Addiction, otherwise known as substance use disorder, is a common condition many Americans struggle with. In fact, in 2020, about 40 million Americans 12 and older struggled with a substance use disorder.  All of these Americans have dependence and addiction to a substance. 

While they might seem interchangeable, drug addiction and dependence are not the same things. They both describe similar unfortunate tendencies to rely on harmful substances like alcohol or opiates. But their exact nature and, by extension, their treatment can differ significantly.

What is Drug Dependence?

The National Institute of Drug Abuse defines drug dependence as a physical state in which the body changes to adapt to the drug. Over time, it needs more and more of it to achieve its intended effect (like pain mediation), called ‘tolerance.’ Dependence also leads to temporary physical or mental withdrawal symptoms if the user stops taking the drug. 

In other words, the drug in question begins to change the body’s chemistry, creating a physical dependence, which results in sickness-like symptoms if the drug is no longer in the system. Crucially, this definition doesn’t just extend to illegal drugs. Many prescription medications also create this type of dependence.

For example, taking legal painkillers for a few weeks may cause a physical dependence on these painkillers as the body’s tolerance raises. Stopping the painkiller intake leads to temporary withdrawal symptoms that typically dissipate after a few days. As an even more common example, think of the headache frequent coffee drinkers get if they don’t drink coffee for a day.

The more a person becomes dependent on a drug, the more their brain’s chemical balance shifts towards that drug. This means it will be more challenging to stop taking it, thanks to increasingly severe withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of Drug Dependence

The signs and symptoms of drug dependence are typically directly related to the withdrawal of that drug. Anyone who is dependent on a legal or illegal substance and then stops taking it tends to experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Headaches, body aches, and muscle weakness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares

However, these symptoms are typically temporary. They should last no longer than one week for mild cases of drug dependence. If they last longer, their reliance on drugs may become an addiction.

What is Drug Addiction?

The National Institute of Drug Abuse defines drug addiction as a permanent disorder that applies to people who compulsively take drugs without considering the consequences. It’s characterized as a brain disorder because the drug changes the function of the brain. Mainly those functions related to reward- stress, and control, changes that can last long after the drug intake has stopped.

In the case of drug addiction, the drug slowly changes the parts of the brain related to rewards and motivation. As users of a drug experience initial positive results, they become increasingly motivated to seek that reward again. Ultimately leading to an almost unstoppable drive to keep chasing those feelings regardless of the consequences.

Many people experiment with illegal drugs for fun, to feel better, to perform better, or simply due to social pressures. When they see success in reaching those goals, they want to try again. 

The brain parts critical to judgment, decision-making, learning, and behavior control are damaged. As a result, specific brain function changes. This may turn experimentation into compulsion and eventually an inability of self-control.

Signs of Drug Addiction

A drug addiction’s clear signs and symptoms differ based on the substance. There are some general signs that the user and those around them can use to determine whether experimentation has led to a more severe addiction.

Signs of addiction may include:

  • Changes in physical appearance seem born out of a lack of interest, like no longer shaving or wearing the same shirt multiple times.
  • Increased lack of energy when performing regular activities, both at work and socially.
  • Changes in appetite, typically a decreased appetite.
  • Persistent itches at specific body spots, bloodshot eyes, and a changing skin tone.
  • General defensiveness about the substance, like denying using it despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Rather than leading to its initial positive effect, the drug has to become the key to just “feeling like yourself.” Finally, the National Institute of Drug Abuse calls an increased inability for self-control or understanding the consequences of immediate action a sign.

Differences Between Drug Addiction and Drug Dependence

Their definitions and signs show that drug addiction and dependence are closely related. However, there are some crucial nuances. 

The National Institute of Drug Abuse has listed the core differences between dependence vs. addiction. It outlines that different parts of the brain are affected by addiction and dependence. Therefore, making it possible for a user to be dependent and not addicted, but not vice versa.

Think of it this way: addiction is mainly mental, driven by a compulsion to feel the ‘high’ of the initial drug intake. Dependence is physical, leading to withdrawal symptoms, but without that mental part, that can make addiction such a difficult thing to treat.

If the drug use causes significant issues in self-control or consideration of consequences, the user is not just dependent but addicted to the drug. When a person feels physically incapable of stopping themselves from taking a drug, that dependence has swung to addiction.

Both, of course, can be potentially serious. Drug dependence and addictions are both parts of the more extensive umbrella term “substance use disorder,” which ultimately requires help and treatment to fight. 

Treatment for Dependence & Addiction

Dependence is the physical part of the addiction that can include withdrawal symptoms when stopping use. Addiction encompasses dependence and the emotional symptoms of addiction. Addiction and dependence on substances can cause adverse daily life consequences, but recovery is possible with treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and dependence, reach out to Healthy Life Recovery today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our San Diego drug rehab.

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