When most people think of drugs, they think of illegal substances, but a drug is any chemical that can change the way the brain or body works. Under that definition, alcohol and prescription medications also qualify as drugs. Although not everyone who uses drugs develops an addiction, drug addiction affects millions of Americans each year.


It’s possible to be addicted to alcohol, illicit substances or prescription drugs. Alcohol use disorder is characterized by excessive alcohol consumption and an inability to stop drinking even when faced with negative social, professional or medical consequences. Signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder include drinking more alcohol than intended, drinking so much alcohol that it’s difficult to perform normal activities and giving up hobbies in favor of drinking alcohol.

Many people with drug addictions use illicit substances (substances that are illegal to use). These include cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, synthetic fentanyl and club drugs. People can also be addicted to prescription medications, especially medications used to relieve severe pain. Signs of prescription drug abuse include intense cravings, difficulty meeting financial obligations, poor performance at work and engaging in risky activities while under the influence.

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Statistics on Drug Addiction

Substance abuse is a serious problem in the United States, with as many as 31.9 million Americans aged 12 and older using illegal drugs in 2020. Approximately 9% of adults use marijuana, 7% use methamphetamines, 3% use heroin and 2% use cocaine, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Nearly 140 million Americans drink alcohol, and about 10% of them have an alcohol use disorder.

Opioid use has become much more common over the last 10 years. Prescription opioids are used to relieve severe pain after surgery or in people who have terminal illnesses, which makes it much easier to access them. Some people start taking opioids for legitimate reasons and find themselves addicted, making it difficult to stop taking them even when opioid use has harmful consequences. In 2020, more than 10 million Americans — around 3.7% — reported that they had misused opioids during the previous 12 months.

Substance Drug Users All Adults
Marijuana 46% 9%
Prescription stimulants 46% 9%
Opioids 36% 7%
Methamphetamines 36% 7%
Prescription pain medication 31% 6%
Heroin 15% 3%
Cocaine 10% 2%
Prescription sedatives 5% 1%

Risk Factors for Drug and Alcohol Dependence

Anyone can develop a substance use disorder, but addictions are more common in people with the following risk factors:

  • Underlying mental health problems, including depression, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD
  • Family history of addiction
  • Difficult family situations
  • Use of highly addictive substances
  • Taking drugs at an early age

Researchers have identified these additional risk factors for opioid addiction:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Lack of social support
  • High levels of stress
  • Physical or psychological trauma
  • Sexual abuse
  • Legal problems
  • Childhood adversity

Physical Effects of Substance Abuse

Man having trouble sleepingSubstance abuse takes a major toll on the body, especially when it occurs over a long period of time. The effects vary based on the severity of the addiction, the type of substance used and whether the substance is smoked, injected or taken orally. Injecting drugs is associated with an increased risk of hepatitis, HIV and other infectious diseases, for example.

Many drugs, including cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine and PCP, can affect the heart, causing abnormal heart rhythm, blood vessel damage and an increased risk of heart attack. Injectable drugs can also cause the veins to collapse or increase the risk of bacterial infections in the heart valves. Additionally, drug use can cause serious respiratory problems, especially in people who smoke or already have underlying lung issues.

Substance abuse is also associated with the following physical effects:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle contractions
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver damage
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Seizures
  • Increased risk of stroke

Psychological Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

A depressed man sitting in a cornerSubstance use disorders can also cause serious psychological effects, increasing the risk of mental disorders and making it difficult for people to carry out their normal activities. These effects are caused by changes that occur in the brain whenever someone drinks alcohol, takes an illicit drug or misuses a prescription medication.

Substance use triggers the release of endorphins in the brain, producing a sense of euphoria that can affect a person’s decision-making abilities and lead to poor impulse control. Drug use also affects learning and memory. Because drugs influence the reward centers of the brain, long-term drug use can make it difficult to experience pleasure while eating or participating in positive social interactions.

Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal

It can be difficult to stop drinking or using drugs, even when drug use is interfering with work, school and family commitments. One reason it’s so difficult to stop is because withdrawal symptoms can be rather severe, especially if you stop suddenly instead of tapering down. General symptoms include depression, sweating, nausea, vomiting and headaches.

Withdrawing from alcohol can cause difficulty sleeping, clammy skin, loss of appetite, dilated pupils and increased heart rate, while opioid withdrawal is associated with abdominal cramps, diarrhea and goose bumps. Other symptoms may occur when withdrawing from benzodiazepines or stimulants, including increased irritability, fatigue, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, tremors or increased heart rate.

Treatment Options for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

Substance abuse treatment can help people overcome addictions to alcohol, prescription medications and illicit substances. The right treatment option depends on several factors, such as how long the addiction has been going on and whether there are any underlying mental health problems that could affect the treatment plan.

Outpatient addiction treatment is ideal for people with mild addictions who are able to continue working or attending classes while getting help for recurrent drug use or alcohol use disorder. People getting outpatient drug abuse treatment may have access to support groups, one-on-one therapy and other services to help them stop using drugs and get their lives back on track.

Residential treatment is ideal for people with severe addictions and people with underlying mental health issues in need of treatment. Many people with PTSD, major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions turn to drug or alcohol use when their symptoms become unmanageable. Residential treatment provides an opportunity to address the behavioral disorder and the addiction, reducing the risk of relapse later.

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Virtue at the Pointe offers comprehensive addiction treatment in an idyllic setting. To learn more about our residential rehab programs, call (866) 377-4409 to speak with an admissions coordinator.

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