A Lost Generation: Opioids and Young Adults

A Lost Generation: Opioids and Young Adults

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The U.S. opioid epidemic worsens each year. It currently claims 115 lives every day and impacts countless families in its wake. Between 2015 and 2016, the largest opioid overdose death rate increase occurred among people aged 25 to 34 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Today, opioid abuse is the number-one cause of preventable death among 18-to-35 year-olds.

Here, we look at opioid use among those it affects most: The Millennial generation, which is comprised of today’s 18- to 35-year-olds. We examine why young adults use opioids, how addiction and dependence develop, and how exactly treatment works to help end even a severe opioid use disorder for the long-term.

Why Young People Use Opioids

Young adults abuse opioids for a variety of reasons, including to relieve physical and emotional pain, deal with problems, relax, reduce stress, and have a good time with friends. But addiction almost always has underlying causes–issues that led to the opioid abuse in the first place. Getting to the bottom of these issues is central to successful recovery, because if these aren’t addressed, they will continue to lead to substance abuse.

The underlying causes of addiction are unique to every individual. Some people have multiple issues, and these are often interconnected like a web. Some of the most common underlying causes of addiction include:

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A History of Trauma

Trauma that occurs at any time, but particularly in childhood, is a common cause of addiction down the road. Witnessing or being the victim of traumas like sexual abuse, violence and disaster can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. These include frequent nightmares, flashbacks, anger, fear and insomnia. These issues and the negative emotions that result often lead people to self-medicate with drugs–particularly euphoria-inducing opioids.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can result from a number of life circumstances, including poverty, abuse, systematic discrimination, family dysfunction, the loss of a loved one or living with medical or mental illness. Chronic stress results in consistently high blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects brain function. Persistently high cortisol levels can shrink the brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for memory and learning, and increase the size of the amygdala, the stress and fear center responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It disrupts synapse regulation, leading to a loss of sociability and a tendency toward withdrawing from others. While opioids may seem to reduce stress due to the euphoric effects, heroin and painkillers actually reduce your ability to cope with stressful situations and increase your stress response in the long run.

Mental Illness

Anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses dramatically reduce an individual’s quality of life. When a mental illness co-occurs with a substance use disorder, it’s known as a dual diagnosis. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around half of all people who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder also have a mental illness, and half of those diagnosed with a mental illness also have a substance use disorder.

Considering that one in five people between the ages of 18 and 25 reported a mental illness in the past year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it’s not surprising that the prevalence of dual diagnosis is high among Millennials. Opioids worsen mental illnesses in the long run, and misuse can even cause mental illness where one didn’t previously exist.

Missing Coping Skills

Those suffering from addiction usually have a reason why they began abusing opioids, and for most, it all boils down to missing coping skills. Dealing effectively with stress, illness, fear, depression, boredom, loneliness, and other negative states requires developing healthy thought patterns and practicing specific coping strategies.

Until you change negative ways of thinking about yourself, your addiction, and your relationships, and learn how to cope with difficult feelings and emotions, opioids will be the coping mechanism of choice.

How Opioid Addiction and Dependence Develop

Addiction and dependence aren’t the same thing and they develop differently. They both develop as the result of brain changes caused by heavy substance abuse.


Addiction is characterized by compulsive opioid abuse despite the negative consequences it causes. People who are addicted no longer have control over how much, how often, or for how long they use.

Heavy substance abuse leads to changes in the brain’s reward, learning, and memory centers. Opioids cause the brain to release large amounts of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which is the reward center of the brain. When this occurs, the memory center, known as the hippocampus, records a memory of the pleasure it produces and the environmental cues that are present while using. The amygdala, which is associated with learning and with survival instincts, creates a conditioned response to those environmental cues – think Pavlov’s dog, who salivated every time a bell rang because he associated the sound with getting fed. This response causes cravings for opioids whenever you’re exposed to the people, places, things and emotions that you associate with using.

With repeated exposure to opioids, the pleasure center of the brain communicates with the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executing tasks, in a way that leads to compulsive behaviors. Opioids have re-wired the reward pathways in the brain, and even if you want to stop or try to stop, you find that you can’t – at least not for any length of time. Many people will fall into a remission-relapse cycle that doesn’t seem to end.

