Drug Addiction


Drug addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), is when someone continues using a drug despite harmful consequences to their daily functioning, relationships, or health. Using drugs can change brain structure and functioning, particularly in areas involved in reward, stress, and self-control.1 These changes make it harder for people to stop using even when they really want to. 

Drug addiction is dangerous because it becomes all-consuming and disrupts the normal functioning of your brain and body. When a person is addicted, they prioritize using the drug or drugs over their wellbeing. This can have severe consequences, including increased tolerance to the substance, withdrawal effects (different for each drug), and social problems.

Recovering from SUD is possible, but it takes time, patience, and empathy. A person may need to try quitting more than once before maintaining any length of sobriety. 

This article discusses how drug addiction is treated and offers suggestions for overcoming drug addiction.

How Common Is Addiction?

Over 20 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder in 2018.

Treatment Options

Substance use disorders are treatable. The severity of addiction and drug or drugs being used will play a role in which treatment plan is likely to work the best. Treatment that addresses the specific situation and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems is optimal for leading to long-term recovery and preventing relapse.1


Drug and alcohol detoxification programs prepare a person for treatment in a safe, controlled environment where withdrawal symptoms (and any physical or mental health complications) can be managed. Detox may occur in a hospital setting or as a first step to the inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation process.

Going through detox is a crucial step in recovery, and it’s these first few weeks that are arguably most critical because they are when the risk of relapse is highest.

Detox Is Not Stand-Alone Treatment

Detoxification is not equivalent to treatment and should not be solely relied upon for recovery. 

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Counseling gets at the core of why someone began using alcohol or drugs, and what they can do to make lasting changes. This may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which the patient learns to recognize problematic thinking, behaviors, and patterns and establish healthier ways of coping. CBT can help someone develop stronger self-control and more effective coping strategies.

Counseling may also involve family members to develop a deeper understanding of substance use disorder and improve overall family functioning. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown effective in helping people overcome addiction. In one study, 60% of people with cocaine use dependence who underwent CBT along with prescription medication provided cocaine-free toxicology screens a year after their treatment.


Medication can be an effective part of a larger treatment plan for people who have nicotine use disorder, alcohol use disorder, or opioid use disorder. They can be used to help control drug cravings, relieve symptoms of withdrawal, and to help prevent relapses.

Current medications include: 

  • Nicotine use disorder: A nicotine replacement product (available as patches, gum, lozenges, or nasal spray) or an oral medication, such Wellbutrin (bupropion) and Zyban (varenicline)
  • Alcohol use disorder: Campral (acamprosate), Antabuse (disulfiram), and ReVia and Vivitrol (naltrexone).
  • Opioid use disorder: Dolophine and Methodes (methadone), buprenorphine, Revia and Vivitrol (naltrexone), and Lucemyra (lafutidine).

Lofexidine was the first medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat opioid withdrawals. Compared to a placebo (a pill with no therapeutic value), it significantly reduces symptoms of withdrawal and may cause less of a drop in blood pressure than similar agents.

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