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Understanding and Treating Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Last Updated: October 19, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Some commonly abused substances include alcohol, marijuana, prescription opioids, benzos, cocaine, meth and heroin. All of these substances can lead to addiction.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a serious public health problem throughout the United States. According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 14.5 million Americans aged 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder in 2019, and 8.4 million had a drug use disorder. Further, 2.4 million Americans struggled with both an alcohol and a drug addiction.

Drug and alcohol addiction can be difficult to recover from alone, but there are many places to turn for help. Learning the ins and outs of addiction, as well as how to get treatment, can help you take the steps needed to begin a healthier, substance-free life in recovery.

Most Addictive Substances

People can develop addictions to drugs, alcohol or both, and there are a variety of different addictive substances. While the side effects of addiction can vary depending on the specific substance of abuse, people who live with drug and alcohol addiction will experience negative consequences associated with their substance use.

The most addictive and commonly abused substances include alcohol, opioids, stimulants and several specific drugs.


Of the 20.4 million people who live with addictions, 71.1% have an alcohol use disorder, making alcohol a common substance of abuse. Alcohol addiction is more likely among people who begin drinking before the age of 15. Genetic risk factors, mental health conditions and family history of alcohol addiction can also make a person more likely to become addicted to alcohol.

Prescription Opioids

According to SAMHSA, 3.7 million Americans abused opioids in 2019. These medications have a relaxing effect on the body and are used to relieve pain, but they can also lead people to feel high, increasing the risk of abuse and addiction. People can become dependent on prescription opioids when they use them over the long term, meaning they will experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when they stop opioid use.


Heroin is a highly addictive and dangerous opiate drug. Prescription opioid abuse can lead to heroin abuse for some people, as heroin has effects that are similar to those of prescription opioids. Abusing heroin leads to feelings of intense pleasure, and when people become dependent on it, they will experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they quit the drug. These symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, extreme pain and cold flashes. Around 745,000 Americans used heroin in 2019.


Cocaine is a stimulant drug, meaning it elevates levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, which is highly rewarding. Using cocaine can give people bursts of energy, happiness and alertness. However, high doses can lead to serious side effects like paranoia, heart problems or violent behavior. Over time, people develop a tolerance for cocaine, meaning they will need larger doses to achieve the same pleasurable effects. Since cocaine use is so rewarding, people can easily develop an addiction to the drug. Around 5.5 million Americans used cocaine in 2019.


Methamphetamine, also referred to as meth, is a stimulant drug. Like cocaine, meth increases levels of dopamine and leads to feelings of intense pleasure. People who use meth show side effects like wakefulness, elevated body temperature and faster heartbeat. Over the long term, meth can lead to paranoia, malnutrition, memory problems, tooth decay and even violent behavior. In 2019, around two million Americans abused meth.


Benzodiazepines, often referred to as benzos, are prescription medications used to treat anxiety. Benzos are sedative drugs, and people may abuse them by crushing or snorting them to feel high. Long-term use of benzos leads to tolerance and physical dependence, and a person who stops using them will experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, sleep problems and seizures in some cases.

Prescription Stimulants

Doctors prescribe stimulant drugs like Ritalin or Adderall to treat conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy. While these drugs have legitimate medical uses, people may abuse them. Like other stimulants, they increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which has a rewarding effect. Abusing these drugs can lead to psychosis, anger, paranoia and even overdose.


Around 48.2 million Americans used marijuana in 2019, which is a drastic increase from the 25.8 million people who used marijuana in 2002. While some may perceive marijuana to be entirely harmless, the reality is that marijuana use presents risks, especially to teens. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), teens who use marijuana heavily experience a decline in IQ, while those who begin using the drug as adults do not experience a reduction in IQ. Additionally, up to 30% of people who use marijuana develop a marijuana use disorder, showing that this drug is potentially addictive.

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Substance Abuse vs. Addiction

These substances are common drugs of abuse, but keep in mind that abusing drugs or alcohol does not automatically mean that someone has an addiction. For instance, when a person takes larger doses of medication than prescribed or buys prescription drugs off the street, this constitutes substance abuse. Abusing substances in this manner does not always result in addiction.

Using drugs with the intent to get high is classified as substance abuse, but when a person continues to abuse substances, they may develop an addiction. Drug and alcohol addiction is a diagnosable health condition that causes a person to experience lasting brain changes from drug use and continue using drugs despite ongoing consequences. While substance abuse is different from addiction, ongoing substance abuse can lead to addiction.

What Causes Drug and Alcohol Addiction?

There is no single explanation that describes what causes drug and alcohol addiction, but there are certain risk factors that can lead to an addiction. For example, genetics can make drug use more appealing for some people, leading them to repeatedly use drugs and become addicted. Additional risk factors include:

  • Mental health issues
  • Poor home life
  • Difficulty with school
  • Being around others who are abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Starting to use drugs earlier in life, such as during the teenage years

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Addiction is a diagnosable mental health condition and is referred to clinically as a substance use disorder. Someone who has an addiction will show signs consistent with this diagnosis, including:

  • Being unable to reduce their substance use, even if they desire to
  • Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even if they cause or worsen a health problem
  • Using drugs even when it interferes with relationships or leads to difficulty fulfilling duties at work
  • Experiencing strong cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Needing larger quantities of drugs or alcohol to achieve the desired effects
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when not using substances
  • Using substances when it is dangerous, such as before or while driving
  • Giving up activities or hobbies in favor of drug use

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Programs

People who live with an addiction often need professional intervention to stop using drugs and alcohol. For those in the Atlanta area, The Recovery Village Atlanta provides a full continuum of addiction treatment services, including residential treatment, partial hospitalization services, and aftercare services.

Additionally, we employ a full staff of credentialed addiction professionals. Our multidisciplinary team treats patients with care and compassion, and they have experience providing evidence-based treatment for many different types of substance addiction.

Drug and Alcohol Rehab in Atlanta, GA

If you or someone you love is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, help is available at The Recovery Village Atlanta. Contact us today to learn more about addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indi[…] Drug Use and Health.” September 2020. Accessed April 22, 2022.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed April 22, 2022.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Opioids DrugFacts.” June 1, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2022.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin DrugFacts.” June 1, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2022.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Cocaine DrugFacts.” April 8, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2022.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Methamphetamine DrugFacts.” May 16, 2019. Accessed April 22, 2022.

Drug Enforcement Administration. “Benzodiazepines.” April 2020. Accessed April 22, 2022.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Cannabis (Marijuana) DrugFacts.” December 24, 2019. Accessed April 23, 2022.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.” July 2, 2018. Accessed April 23, 2022. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Drug Use and Addiction.” MedlinePlus, December 28, 2016 Accessed April 23, 2022.