Signs and symptoms of addiction include:

  • The inability to stop using, even if you want or try to
  • Using more opioids or using for a longer period of time than you intended
  • Using opioids despite the problems it causes for your relationships, health, finances and legal status
  • Neglecting duties at home, work, or school due to opioid use
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Taking risks to obtain opioids or engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence
  • Hiding the extent of your opioid use from others
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and basic self-care

Once an addiction develops, substance abuse is no longer a choice, but rather a compulsion. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stresses that good intentions and willpower are rarely enough to end an addiction for the long-term.


Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that occur when you quit using a substance cold-turkey. For opioids, these symptoms include nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, hot and cold sweats, and muscle cramps.

When you repeatedly abuse opioids, your brain changes the way it operates in order to compensate for the heavy presence of the drug. It does this by altering the activities of neurotransmitters – including reducing dopamine activity – to try to normalize brain function.

This leads to tolerance, which occurs when you need increasingly larger doses of opioids to get the same effects smaller doses once produced. But as you increase the dosage, the brain continues to alter its function. At some point, a shift may occur, and your brain will operate more comfortably when opioids are present than when they’re not. Then, when you stop using, normal brain function rebounds. This causes the physical symptoms of withdrawal. Tolerance and withdrawal are the two indicators that dependence has occurred.

Opioids produce tolerance very quickly. It doesn’t take long to develop an opioid dependence, and the fear of withdrawal keeps many addicted individuals from quitting or getting help.

Opioid Addiction is Treatable

Even severe opioid addiction is treatable. The gold standard of treatment for opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. MAT involves a combination of medication and counseling, and it offers the best chances of successful long-term recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MAT has been shown to:

  • Decrease opioid use
  • Reduce opioid-related deaths
  • Reduce criminal activity associated with opioid abuse
  • Reduce the transmission of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis
  • Increase social functioning
  • Improve retention in treatment
  • Improve birth outcomes for pregnant women

Medication-assisted treatment involves two components: medication and counseling.


While many people believe that MAT is simply replacing one addiction for another, this simply isn’t true. Medication for opioid addiction helps to reduce cravings and normalize brain function so that you can focus on recovering from the addiction. When these medications are taken as prescribed, they help end the addiction to opioids. Three medications are approved by the FDA for MAT:

Methadone, which prevents the onset of withdrawal symptoms, including cravings, and blocks the effects of other opioids. Because methadone is a synthetic opioid, it has a high abuse potential and is administered daily at a specialized clinic.

Buprenorphine, which, like methadone, blocks withdrawal and the effects of other opioids. But unlike methadone, buprenorphine has a ceiling effect, and taking more of it won’t produce more pronounced effects. This means that it has a lower abuse potential and can be prescribed by a doctor and taken at home.

Naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opioids and reduces cravings. Unlike methadone and buprenorphine, naltrexone can only be taken once all traces of opioids are out of your system. It’s available as a daily pill or a monthly injection.

The medications used to treat opioid addiction enable individuals to focus on recovery rather than on withstanding intense cravings.


Without the counseling component of MAT, the relapse rate for opioid addiction is over 90 percent. Detox and medication alone can end a physical dependence on opioids, but it won’t do much to address the addiction, which is far more complex.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stresses that there is no single pathway to recovery that works for every individual. A holistic approach to treatment offers the best outcomes and involves both traditional and complementary therapies.

Individualized treatment plans are central to successful rehab. The treatment plan should address the individual’s unique needs, issues, and challenges, and it should evolve to meet new and changing needs as a person progresses through treatment.

Through a variety of traditional and complementary therapies, people in treatment:

  • Identify harmful thought and behavior patterns and develop healthier ways of thinking and behaving
  • Develop an arsenal of skills and strategies for coping with cravings, stress, negative emotions, and other relapse triggers
  • Address the complex issues behind the addiction
  • Work to repair damaged relationships and restore function to the family system
  • Learn to relax and have a good time without opioids
  • Identify their inherent strengths and values and use them to find purpose and meaning in an opioid-free life

Duration of MAT

Some people will be on medication for a few months, others for a few years. Some will stay on medication for the rest of their lives. Ideally, the counseling component of MAT will last at least 90 days. Anything less is of limited effectiveness, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The Best Approach to Opioid Addiction Treatment for Young People

Overall, fewer than 10 percent of addicted individuals seek professional help for an addiction. But while people between the ages of 35 and 39 account for 11.7 percent of all treatment admissions, young people between the ages of 20 and 29 account for almost 30 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.(8) This is due, in part, to stronger family ties among young people and their relaxed attitudes toward treatment. Young adults are less likely to stigmatize drug addiction, and they’re less likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed about seeking help for mental health issues, including addiction.

