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Healthline Mental Health Physical Health

What is addiction?

Addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.
The term addictionTrusted Source does not only refer to dependence on substances such as heroin or cocaine. Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities such as gambling, eating, or working.
Addiction is a chronic condition that can also result from taking medications. In fact, the misuse of opioids — particularly illicitly made fentanyl — caused nearly 50,000 deaths in the United States in 2019 alone.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Many people, but not all, start using a drug or first engage in an activity voluntarily. However, addiction can take over and reduce self-control.

Addiction vs. Misuse

Drug addiction and drug misuse are different.
MisuseTrusted Source refers to the misuse of a substance at high doses or in inappropriate situations that could lead to health and social problems.
However, not everybody who misuses a substance has addiction. AddictionTrusted Source is “fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.”
For example, a person who drinks alcohol heavily on a night out may experience both the euphoric and harmful effects of the substance.
However, this does not qualify as addiction until the person experiences “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequence, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”
There is substance addiction and non-substance addiction. Some examples of non-substance addiction include:
  • gambling
  • food
  • internet
  • gaming
  • cell phone
  • sex
Someone with addiction will continue to misuse the substance or activity in spite of the harmful effects it has.


The primary indications of addiction are:
  • declining grades or difficulty at school
  • poor performance at work
  • relationship difficulties, which often involve lashing out at people who identify the addiction
  • an inability to stop using a substance even though it may be causing health problems or personal problems, such as issues with employment or relationships
  • a noticeable lack of energy in daily activities
  • profound changes in appearance, including weight loss and a noticeable abandonment of hygiene
  • appearing defensive when asked about substance use
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