Drug addiction

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Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medicine. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine are also considered drugs. When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.

Drug addiction can start with experimental use of a recreational drug in social situations, and, for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. For others, particularly with opioids, drug addiction begins when they take prescribed medicines or receive them from others who have prescriptions.

The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction more quickly than others.

When to Seek Help

Recognizing that drug use has become problematic and seeking help is crucial for recovery. If any of the following applies to you or someone you know, consider seeking assistance:

  • Inability to stop using a drug despite its harmful effects.
  • Unsafe behaviors resulting from drug use, such as sharing needles or engaging in unprotected sex.
  • Suspicion of withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuing drug use.

When to Seek Emergency Help

In cases of drug overdose or severe reactions, immediate emergency assistance is vital. If you or someone you know exhibits the following symptoms after drug use, seek urgent medical attention:

  • Potential overdose.
  • Changes in consciousness.
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Seizures or convulsions.
  • Signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure.
  • Any other troubling physical or psychological reactions.

Staging an Intervention

For individuals reluctant to acknowledge their addiction, a well-planned intervention can serve as a turning point. An intervention involves loved ones, friends, and potentially professionals discussing the consequences of addiction with the affected individual and encouraging them to seek treatment.

Planning an intervention requires careful consideration and may involve consultation with addiction medicine or psychiatry specialists or intervention professionals.

The Causes of Substance Use Disorder

Various factors contribute to the development of drug addiction, including:

  • Environment: Family beliefs, attitudes, and exposure to peer groups encouraging drug use can play a role in the initial drug use.
  • Genetics: Once drug use starts, the development into addiction may be influenced by inherited (genetic) traits, which may delay or speed up the disease progression.

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Although there’s no cure for drug addiction, treatment options can help you overcome an addiction and stay drug-free. Your treatment depends on the drug used and any related medical or mental health disorders you may have. Long-term follow-up is important to prevent relapse.

Treatment programs for substance use disorder usually offer:

  • Individual, group, or family therapy sessions
  • A focus on understanding the nature of addiction, becoming drug-free, and preventing relapse
  • Levels of care and settings that vary depending on your needs, such as outpatient, residential, and inpatient programs

Withdrawal Therapy

The goal of detoxification, also called “detox” or withdrawal therapy, is to enable you to stop taking the addicting drug as quickly and safely as possible. For some people, it may be safe to undergo withdrawal therapy on an outpatient basis. Others may need admission to a hospital or a residential treatment center.

Withdrawal from different categories of drugs — such as depressants, stimulants, or opioids — produces different side effects and requires different approaches. Detox may involve gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

Opioid Overdose

In an opioid overdose, a medicine called naloxone can be given by emergency responders, or in some states, by anyone who witnesses an overdose. Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of opioid drugs.

While naloxone has been on the market for years, a nasal spray (Narcan, Kloxxado) and an injectable form are now available, though they can be very expensive. Whatever the method of delivery, seek immediate medical care after using naloxone.

Preparing for Your Appointment

It may help to get an independent perspective from someone you trust and who knows you well. You can start by discussing your substance use with your primary care provider. Or ask for a referral to a specialist in drug addiction, such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or a psychiatrist or psychologist. Take a relative or friend along.

Here’s some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What You Can Do

Before your appointment, be prepared:

  • Be honest about your drug use. When you engage in unhealthy drug use, it can be easy to downplay or underestimate how much you use and your level of addiction. To get an accurate idea of which treatment may help, be honest with your health care provider or mental health provider.
  • Make a list of all medicines, vitamins, herbs, or other supplements that you’re taking, and the dosages. Tell your health care provider and mental health provider about any legal or illegal drugs you’re using.
  • Make a list of questions to ask your health care provider or mental health provider.

Some questions to ask your provider may include:

  • What’s the best approach to my drug addiction?
  • Should I see a psychiatrist or other mental health professional?
  • Will I need to go to the hospital or spend time as an inpatient or outpatient at a recovery clinic?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you’re suggesting?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?

Don’t hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to Expect from Your Doctor

Your provider is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

  • What drugs do you use?
  • When did your drug use first start?
  • How often do you use drugs?
  • When you take a drug, how much do you use?
  • Do you ever feel that you might have a problem with drugs?
  • Have you tried to quit on your own? What happened when you did?
  • If you tried to quit, did you have withdrawal symptoms?
  • Have any family members criticized your drug use?
  • Are you ready to get the treatment needed for your drug addiction?

Be ready to answer questions so you’ll have more time to go over any points you want to focus on.

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