Because people of different ages are in various stages of life and have different needs and issues, treatment should be age-appropriate. A high-quality program for any age group will take a holistic approach to treatment that addresses a range of physical, mental, and spiritual issues for whole-person healing.

A treatment approach tailored to young adults will likely include:

Experiential and Complementary Therapies.

Young people respond particularly well to complementary and experiential therapies like art or music therapy, adventure therapy, restorative yoga, and mindfulness-based meditation. These therapies help individuals reduce stress, improve self-awareness and self-confidence, increase self-esteem, build trust, and develop healthy relationships.

Group Therapy

Group therapy offers numerous benefits for young people. It helps participants develop communication skills, social skills, and healthy relationships. It promotes honesty, trust, and accountability. Group therapy provides a strong pillar of support in early recovery as the group bonds over shared experiences and seeks to help one another sort through a variety of issues.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is a cornerstone of a high-quality treatment program. That’s because addiction affects the entire family unit. It leads to unhealthy coping behaviors as loved ones navigate the fear, uncertainty, and stress that addiction brings to the family and the household. Family therapy helps to restore function to the family system through improved communication skills and identifying unhealthy behaviors among members, such as co-dependency and enabling. Family members are encouraged to engage in individual therapy as well to help them address their own issues that may stem from – or contribute to – their loved one’s addiction.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment.

Because of the high prevalence of mental illness among the 18-to-25 year old demographic, dual diagnosis programs are in high demand. Treating co-occurring disorders requires specialized treatment that addresses both the addiction and the mental illness at the same time, each in the context of the other. This is because mental illness impacts the severity of addiction and vice versa, and both addiction and mental illness have many common underlying causes.

12-Step Alternatives

Participation in a support group is an important factor for successful recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs have historically been popular, but young people are less religious than their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and they tend to push back against tradition. This makes Millennials, as a whole, less receptive to traditional 12-step programs, which have a basis in spirituality. Treatment programs for younger adults may offer alternatives to the 12-step program, such as Smart Recovery or Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

Purpose-Driven Treatment

Millennials are a purpose-driven generation. They’re better informed and more progressive than older generations were at that age, and they’re motivated more by happiness and having a purpose than they are by money and material things. Treatment for young people should, like them, also be purpose-driven. It should help young people identify their inherent strengths and values and find ways to use their strengths and live according to their values every day. This, according to the burgeoning field of positive psychology, is a major factor for authentic happiness in life.

There is Hope

Recovery is a process of change. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. Hope, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is the foundation of recovery. Hope is the belief that a better future is possible. There will be setbacks, especially in early recovery, but during challenging times, it will be hope that pushes you to keep at it and to keep striving for a better version of you and a better life for yourself.

Treatment helps you examine your beliefs and discard those that no longer serve you. It helps you identify your strengths and values and develop a world view and a lifestyle that honors those inherent aspects of you. It helps you develop essential coping skills and find purpose and meaning in life that can lead to greater happiness and well-being.

Addiction is complex, and opioid addiction is particularly so, but a high-quality treatment program can help you or someone you love find peace, happiness, and a better quality of life for the long-haul.

Is There Such A Thing As A Functioning Opioid Addict?

Answer many stereotypes about people suffering from opioid addiction are wrong and outdated. The fact is, opioid addiction affects people of all ages, from all walks of life. It affects clergy members, medical professionals, housewives and CEOs. Crossing socioeconomic lines, people of all ages can develop an opioid addiction. At times, the addiction can be deceiving, as life seems to continue as “normal”. In fact, it’s possible to be a highly functioning addict temporarily.

A functioning addict will often successfully hide his or her opioid abuse from friends, family members, and co-workers. He or she may be a model student, an attentive parent, or highly skilled and valued at work. But how long can someone who is addicted to opioids remain a functioning addict and prevent the substances from impacting their life?

