Drug Addiction: Signs, Causes, Effects, and Treatment

Long-term drug use and misuse can lead to many harmful consequences on your physical and mental health, as well as tolerance, dependence, and drug addiction. Drug addiction, commonly referred to as a substance use disorder, is a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by uncontrollable drug use. Anyone who misuses drugs is at risk of developing an addiction, but some risk factors can increase a person’s likelihood. Fortunately, no matter how long you’ve been using drugs, drug addiction treatment can help you end the cycle of drug use and live a substance-free life.

What is Drug Addiction?

Someone has a drug addiction, or substance use disorder, if they engage in compulsive drug use, regardless of how it negatively affects their job, relationships, and physical and mental health.1

Drug addiction is a progressive condition, which means it tends to worsen over time without treatment. What may begin as a mild substance use disorder, exhibiting just two symptoms, can progress to a severe and debilitating drug addiction. However, it’s never too late to seek treatment—with the right program, drug addiction can be managed and you can obtain and maintain sobriety in the long run.

Commonly Used Drugs

People may abuse all types of drugs, including those that belong to drug classes like stimulants, depressants, opioids, and hallucinogens. It can be difficult to keep up with all of the new drugs that people misuse since new synthetic drugs are being manufactured and sold all the time—in an effort to bypass drug laws. Below are some commonly used drugs:2

  • Benzodiazepines like Xanax
  • Barbiturates
  • Cocaine
  • DMT
  • GHB
  • Heroin
  • Inhalants
  • Ketamine
  • Khat
  • Kratom
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
  • Methamphetamine
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM)
  • PCP
  • Peyote (mescaline)
  • Prescription painkillers like Vicodin
  • Prescription stimulants like Adderall
  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)
  • Steroids (anabolic)
  • Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice or K2
  • Synthetic cathinones, such as bath salts
  • Tobacco/nicotine

What are the Signs of a Drug Addiction?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines criteria for a substance use disorder, or drug addiction. You must present at least two of the following symptoms within a 12-month period:1

  • Using drugs in hazardous situations, such as while driving
  • Giving up previously enjoyed hobbies and activities in favor of drug use
  • Experiencing strong urges to use drugs
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining and using drugs, as well as recovering from their effects
  • Failing to cut down on use despite efforts to do so
  • Using larger amounts of drugs or over a longer period than intended
  • Continuing drug use despite failing to fulfill obligations at home, work, or school
  • Continuing drug use despite social or interpersonal problems caused or worsened by use
  • Continuing drug use despite knowing that its causing or worsening medical or mental health issues
  • Experiencing tolerance (needing higher doses to get high)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly quit or reduce use

If you are concerned that you or someone else is struggling with a drug addiction, call our confidential helpline at 800-936-1348Who Answers? to speak to a treatment support specialist.

How is a Drug Addiction Diagnosed?

In order to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, you have to first be evaluated by a mental health professional or healthcare provider. They can formally diagnose you with a drug addiction. They will use a screening tool, such as the Drug Abuse Screening Test, which consists of ten questions related to your drug use. These diagnostic questions include:3

  • Have you used drugs for nonmedical reasons?
  • Do you use more than one drug at a time?
  • Are you able to stop using drugs once you start?
  • Have you experienced blackouts or flashbacks due to drug use?
  • Do you ever feel guilty or ashamed about your drug use?
  • Do your family members or friends express concern about your drug use?
  • Have you neglected your family and obligations due to drug use?
  • Have you engaged in illegal activities to obtain drugs?
  • Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stopped taking drugs?
  • Have you experienced health problems due to your drug use?

If your provider diagnoses you with a substance use disorder, they will refer you to a treatment program they think is best for you. For example, if you receive a high score on the diagnostic test, you may be struggling with a severe addiction and need the structure and intensiveness of an inpatient program.

What are the Causes?

Anyone who misuses or abuses drugs is at risk of developing a drug addiction; however, some people may have risk factors that increase the likelihood. These include:4

  • Living in a community with high prevalence of crime and illegal drug use
  • Racism
  • Cultural alienation
  • Language and cultural barriers to receiving health care
  • Family history of drug and alcohol addiction
  • Child neglect or abuse
  • Antisocial or mentally ill parents
  • Financial strain
  • High levels of family stress
  • Early aggressive behavior
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety
  • School drop-out
  • Vulnerability to peer pressure

These risk factors do not necessarily mean that you’ll develop a substance use disorder; they simply mean that you may have an increased chance if you begin using drugs. If you know that you have some of these risk factors, such as a mental health disorder, you may want to seek therapy or counseling so you can address some underlying influences that may lead to drug abuse.

What are the Long-Term Consequences of Drug Addiction?

Many of the long-term consequences of drug addiction depend on what drug or drugs you’re regularly using. However, some effects of chronic use are the same no matter what drug you are addicted to, such as:1

  • Financial or legal problems
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Occupational consequences, such as job loss
  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • Increased risk of accidents
  • Exacerbation or onset of mental health disorders
  • Exacerbation or onset of medical conditions
  • Poor academic performance
  • Dependence and distressing withdrawal symptoms

Additionally, other long-term effects are associated with specific methods of administration. For example, injecting drugs can result in:1

  • Track lines
  • Abscesses
  • Puncture marks
  • Scarring
  • Collapsed veins
  • Cellulitis
  • Infection of the heart lining
  • Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis
  • Tuberculosis

Snorting drugs may cause the following issues:1

  • Nose bleeds
  • Sinusitis
  • Irritation of nasal mucosa
  • Perforation of nasal septum

What Types of Rehab Programs are Available?

There are many different types of drug addiction treatment programs available, although the two main settings are inpatient and outpatient. Both treatment settings have their pros and cons, and the right program for you depends on many factors, including:

  • The presence of a co-occurring mental health condition, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • The presence of a medical condition that requires 24/7 care
  • The severity of your drug addiction
  • Whether you need medical detox or not
  • Whether you have a sober support system at home
  • Your scheduling conflicts
  • Your insurance plan and coverage
  • Your treatment budget

Within these treatment settings, there are several different treatment approaches, including holistic drug rehab, faith-based rehab, executive treatment, and luxury programs. There are also demographic-specific treatment programs, such as for teens, veterans, or LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Inpatient Drug Addiction Treatment

If you opt for an inpatient program, you will live at the treatment center for the entire length of your treatment program. Your program will likely last somewhere between 30 and 90 days, although this may vary depending on your needs and the program. Inpatient drug addiction treatment is the most intensive treatment setting available, providing much-needed structure and routine for patients recovering from substance use disorders. One of the top advantages of inpatient rehab is that you are able to escape your everyday using environment and recover in a serene environment free of triggers.

You may want to consider inpatient drug rehab if you:

  • Have a severe drug addiction
  • Have a polydrug addiction
  • Have a mental health disorder, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Lack stable housing
  • Don’t have a sober support system to rely on
  • Have previously dropped out of outpatient treatment

Outpatient Rehab

Outpatient programs involve living at home while you attend counseling sessions at a facility during the day. This is the more flexible option, especially if you want to continue attending school or working while you recover.

You may want to consider outpatient care if you:

  • Have a mild drug addiction
  • Have a strong support system that can encourage and empower you
  • Want little to no disruption to your daily routine
  • Have a strong internal motivation to quit using drugs


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Commonly Used Drugs Charts.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). NIDA Clinical Trials Drug Abuse Screening Test (DAST-10).
  4. State of Hawaii, Department of Health. (n.d.). Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention.
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