The Centers for Disease Control notes that in every given month, 9.4 percent of Americans used an illicit drug of one sort or another, as of 2013. Not everyone becomes addicted as a result of drug abuse, but those who do face a dangerous medical problem that must be addressed with treatment.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has some salient facts on what constitutes a major disease afflicting millions of Americans.
What drug abuse is not
Drug abuse and subsequent addiction is not the result of a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Drug use changes the chemical makeup of the human brain, making the compulsion to use drugs so overwhelming that almost no one can quit cold turkey without help from healthcare professionals.
What causes drug addiction?
The initial decision to use illicit drugs such as cocaine or heroin is usually voluntary. But because of the changes that such drugs cause in the brain, drug abuse quickly becomes an addiction, The compulsion to use drugs is biological in origin, overwhelming one’s self control and making it all but impossible to quit on one’s own.
How does drug abuse affect the brain?
The short answer is that illicit drugs affect the brain by imitating the brain’s chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, especially dopamine. The effect is insidious. Dopamine is a chemical that causes euphoria, created by activities ranging from eating a good meal to being in the company of a loved one. The drug sets up a feedback loop that makes the addicted person crave more and more of the substance to maintain the same level of euphoria. Without the drug, the cravings are overwhelming and are not responsive to mere willpower.
Why do some people become addicted and some do not?
Current medical science does not have a clear handle on what causes a person to be addicted. One cannot predict with any certainty who will become an addict and who will not. The factors that contribute to drug addiction include a combination of genetic predisposition, environment, and development.
A person can be genetically predisposed to becoming an addict. In addition, the presence of a mental health disorder can contribute to the likelihood of becoming an addict.
One’s upbringing and social environment can also contribute to the possibility of becoming an addict. A person with a stable and loving home environment is less likely to abuse drugs. Someone who had been subjected to physical or sexual abuse is more likely to become an addict. Peer pressure, either to use or avoid using, is also a powerful factor.
One can become an addict at any age. However, adolescents, whose capacity for decision making and self-control are still developing, are most at risk.
How is drug addiction treated?
The best way to treat drug addiction is to avoid abusing drugs entirely. This fact points to the necessity of prevention programs, especially in schools and in the media. The fewer people who choose not to start abusing drugs, the fewer people there will be who do not become addicts.
For those people who find themselves addicted to an illicit drug, effective treatment options exist. Treatment generally involves the use of medication that helps one “step down” from the physical factors causing addiction. In addition, the patient receives behavior therapy to get at the root cause of the decision to use drugs. Each treatment regime is tailored to the specific needs of the individual patient.
As with other diseases that require treatment, relapse back into drug addiction can and does occur. But these instances mean that the treatment has to be either reinstated or adjusted to help the patient regain control and continue to lead a full and productive life.
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