Here are three important things you need to know.

1. Addiction is always progressive.

By its very nature, addiction is a progressive disease, much like diabetes or heart disease. Without treatment, it always gets worse. This is due to the brain changes that characterize addiction.

A healthy brain rewards healthy behaviors with a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure. When you eat, exercise or bond with someone you love, the brain releases a certain amount of dopamine so that you’ll continue to seek out these life-giving activities again and again.

When you use drugs, the brain’s natural reward system is hijacked, according to Harvard Medical School 1. Large amounts of dopamine are released, making you want to use drugs repeatedly. After a while, normal, everyday pleasures are no longer as rewarding as they once were, and your primary focus in life turns to getting pleasure in life from drugs rather than seeking out natural, healthy pleasures.

Chronic opioid use affects areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory and motivation. It affects the decision-making center of the brain and makes it very difficult to make choices that are healthy and promote optimal functioning. Over time, using becomes central to life, while relationships and hobbies begin to take a back seat. You begin to neglect duties at work, school or home, and you start to neglect your health and wellbeing. It could take months, or even years, but eventually, addiction will inevitably progress to the point of dysfunction and disability.

2. Opiates may seem to help at first, but they almost always make things worse.

A functioning addict may abuse opiates for a variety of reasons:

  • To reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • To get high.
  • To self-medicate physical or mental pain.
  • To prevent withdrawal.

No matter the reasons a functioning addict has for using opioids, and however opioids seem to make life better, using makes everything much worse in the long-run, including pain and mental illness. Even a highly functioning addict can’t escape the devastating effects of long-term opioid abuse on physical and mental health, including organ failure, blood diseases and serious mental illness. Additionally, the risk of overdose and death for a functioning addict is always high, whether the addiction involves heroin or prescription opioid painkillers.

2. Opiates may seem to help at first, but they almost always make things worse.

No matter the reasons a functioning addict has for using opioids, and however opioids seem to make life better, using makes everything much worse in the long-run, including pain and mental illness. Even a highly functioning addict can’t escape the devastating effects of long-term opioid abuse on physical and mental health, including organ failure, blood diseases and serious mental illness. Additionally, the risk of overdose and death for a functioning addict is always high, whether the addiction involves heroin or prescription opioid painkillers.

3. Treatment can help a functioning addict end the addiction and dependence before they lead to severe disability.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, willpower and good intentions are rarely enough to end 2 an addiction for the long-term. Professional help is almost always needed.

Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction can prevent withdrawal and block cravings while helping to normalize brain function so that you can focus on addressing the issues behind the addiction and work on improving or restoring your life.

A functioning addict is always on borrowed time. Getting help before the addiction progresses can save your relationships, your job, your health and even your life. Treatment works, and it can work for you, too, whatever your reasons for using opioids.

The Connection between Job Loss and Addiction

While many people are familiar with the term “functional addict,” there does come a point in the disease’s progression where the individual can no longer function optimally in their roll whether due to the development of a secondary health concern or some other associated circumstance. The fact is, addiction leads to the disruption of health, relationships, finances, and careers.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Among unemployed adults aged 18 or older, 18.2 percent were current illicit drug users, which was higher than the rates of 9.1 percent for those who were employed full time and 13.7 percent for those who were employed part time.” Job loss and addiction are connected, but it appears to be in more ways than one.

Does Job Type Matter?

When it comes to the links between job loss and addiction, no industry is spared. According to CNN, “Drug use cuts across all employment groups… It’s remained relatively constant over the last 10 years.”2 Addiction affects people in all age demographics and walks of life, so it makes sense that it is quite indiscriminate when it comes to job or career choice. However, statistics demonstrate that “Workers in security, education and legal professions are least likely to have used an illicit drug,” according to this CNN article.

Job Loss and Addiction: The Obvious Link

A person addicted to powerful painkillers or illicit drugs like heroin or meth will at some point find it difficult to maintain their responsibilities. A hallmark of addiction is that it disrupts a person’s life in what are often profoundly serious ways. An individual might refrain from abusing drugs when they’re on the job for many years. On the other hand, their performance might slip and they might make serious mistakes due to their reduced physical or cognitive function–also hallmarks of substance addiction.

