. It is important to remember that drug addicts are, first and foremost, human beings. The key to solving the addiction problem lies in eliminating the stigma that comes with addiction, and helping people take the first step towards recovery, so they can lead happy, fulfilling lives in which they can make meaningful contributions to their homes and communities. Photo credit: Find Rehab Centers. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.
Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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