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What is an addiction?

Recognizing an addiction problem in someone you know can be harder than it seems. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic disease that affects the brain’s reward, motivation, and memory functions. Someone with an addiction will crave a substance or other behavioral habits. They’ll often ignore other areas of life to fulfill or support their desires.

General signs of addiction are:

  • lack of control, or inability to stay away from a substance or behavior
  • decreased socialization, like abandoning commitments or ignoring relationships
  • ignoring risk factors, like sharing needles despite potential consequences
  • physical effects, like withdrawal symptoms or needing higher dosage for effect

These signs are commonly linked. The degree of intensity for each sign may depend on how long the addiction has been going on.

A healthy person can usually identify a negative behavior and get rid of it. This is not the case with someone with an addiction. Rather than admit the problem exists, they’ll find ways to justify and continue the behavior.

The first step to getting help is being able to recognize the physical, mental, and emotional signs, like abrupt weight or personality changes in your friends or family members. If you or someone you know has an addiction, call 1-800-622-4357 for free and confidential treatment referral and information from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Addiction is commonly associated with substance abuse, but behavioral addictions like gambling are just as serious. According to ASAM, addiction is when a person is unable to consistently abstain from a behavior or substance. This is typically at the cost of their mental and physical health.

Substance addiction is dependence on any one or more of the following:

  • nicotine, or tobacco
  • alcohol
  • inhalants, often household items like oven cleaners, spray paints, or other aerosol products
  • drugs, illicit or non-illicit
  • medication

Studies suggest that behavioral addictions are as serious as substance addictions. Both types result in dependency and have the same or similar negative consequences. Behavioral addiction can include:

  • gambling
  • working
  • sex
  • shopping
  • video games
  • using the Internet or media

No matter the type of addiction, it’s important to recognize warning signs and seek help if necessary.

Read more: What do you want to know about addiction? »

In the early stages, a person might not show telltale signs of a full-blown addiction. Some early stage clues include:

  • experimentation
  • family history of addiction
  • being particularly drawn to an activity or substance
  • seeking out situations where the substance or activity is present
  • episodes of binging or loss of control with little to no feelings of remorse after

When it comes to common social behaviors like drinking or smoking, it might be difficult to determine if there’s an addiction problem. What looks like addiction could be an experimental phase or a form of stress management. But a real addiction, if left untreated, can develop into a debilitating habit or increased risk of illness.

After a person moves past experimenting or the early phase of addiction, they’ll likely exhibit major personality or behavior changes. These changes may be infrequent at first. Telltale signs include:

  • a lack of interest in hobbies or activities that used to be important
  • neglecting relationships or reacting negatively to those closest to them
  • missing important obligations like work
  • risk taking tendencies, especially to get drugs or continue certain behaviors
  • ignoring the negative consequences of their actions
  • distinct change in sleeping patterns that result in chronic fatigue
  • increased secrecy, like lying about the amount of substance used or time spent

You may notice an increase in alienation over time. People with an addiction tend to surround themselves with others who encourage their habits. When confronted, they may make excuses and try to justify their behavior to you.

Another way to recognize addiction is to pay attention to your friend or family member’s mental and physical health. Whether the addiction is to a drug or a behavior, their health will almost always decline.

Signs that point towards changes in their health can include:

  • bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • constant illness
  • unexplained injuries
  • abrupt change in weight
  • bad skin, hair, teeth, and nails (especially when substance abuse involves illicit drugs like methamphetamines or cocaine)
  • increased tolerance to drugs
  • physical withdrawal symptoms like sweating, trembling, or vomiting
  • memory loss or problems with recall
  • change in speech like slurred words or rapid rambling

The following mental and emotional changes could also be signs of an addiction problem:

  • sudden changes in mood
  • aggressive behavior
  • irritability
  • depression
  • apathy
  • suicidal thoughts

It’s important to eliminate any potential medical reasons for someone’s health decline. Keep in mind that someone with an addiction will almost always understate the seriousness of their condition. If there’s no other explanation, then there’s an increased chance of an underlying addiction problem.

In the middle or later stages of an addiction, the negative effects will be more permanent or have long-term consequences. Someone with a serious addiction problem may allow, ignore, or trivialize these outcomes in favor of continuing their habits.

Potential long-term consequences include:

  • getting an infectious disease, especially through shared needles
  • dropping out of school or getting poor grades
  • damaged relationships with friends and family
  • loss of good standing or tarnished reputation
  • arrests or jail time
  • eviction from the home or failed mortgage payments
  • loss of job
  • loss of parental rights

Similar events can occur in the lives of people without an addiction problem. But these can become more common when an addiction is present. Before approaching someone you think may have an addition, determine if the problem is a result of a single incident or a growing problem with the addiction.

It’s important to have quick access to treatment. If you or someone you know has an addiction, call 1-800-622-4357 for free and confidential treatment referral and information from SAMHSA. You can also seek help from your doctor, local treatment center, or support group.

Addictions often affect many areas of a person’s life. The most effective treatments are comprehensive. They often have several steps that vary from person to person. These steps can include detoxification, behavioral counseling, and long-term follow-up.

Here are some ways you can support a friend or family member’s recovery process:

  • Learn more about the substance or behavior dependency and the treatment.
  • Stay involved, like offering to go to meetings with them.
  • Provide a sober and trigger-free setting.
  • Speak up and express concern when there is a relapse.

While you can treat addiction, in most cases, someone with addiction must want to change for recovery to be successful.

Read more: How to approach someone with an addiction »



Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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