Addictions Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments, Complications

Addictions Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

What are addictions?

Addictions are compulsions to use and abuse things to an excessive and destructive extent. These compulsions are very powerful and produce a life-threatening and self-perpetuating process that can end in disability or death for the sufferer, as well as cause family members and loved ones pain and suffering.

Addictions Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments, Complications
Addictions can produce major life consequences, such as loss of a job and financial trouble, worsening of negative personality traits, loss of other interests, and repetitive relapsing, possibly ending in death. Genetic and familial influences are often present. The illness or disease lies in the loss of control, the unpredictability, and the unwanted consequences, as well as in the psychological and physical destruction involved.

Read more: Addison's Disease Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention

Causes of Addictions

Many addicts are blamed for having a lack of willpower to overcome their addictive behaviors. However, science has shown that that an addicted person's brain follows certain patterns that can trigger both a physiological and psychological dependence, even after just one experience with the drug or behavior of choice. With addiction, the parts of the brain that control motivation, mood, reward, and inhibitory concentration are stimulated to create an intensely pleasurable response to the drug or behavior of choice. Many medical professionals believe that certain individuals are prone toward addiction because of their unique brain chemistry, while other doctors argue that addiction can happen to anyone.

Most experts agree, however, that addiction is usually not only caused by physiological responses in the brain. Factors like heredity, environment, mental health, and diet may also play a significant role in the onset and development of addiction. In fact, several factors are usually involved, which can make addiction a difficult condition to both prevent and treat.

What Are The Risk Factors For Addiction?

A risk factor is something which increases the likelihood of developing a condition or disease. For example, obesity significantly raises the risk of developing diabetes type 2. Therefore, obesity is a risk factor for diabetes type 2.

Although anybody, regardless of age, sex or social status can potentially become addicted to some substances, there are certain factors which may increase the risk:

Genetics (family history)

Anybody who has a close relative with an addiction problem has a higher risk of eventually having one themselves. It may be argued that environmental and circumstantial factors that close family members share are the prominent causes.

Alcoholics are six times more likely than non-alcoholics to have blood relatives who are alcohol dependent. Researchers from the Universidad de Granada, Spain, in a study revealed that "the lack of endorphin is hereditary, and thus that there is a genetic predisposition to become addicted to alcohol".

Geneticists believe that the reason some people try cigarettes and do not become smokers, while others do so very quickly is probably linked to the type of genes we inherit from our parents. Some people can smoke once in a while, throughout their lives, and never seem to become addicted, while others are unable to stop smoking without experiencing the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. It is most likely that the way the receptors on the surface of our brain nerve cells respond to nicotine is influenced by our genes.


A significantly higher percentage of people addicted to a substance are male. According to the Mayo Clinic, USA, males are twice as likely as females to have problems with drugs.

Having a mental illness/condition

People with depression, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and several other mental conditions/illnesses have a higher risk of eventually becoming addicted to drugs, alcohol or nicotine.

Peer pressure

Trying to conform with other members of a group and gain acceptance can encourage people to take up the use of potentially addictive substances, and eventually become addicted to them. Peer pressure is an especially strong factor for young people.

Family behavior

Young people who do not have a strong attachment to their parents and siblings have a higher risk of becoming addicted to something one day, compared to people with deep family attachments.


Being alone and feeling lonely can lead to the consumption of substances as a way of copying; resulting in a higher risk of addiction.

The nature of the substance

Some substances, such as crack, heroin or cocaine can bring about addiction more rapidly than others. For example, if a group of people were to take crack every day for six months, and another identical group of people were to drink alcohol every day for the same period, the number of crack addicts at the end of the six months would be a lot higher than the number of alcoholics. For some people trying a substance even once can be enough to spark an addiction. Crack, also known as crack cocaine or rock, is a freebase form of cocaine that can be smoked.

Age when substance was first consumed

Studies of alcoholism have shown that people who start consuming a drug earlier in life have a higher risk of eventually becoming addicted, than those who started later. Many experts say this also applies to nicotine and drugs.


If a person’s stress levels are high there is a greater chance a substance, such as alcohol may be used in an attempt to blank out the upheaval. Some stress hormones are linked to alcoholism.

