Addiction is a condition in which a person uses a substance or engages in an activity so much that it interferes with daily life. Treatment involves behavioral therapy, counseling, and rehabilitation.

Addiction Overview

Reviewed: May 7, 2014

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes a person to compulsively use a substance or engage in an activity despite the harm it causes to the person’s life, relationships, responsibilities, or health. Addictions can involve drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, and internet use, among other behaviors. An addiction can be physical – when the body actually adapts to the presence of a substance - or psychological – when the behavior is associated with stress or emotional states and not biological changes to the brain or body.

People of all ages, life stages, and socioeconomic strata can be affected by addiction. A combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors likely contributes to and increases the risk of addiction. You are more likely to experience addiction if you:

  • Have parents or older family members who suffer from addiction or are involved in criminal behavior
  • Have friends who suffer from addiction
  • Experience academic failures or have poor social skills
  • Have unstable family relationships
  • Have mental illness
  • Experienced trauma or abuse

Addiction can be treated, but there is no cure. It is a long-term disease that people must learn to manage. Most treatment plans for addiction involve behavioral changes, cognitive therapy, and rehabilitation programs. Some types of addiction respond to medications.

Addiction Symptoms

The hallmark symptom of any addiction is the inability to stop or limit the use of a substance or activity.

You may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Craving or compulsion to use the substance or engage in the activity
  • Increasing amounts of the substance or activity are needed to achieve the desired effect
  • Irritability, anxiety, shaking, and nausea if you attempt to stop using the substance or activity
  • Impaired work, social, and family responsibilities when you use the substance or activity
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, hopelessness, and failure
  • Anxiety or depression

See your doctor or health care provider if you think you have an addiction.

Addiction Causes

There are no specific causes of addiction. There is no way to accurately predict who will become dependent on the use of a substance or activity.

Any substance or activity that is pleasurable can become an addiction by impacting the reward, motivation, and memory pathways of the brain.

Addiction Diagnosis

Most addictions are diagnosed on the basis of your symptoms and behaviors. There are no specific tests to diagnose addiction.

Living With Addiction

Living with addiction is difficult and can be debilitating. Daily activities and relationships are negatively affected. However, help is available for the person suffering from addiction and the families. Many support services and organization can help live with and manage addiction. Living with and overcoming addiction is easier with encouragement, comfort, and guidance.

Addiction Treatments

Addiction is treatable, though there is no cure. Most addictions are life-long diseases that require consistent management to prevent relapses to unhealthy behaviors or new addictions. Most people seek treatment for addiction because a court ordered them to do so or family members encouraged them to obtain help. Fortunately, people can benefit from treatment programs regardless of the initial motivation for seeking treatment.

The first phase of addiction treatment is withdrawal from the substance or activity. You will likely experience physical and/or psychological effects of withdrawal, including nausea, vomiting, chills, sweating, muscle cramps and aches, sleeplessness, changes in heart rate, fever, anxiety, depression, irritability, and mood swings. Medical supervision is recommended for some substance addictions and medications can be used to manage the effects of withdrawal of certain substances. For example, methadone (Methadose), buprenorphine (Butrans, Buprenex), and naltrexone (Revia, Vivtrol) are effective for treating opiate addictions; nicotine replacement systems, including patches, gums, sprays, and lozenges, are effective for treating tobacco addictions; and naltrexone (Revia, Vivtrol), acamprosate (Campral), and disulfiram (Antabuse) are effective for treating alcohol addictions.

Behavioral therapy and counseling helps identify, avoid, and cope with situations that make you want to use the substance or activity of the addiction. Family therapy teaches the family of the person suffering from addiction to provide a safe and supportive environment.

Rehabilitation programs help people who are overcoming addictions to regain life skills.

No single treatment approach is appropriate for every person or every addiction. Treatment should be individualized and continually assessed to ensure that it meets the changing needs of the person with addiction.