What is addiction? Get the facts on substance abuse.

It’s possible to develop a physical or psychological dependency on (or addiction to) drugs and alcohol. When a person continues to use drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences, it’s referred to as drug or substance abuse.

Some people are at a higher risk of developing drug or substance abuse problems. They may:

  • •    have a family history of substance abuse
  • •    have another mental health disorder such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • •    be taking highly addictive drugs such as heroin
  • •    experience isolation and loneliness

Addiction to drugs and alcohol develops over time. Addiction may be caused by:

  • •    Tolerance: over time and with regular use, a drug becomes less effective. Tolerance may cause a person to use more of the substance in order to feel the same effects. Tolerance can also increase the physical health risks of any drug.
  • •    Physical dependence: a person’s body can become so used to a particular drug that it can only function “normally” if the substance is present.
  • •    Psychological dependence: when a drug is so central to a person’s thoughts, emotions and activities, it’s difficult to stop using it or thinking about it. A strong desire or craving to use a drug may be triggered by internal or external factors.

Dealing with addiction can be difficult, and completely stopping drug use is not easy. Withdrawal refers to the physical and emotional symptoms that a person experiences when they drastically reduce their drug use or completely stop using drugs (going “cold turkey”). Signs and symptoms of withdrawal can include anything from mild discomfort to seizures. Some of the effects of withdrawal can be fatal.

What are the consequences of drug and alcohol use?

A person may experience physical, emotional and/or social consequences after drug and alcohol use:

Physical consequences

  • •    a drug overdose can cause serious and sudden physical or mental damage, or death
  • •    alcohol can cause liver damage
  • •    people who inject drugs with used needles can get infections such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS
  • •    substance use during pregnancy can harm the baby
  • •    people who use illegally obtained drugs can’t know for sure what they’re taking — some drugs mixed with other drugs/chemicals can be harmful

Emotional consequences

  • •    drugs can prevent the development of healthy coping strategies
  • •    some drugs can cause short-term confusion, anxiety or mental disturbances
  • •    substance abuse can result in personality disturbances, learning problems and memory loss

Social consequences

  • •    drugs can affect co-ordination, the senses, memory and judgment which can lead to serious safety risks
  • •    drugs can be associated with violence and crime 
  • •    drug-related convictions may result in a fine, prison sentence and criminal record. Having a criminal record may affect future convictions, jobs and travel.

Remember, you can call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 if you need to talk.

I have a drug and alcohol problem

If you’re concerned about your drug and alcohol habits, there is help available.

Admitting you need help is the first step. You can get information and help for substance abuse from:

  • •    Kids Help Phone’s counsellors
  • •    Resources Around Me
  • •    drug hotlines and addiction referral services
  • •    drug abuse clinics and drug treatment programs
  • •    12-step self-help programs and support groups
  • •    family doctors and other health professionals
  • •    crisis centres
  • •    school counsellors

If you would like to know more about this topic, feel free to speak or chat with a counsellor.