How the body metabolizes (processes) the substance

In cases of alcohol, for example, individuals who need a higher dose to achieve an effect have a higher risk of eventually becoming addicted.

What are the most common symptoms of addictions?

The symptoms of addiction will vary depending on the individual and the substance or behavior of choice. However, most addictions can be identified by a specific set of characteristics that occur either suddenly or over a period of time:

  • Increased use of or obsession with preferred substance (getting it, using it, and getting more when it runs out)
  • Change of lifestyle, social activities, or friendships in order to accommodate use or addictive behavior
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, goals, or activities that normally bring joy
  • Alienation from close family members and friends who may be able to detect a problem
  • Negative personal or professional consequences that result from dependence on addictive behavior or substance
  • Loss of control over frequency or quantity of use
  • Repeated failed attempts to control or eliminate addictive behavior
While this list is not exhaustive, an addicted person will most often exhibit several of these traits. In order to truly diagnose an addiction, it helps to learn more about the individual's preferred substance or behavior. For example, someone with a cocaine addiction will likely exhibit vastly different behavior than someone with a heroin addiction. Many medical professionals also agree that addicts become skilled at hiding their behavior, so as to maintain access to their addiction and perpetuate the addictive lifestyle. Therefore, it's not always easy to spot addictive behavior from the outside.

What are the most frequently seen addictions?

People can become addicted to:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Sex
  • Food
  • Gambling
Addictions Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments, Complications

What are the most commonly used addictive drugs?

Addictive drugs include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Tranquilizers (Valium type, Xanax)
  • Sleeping pills
  • Pain medications (opiate-like)
  • Cough medicines (codeine)
  • Hallucinogens (PCP, LSD)
  • Stimulants (diet pills, amphetamines)

What is the difference between a habit and an addiction?

  • Addiction - there is a psychological/physical component; the person is unable to control the aspects of the addiction without help because of the mental or physical conditions involved.
  • Habit - it is done by choice. The person with the habit can choose to stop, and will subsequently stop successfully if they want to. The psychological/physical component is not an issue as it is with an addiction.

Put simply - with a habit you are in control of your choices, with an addiction you are not in control of your choices. 

Addiction to substances or activities can sometimes lead to serious problems at home, work, school and socially. 

Progression of Addiction

While not all addictions result in negative consequences or destructive behavior, most follow a pattern of negative progression. In the first stage, the person experiments with the drug or behavior of choice. He may or may not have a positive experience, but the brain records the activity and the memory of use.

Next, the user finds his or her self returning to the substance or behavior more frequently and finding pleasure and satisfaction from using. In this stage, the brain is forming a conditioned positive response to the behavior.

In the chronic stage of addiction, the person will continue to use the substance or perform the behavior—despite negative consequences—in order to achieve the same positive response he once experienced with the drug or behavior. Now, however, the positive response may be absent. The good feelings, whether physical or emotional, associated with using may not be present at all. At this point, many doctors argue that the addict is acting on involuntary messages from his brain chemistry, trying to repeat the "high" he once achieved to give the brain the reward and pleasure it seeks.

How Is Addiction Diagnosed?

In many cases, it is a family member or very good friend who raises concern about the patient’s behavior (rather than the patient himself/herself doing so). The first port of call is usually a GP (general practitioner, primary care physician, family doctor). The doctor will ask several questions, including how often the substance is consumed, whether the substance use has been criticized by other people, and whether the patient feels he/she may have a problem. If the doctor suspects there is an addiction problem, the patient will be referred to a specialist.

In cases of nicotine addiction, establishing whether or not there is an addiction is done at the GP-patient level. With more powerful substances there is usually an evaluation by a specialized addiction counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Blood test

This may be ordered to determine whether the substance is still in the blood (whether the substance has been taken recently). It is not used to diagnose addiction.

DSM criteria for substance dependence

A patient diagnosed with substance dependence (an addiction) must meet criteria laid out in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association.

What Are The Treatment Options For Addiction?

The first step for the addicted person is to acknowledge that there is a substance dependency problem (addiction problem). The next step is to get help. In most of the world there are several support groups and professional services available.

