No one ever thinks they’ll end up addicted to an illicit substance. Even people who grow up in destructive environments often think they’ll learn from their parents’ mistakes and know what to do to make sure they stay sober. Yet children of alcoholics are still four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency themselves than the general population, per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It poses a question of just how easily avoidable addiction is or isn’t. The vast majority of people who abuse drugs never intend to become dependent on them. Most often, they believe they’re in control and can quit at any time.

How Does Addiction Start?

Addiction is more likely to affect younger people when certain substances are abused. For instance, people under the age of 15 who drink alcohol are five times more likely to become dependent on it than people who wait until they’re 21 to start drinking, per the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. In addition, men are more likely to become addicted to illicit substances than women are, per the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. It is thought that genetic makeup may predispose men to a greater likelihood of addiction, but it also may be due to the fact that women are more likely to ask for help when a substance abuse problem develops.



When someone engages in repeated sessions of drug or alcohol abuse, the body becomes accustomed to the side effects of those substances. It gets used to the relaxed feeling that tranquilizers induce. It grows comfortable in the haze that opiates supply. It gets so used to these feelings that suddenly, when the substance isn’t there, it shuts down. The brain goes haywire, moods swing high and low, appetites fluctuate wildly, nausea and sweating ensue, and some people might even begin to physically tremble. The body is telling the individual to drink more or take another hit, so it can return to its sense of normalcy with the substance present. It can’t go on without that fix. This is withdrawal.

Any kind of physical dependence on a substance should be taken seriously. Individuals who try to detox from certain substances, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, on their own risk serious side effects during withdrawal, such as delirium tremens (DTs). DTs consists of seizing episodes that can be life-threatening; about 5 percent of people detoxing from alcohol will experience it, per NIAAA.


In the same light as withdrawal, tolerance to substances develop over time. Essentially, with repeated use, the same dosage levels don’t bring the same effects to the individual. Initially, a small dose of heroin will produce euphoric results, but as someone keeps using it, the body grows tolerant to that dose. Sooner or later — usually sooner than anyone expects — that dose needs to be increased. The lower dose simply won’t work anymore. The high will start getting weaker and in an effort to achieve that same feeling of euphoria, the person will generally boost their dose.

Tolerance doesn’t just develop with illicit substances. Often, people struggle with abuse of prescription drugs, leading them to addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 2.4 million people abused prescription drugs in 2009. When a doctor prescribes a drug, most people believe that those drugs are safe. In fact, most people aren’t even aware that prescription opioid painkillers and heroin are derived from the same place: the pod of opium poppy flowers. When someone is prescribed a medication, they may even think they have approval from the medical industry to use these drugs at will and for extended periods of time. It is that very thinking that leads many people to misuse their medications, ending up dependent on them.


When Is It Addiction?

There are trademark signs of addiction that cannot be ignored. Tolerance is a red flag that many people don’t think too much about initially. Generally, tolerance levels increase before dependence sets in. If individuals can scale back on their use as soon as tolerance is recognized, dependence and addiction issues may be avoided.

Dependence on a drug, and the presence of withdrawal symptoms when going without the substance, is often a clear sign of addiction. That being said, people can be physically dependent on a drug without being addicted to it, as is the case with some people who use a legitimately needed medication according to the prescribing doctor’s instructions. If a person is addicted to a medication, they are generally also dependent on it. If the medication or drug does not incur physical dependence, psychological dependence is likely an issue.

Other warning signs of addiction include:

  • Trying to stop using the substance but being unable to do so, even when strict goals are set
  • Having a serious preoccupation with the substance and abusing it; spending a lot of time thinking about the next high
  • Opting out of family events, holidays with loved ones, work activities, sports engagements, and other social events that used to be enjoyed to stay home and get high instead
  • Perpetual use of drugs or alcohol even though the person is aware of the harm incurred by such use

In 2014, 1,614,358 people were admitted to treatment for substance abuse in the United States, per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It doesn’t take much for substance abuse to transform into addiction, and for certain substances of abuse, addiction can take hold incredibly quickly. The key is to act quickly to get help. Prompt intervention, often via a comprehensive addiction treatment program, gives individuals the best chances at a sustained recovery.