How Easy Is It to Develop a Drug Addiction?

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The potential for developing a drug addiction depends on a variety of factors. However, research does suggest that drug and alcohol use disorders are not uncommon. One survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that 4% of adults have experienced a drug use disorder during the past year and around 10% have a drug use disorder at some point during their lives.

Statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that 51.6% of U.S. adults over the age of 26 have used illicit drugs at some point in their lives. Based on such statistics, you might estimate that around one in five people who try drugs develop an addiction at some point. It is important to note that this is only an estimate—your own individual level of risk is moderated by a number of factors.

There are a lot of factors that may make you more susceptible to one drug over another. Everyone is different and there are many factors that play a role in whether or not someone develops a drug addiction. The high prevalence of drug and alcohol use disorders suggests that the risk of forming an addiction may be high, so no one should assume that they won't be affected.

Varying factors can include the biological make-up of your body, how sensitive you may be to a certain drug, and the chemical make-up of the drug itself.

Some people might be able to use a drug many times without experiencing any ill effects, while another person might take the same drug and have a bad reaction or even overdose the first time they use it. Likewise, you can become addicted to a drug the first time you try it, while another person might never form an addiction at all.

Some Drugs Are More Addictive Than Others

Just as there are vast differences between the people doing drugs, there are also big differences between the types of drugs out there. For example, you may use powdered cocaine and never become addicted to it, but if you were to sample crack cocaine or heroin, you might get addicted the first time you try it.

Tolerance Is a Key Symptom of Addiction

Sometimes an addiction can sneak up on you slowly and insidiously. As you continue to use a drug, you can slowly build up a tolerance to it, which means that you no longer get the same feeling or "high" that you once got by taking a small amount.

Once your tolerance begins to build, you might increase the dose or frequency of taking the drug. You are trying to get that same "high" that you felt in the beginning when your body was not used to the drug. As you continue to build tolerance, you end up taking more of the drug. Your body becomes chemically dependent on the drug. Which means, you discover that you need to take the drug just to feel normal or leveled out.

Changing the Brain's Reward System

Drug addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to harmful behaviors.

Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control.

Research tells us that repeated use of a drug actually begins to make chemical changes in the brain that alters the brain's reward system. When someone continues to use a substance even when it no longer provides pleasure, it's called the pathological pursuit of rewards, or addiction.

Usually, it takes some time for a drug to begin to change the brain's reward system to the point that a person forms an addiction, but some drugs can do so very quickly.

A Word From Verywell

Drugs can potentially have life-threatening consequences, and individuals can have very different reactions to the same drug. If you are particularly sensitive to the effects of a certain drug, trying it even once could potentially be dangerous.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. 10 percent of US adults have drug use disorder at some point in their lives. Published November 18, 2015.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. National survey on drug use and health. 2018.

  3. Potenza MN. Biological contributions to addictions in adolescents and adults: prevention, treatment, and policy implications. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(2 Suppl 2):S22-32. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.05.007

  4. Hser YI, Huang D, Brecht ML, Li L, Evans E. Contrasting trajectories of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine use. J Addict Dis. 2008;27(3):13-21. doi:10.1080/10550880802122554

  5. Pietrzykowski AZ, Treistman SN. The molecular basis of tolerance. Alcohol Res Health. 2008;31(4):298-309.

  6. Herman MA, Roberto M. The addicted brain: understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms of addictive disorders. Front Integr Neurosci. 2015;9:18. doi:10.3389/fnint.2015.00018

  7. Olsen CM. Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions. Neuropharmacology. 2011;61(7):1109-22. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.03.010

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.