Treatment options for addiction depend on several factors, including what type of substance it is and how it affects the patients. Typically, treatment includes a combination of inpatient and outpatient programs, counseling (psychotherapy), self-help groups, pairing with individual sponsors, and medication.

Treatment programs

These typically focus on getting sober and preventing relapses. Individual, group and/or family sessions may form part of the program. Depending on the level of addiction, patient behaviors, and type of substance this may be in outpatient or residential settings.


There may be one-to-one (one-on-one) or family sessions with a specialist.

Help with coping with cravings, avoiding the substance, and dealing with possible relapses are key to effective addiction programs. If the patient’s family can become involved there is a better probability of positive outcomes.

Self-help groups

These may help the patient meet other people with the same problem, which often boosts motivation. Self-help groups can be a useful source of education and information too. Examples include Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. For those dependent on nicotine, ask your doctor or nurse for information on local self-help groups.

Help with withdrawal symptoms

The main aim is usually to get the addictive substance out of the patient’s body as quickly as possible. Sometimes the addict is given gradually reduced dosages (tapering). In some cases a substitute substance is given. Depending on what the person is addicted to, as well as some other factors, the doctor may recommend treatment either as an outpatient or inpatient.

The doctor or addiction expert may recommend either an outpatient or inpatient residential treatment center. Withdrawal treatment options vary and depend mainly on what substance the individual is addicted to:

Addiction to depressants

These may include dependence on barbiturates or benzodiazepines. During withdrawal the patient may experience anxiety, insomnia, sweating and restlessness. In rare cases there may be whole-body tremors, seizures, hallucinations, hypertension (high blood pressure), accelerated heart rate and fever. In severe cases there may be delirium, which according to the Mayo Clinic, USA, could be life-threatening.

Addiction to stimulants

These may include cocaine and other amphetamines. During withdrawal the patient may experience tiredness, depression, anxiety, moodiness, low enthusiasm, sleep disturbances, and low concentration. Treatment focuses on providing support, unless the depression is severe, in which case a medication may be prescribed.

Addiciton to opioids

Opioids are a class of drugs that are commonly prescribed for their analgesic, or pain-killing, properties. They include substances such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and methadone. Opioids may be more easily recognized by drug names such as Kadian, Avinza, OxyContin, Percodan, Darvon, Demerol, Vicodin, Percocet, and Lomotil. During withdrawal there may be sweating, anxiety and stuffy nose – symptoms tend to be mild. In rare cases there may be serious sleeping problems, tachycardia, hypertension and diarrhea. The doctor may prescribe methadone, or buprenorphine for cravings (alternative substances).

What Are The Possible Complications Of Addiction?

Health - addiction to a substance, be it a drug, narcotic or nicotine usually has health consequences. In the case of drug/alcohol addiction there may be mental/emotional as well as physical health problems. In the case of nicotine addiction the problems tend to be just with physical health.

Coma, unconsciousness or death

Some drugs, taken in high doses or together with other substances may be extremely dangerous.

Some diseases

People who inject drugs have a risk of developing HIV/AIDS or hepatitis if they share needles. Some substances, including specific drugs or alcohol can lead towards more risky sexual behavior (unprotected sex), increasing the probability of developing sexually transmitted diseases.

Accidental injuries/death

People with a drug/alcohol addiction have a higher risk of falling over, or driving dangerously when under the influence.


The risk of suicide is significantly higher for a person who is addicted to a drug/alcohol, compared with non-addicted individuals. This is not the case with nicotine dependence.

Relationship problems

Social, family and marital relationships can be severely strained, leading to family breakups, etc.

Child neglect/abuse

The percentage of neglected or abused children who have one or both parents with an addiction problem is higher compared to those whose parents are healthy. These figures apply to some drugs and alcohol, not to just nicotine dependence.

Unemployment, poverty and homelessness

A significant number of drug/alcohol addicts find themselves without work or anywhere to live.

Problems with the law

If the substance is expensive, the addicted individual may resort to crime in order to secure his/her supply, making it more likely there will be problems with police, including imprisonment.