People addicted to drugs or alcohol might find it difficult to get to work on time or manage their moods and irritability. Without treatment, addiction is a progressive and chronic disease. In time, it can impact a person’s job performance to the point that job loss becomes inevitable.

The Not-So-Obvious Link between Job Loss and Addiction

While addiction often precedes job loss, sometimes job loss or a period of unemployment paves a path to addiction. According to The Atlantic, states like Kentucky, Nevada, and Rhode Island have high rates of opioid-related overdose rates as well as high unemployment rates. 3“A series of studies suggests that this joblessness might have been–at least in part–contributing to the high rates of drug addiction.” With more time on their hands for recreational activities and possibly more stress as result of their state of unemployment, many individuals begin to abuse drugs or alcohol.

If you are suffering from an addiction and are either employed or unemployed, you need help. Treatment can make disease management possible. At a rehab facility, you can learn to manage your substance addiction and adopt new strategies for warding off relapse.

Problem Drinking vs Alcoholism: Preventing Dependence

There is a point along the road toward alcoholism where an individual can turn back and prevent the onset of disease. However, individuals must have an awareness of the signs of problem drinking, a willingness to change some habits, and even an openness to the possibility of obtaining treatment to help them overcome their problematic drinking.

For alcoholics, disease management becomes vital for protecting health and other important aspects of one’s life. The following information discusses the similarities and differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Problem Drinking

Problem drinking is drinking in a manner that has a negative impact on your life. To be clear, a single episode of binge drinking can be problem drinking. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to suffer from alcohol blood poisoning, a condition that can lead to death. On the other hand, binge drinking every weekend also constitutes problematic drinking.

Drinking too much or drinking to the point of blacking out not only has an adverse impact on an individuals health, but can also affect a person’s life in other negative ways, such as causing them to miss work, interfering with relationships, and affecting studies. Notably, addiction specialists assert that problem drinking is not addiction because dependence has not occurred.


Alcoholism is a chronic disease fueled by a powerful feeling of compulsion as well as physical, mental, and behavioral dependencies. Anyone can become an alcoholic, but there are risk factors associated with this disease. Risk factors include growing up with someone suffering from substance addiction, poverty, and even genetics. A marker for alcoholism is the presence of withdrawal symptoms if a drink is not had within a relatively short period of time.

Signs of alcoholism include Struggling to stop drinking once you’ve started, blacking out or experiencing short-term memory loss regularly, drinking in secret, drinking before or during work, and trying unsuccessfully to quit. There isn’t a cure for alcoholism, but an individual can manage the disease with abstinence.

Preventing Alcoholism

If you increasingly turn to alcohol to de-stress or alleviate negative emotions, you are engaging in a problematic behavior that can lead to alcoholism. Engaging in high-risk behaviors like driving having unprotected sex while inebriated also indicates a drinking problem.

It’s essential to control this problem while you still can and without the added burden of actual dependence – doing so can prevent problematic drinking from truly taking a toll on important aspects of your life or turning into alcoholism.

You may need to pull away from your current social situation or find a support group to help you find alternative ways to unwind or have fun. You may need to speak with a therapist or counselor if your drinking has become a serious problem in your life. Today’s rehab centers work with both problem drinkers and alcoholics to help them cope with the triggers that lead them to use alcohol in problematic ways.

If you are concerned about your drinking or suspect that you are dependent physically or mentally (or both) on alcohol, visit an addiction treatment center to be evaluated. Addiction specialists there can recommend treatments, therapies, or activities that can help you manage your problem and safeguard your health and well-being.

Opioid and Benzodiazepine Use in College

Opioid and Benzodiazepine Use in College

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 30 percent of drug overdoses in the United States that involve opioids are also associated with the use of benzodiazepines. A dangerous combination of opioid and “benzo” use is on the rise, especially among college students.

Deaths related to opioid abuse in those under the age of 24 nearly doubled from 2005 to 2015, with opioid-related emergency room visits also doubling over a five-year period. From 2005 to 2011, there were close to one million ER visits that involved a combination of opioid and benzo use.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are painkillers that can be prescribed by a physician. Some generic examples of opioids are morphine, hydrocodone and buprenorphine. Brand names include OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Demerol while heroin is an illegal opioid.

