FAQ

The following Frequently Asked Questions come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

What is drug addiction?
Drug addiction is a complex, and often chronic, brain disease. It is characterized by drug craving, seeking, and use that can persist even in the face of devastating life consequences. Addiction results largely from brain changes that stem from prolonged drug use—changes that involve multiple brain circuits, including those responsible for governing self-control and other behaviors. Drug addiction is treatable, often with medications (for some addictions) combined with behavioral therapies. However, relapse is common and can happen even after long periods of abstinence, underscoring the need for long-term support and care. Relapse does not signify treatment failure, but rather should prompt treatment re-engagement or modification. For more information, see Addiction: “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior – The Science of Addiction.”

What drugs are commonly abused?
NIDA and other agencies track trends in drug abuse through various surveys and data collection systems. Annually, NIDA supports the collection of data on drug abuse patterns among secondary school students and young adults through the Monitoring the Future Study (MTF); for more information, see http://www.nida.nih.gov/DrugPages/MTF.html. NIDA also supports a Community Epidemiology Work Group, a network of researchers who meet twice yearly to discuss drug abuse patterns in major metropolitan areas across the nation and in regional “hot spots,” such as within and across border cities and areas.

For information on commonly abused drugs, see www.drugabuse.gov/DrugPages/DrugsofAbuse.html, for a chart containing information on street and commercial names of abused drugs and their health consequences.

How quickly can I become addicted to a drug?
There is no easy answer to this common question. If and how quickly you become addicted to a drug depends on many factors, including your biology (your genes, for example), age, gender, environment, and interactions among these factors. Vast differences characterize individual sensitivity to various drugs and to addiction vulnerability. While one person may use a drug one or many times and suffer no ill effects, another person may overdose with first use, or become addicted after a few uses. There is no way of knowing in advance how quickly you will become addicted—but there are some clues, one important one being whether you have a family history of addiction.

What are the physical signs of abuse or addiction?
The physical signs of abuse or addiction can vary depending on the person and the drug being abused. For example, someone who abuses marijuana may have a chronic cough or worsening of asthmatic symptoms. Each drug has short-term and long-term physical effects. Stimulants like cocaine increase heart rate and blood pressure, whereas opioids like heroin may slow the heart rate and reduce respiration.

How do I know if someone is addicted to drugs?
If a person is compulsively seeking and using a drug(s) despite negative consequences, such as loss of job, debt, family problems, or physical problems brought on by drug abuse, then he or she probably is addicted. And while people who are addicted may believe they can stop any time, most often they cannot, and will need professional help—first to determine if they in fact are addicted, and then to obtain drug abuse treatment. Support from friends and family can be critical in getting people into treatment and helping them to maintain abstinence following treatment. For information on substance abuse treatment providers, see: findtreatment.samhsa.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP.

What is withdrawal? How long does it last?
Withdrawal describes the various symptoms that occur after long-term use of a drug is reduced or stopped abruptly. Length of withdrawal and symptoms vary with the type of drug. For example, physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal may include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold flashes. These physical symptoms may last for several days, but the general depression, or dysphoria (opposite of euphoria), that often accompanies heroin withdrawal may last for weeks. In many cases, withdrawal can be easily treated with medications to ease the symptoms, but treating withdrawal is not the same as treating addiction.

If a pregnant woman abuses drugs, does it affect the fetus?
Many substances including alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs of abuse can have negative effects on the developing fetus because they are transferred to the fetus across the placenta. For example, nicotine has been connected with premature birth and low birth weight as has the use of cocaine. Heroin exposure results in dependence in the newborn, requiring treatment for withdrawal symptoms. It is often difficult to tease apart the confluence of factors that go with drug abuse during pregnancy—poor nutrition, inadequate prenatal care, stress, and psychiatric comorbidities—all of which may impact fetal development.

Are there effective treatments for drug addiction?
Drug addiction can be effectively treated with behavioral therapies and, for addiction to some drugs such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol, medications. Treatment will vary for each person depending on the type of drug(s) being used. Multiple courses of treatment may be needed to achieve success. Research has revealed 13 basic principles that underlie effective drug addiction treatment discussed in NIDA’s Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.

What are the costs of drug abuse to society?
Drug abuse costs the United States economy over $600 billion dollars annually in increased health care costs, crime, and lost productivity, broken down as follows by type of drug:

Beyond the raw numbers are other costs to society:

  • spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C either through sharing of drug paraphernalia or unprotected sex
  • deaths due to overdose or other complications from drug use
  • effects on unborn children of pregnant drug users
  • other effects such as crime, unemployment, domestic abuse, family dissolution, and homelessness.

Where can I find information about drug treatment programs?
For referrals to treatment programs, call 1-800-662-HELP, or visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration online at http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.


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