These narcotics, when used for recreational or medical purposes, cause sedation and other side effects in addition to relieving pain symptoms. Opioids can become physically addictive and lose their effectiveness over long-term use, causing the person using the drug to increase dosages in order to feel the same effects.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are tranquilizers. Some brand names that are familiar to most people are Valium and Xanax. These medications are prescribed to treat conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and seizures. Benzos are abused commonly, mainly due to their easy availability. When opioid and benzo drugs are taken together, the combination can be dangerous—even deadly.

Opioid and Benzo Use in College Students

Many Americans are aware of the current opioid epidemic sweeping across the country, affecting everyone from high school students to senior citizens. There is also a benzodiazepine epidemic that is happening, particularly those of college age. Benzos are perceived to help students deal with school-related anxieties and are also prevalent at parties. Some discover that when benzos are mixed with opioids or alcohol, the effects are much stronger.

Some college students may be given legal prescriptions for benzos in order to help with sleeplessness, anxiety or symptoms of depression. Others may decide to purchase benzos illegally to get high or enhance the high from using opioids.

Using opioids and benzos together decreases heart rate and breathing, increasing the risk of overdose, coma and death.

Recognizing Addiction

Early detection of addiction can be the key to a successful recovery. College students are often under a lot of pressure to do well in school, fit in with peers and deal with living away from home. Some turn to using drugs like opioids and benzos to ease the stress. Here are some signs to help recognize a growing problem with opioid and benzo abuse:

  • Academic performance is slipping
  • Weight changes
  • Isolation
  • Withdrawing from friends, activities
  • Pill bottles with no label
  • Sudden troubles with the law
  • Traffic accidents
  • Sudden violent disturbances
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Missing classes
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Depression

If you or your loved one exhibit these signs of addiction, reach out for help. If you’re worried about your child who is a college student, make time for regularly scheduled talks and visits so you can stay involved and address any unsettling issues. Feeling the social stigma of being pegged an “addict” may keep many students from seeking help on their own, yet finding and sticking with the right treatment plan as soon as possible is essential to recovery.

The Role Tolerance Plays in Addiction

The Role Tolerance Plays in Addiction

Addiction is an insidious disease that can creep in slowly or develop rapidly, depending on tolerance. People may not even be aware that they are developing an addiction, as the signs are progressive and the changes can be subtle.

By understanding the role that tolerance plays in the development of addiction, people who use or abuse alcohol or drugs can understand how addiction sets in.

What Is Tolerance?

Tolerance occurs when a person has a diminished response to alcohol or drugs as a result of repeated use. Its mere presence means more of a substance is needed to achieve the desired results.

A person who has developed tolerance to a substance is not necessarily addicted to the substance in question. Their body has simply adapted to the presence of alcohol or drugs and has adjusted to the dose they have been accustomed to taking.

For example, a person who is taking an opioid pain medication may notice after a certain period of time that their regular dose no longer effectively diminishes their pain, or its effects wear off far sooner than before. In such instances, this person is likely to have developed a tolerance to that dose.

How Does Tolerance Develop into an Addiction?

When a person develops a tolerance to alcohol or drugs, they can be vulnerable to addiction if they increase the amount they take or if they take it more frequently. This is especially if they aren’t under a doctor’s supervision.

By increasing their dose of opioid pain medication, they may experience the relief they did with the drug’s first use, but in time, they will again develop a tolerance. Each level of this and each increase in the amount of the substance used can and often does pave the way to addiction.

Tolerance vs. Dependence

The Role Tolerance Plays In Addiction

Tolerance is one stage of the body’s development of a physical dependence on a substance. Dependence will result in withdrawal symptoms if a person stops using a substance or decreases the amount or frequency of use.

Some people who are dependent on pain medications, for example, will experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches or nausea if they don’t take that medication for a period of time or abruptly stop taking it.

Once someone develops a tolerance that progresses into a dependence on a substance, they are moving ever close to the development of addiction. Note that this and dependence are not the same things as addiction. Addiction involves mental and behavioral aspects as well as a physical dependence, and it’s characterized by compulsive substance use despite negative consequences.

If you suspect you have developed a tolerance and dependency on prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol, it’s important to seek immediate professional help. A high-quality addiction treatment facility can assess your situation, and once you are evaluated by an addiction specialist, a personalized treatment plan can be designed that can put you on the road to recovery.