A number of recreational drugs and other substances, when overused or abused, can cause issues with addiction – a condition where an individual is unable to control use of the substance. The US is currently dealing with epidemic levels of substance abuse and addiction, a persistent and growing public health problem.
Many people believe that addiction is a result of the drugs themselves. However, the American Society of Addiction Medicine makes it clear that addiction results from the interaction of these substances with chemical pathways in the brain, resulting in physical and behavioral changes that are recognizable as addiction. Because of this distinction, addiction is considered to be a brain disease and categorized as a psychiatric disorder.
The Most Addictive Substances
- Prescription Opiates
Each of these substances interacts with the body in specific ways that can cause recognizable symptoms. Specifically, each of these drugs interacts with the brain’s dopamine system, described by Psychology Today as a chemical pathway that increases feelings of pleasure to a point of euphoria. This feeling is a major contributor to the attraction of drug use, and it is also potentially a major source of the brain’s potential to develop addiction.
Below, these drugs are described in depth, noting the symptoms that may occur if someone is abusing the drug.
List of Addictive Substances
Heroin is an illegal opioid drug, made from morphine, a product made from the seeds of the opium poppy. It is a well-known street drug that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), can be snorted, injected, or smoked for a euphoric, then sedative effect.
Heroin affects the brain by slowing the body’s neurological responses, easing pain and creating a sense of wellbeing. However, it also suppresses a number of body functions, including heart rate, breathing, and cognitive response. Symptoms that may result from heroin addiction include:
- Inability to focus or confusion
- Slowed breathing and heart rate
- Bruising, needle marks, and collapsed veins (if injected)
- Constipation and stomach pain
- Infections, including pneumonia and HIV
- Liver or kidney problems
An overdose of heroin can result in respiratory failure and death. Anxiety and insomnia can occur if the person stops using for a time.
2. Prescription Opiates
Also extracted from or synthesized to resemble morphine, these drugs act on the body similarly to heroin. Unlike heroin, they are legal for medical use. WebMD describes some of the uses: providing help in controlling pain or sedating patients as a support to anesthesia for surgery. Some are also used to prevent coughing and can provide help with other medical conditions.
However, these prescriptions are often misused or abused for their euphoric properties, and they can result in similar physical and mental responses and addiction. Pills are taken orally, or they may be crushed and dissolved for injection.
Prescription opiates that are abused include, but are not limited to:
Symptoms of a prescription opiate problem are similar to those of heroin addiction. In addition, some signs that might be noted include multiple prescriptions from different doctors, running out of pills before expected, or missing or stolen pills from another person’s prescription.
Benzodiazepines were developed for medical use to control certain mental conditions, such as anxiety or panic attacks, and physical conditions, like insomnia. They can even be used to help control seizures. As explained by the Center for Substance Abuse Research, these are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs around the world.
However, these nervous system depressants can also provide a euphoric effect, similar to that experienced with heroin or other opiate use, and they react in the brain in ways that can quickly result in addiction. As a result, they are also some of the most highly abused drugs, and they are considered to be a major element of the drug abuse epidemic.
Benzos include drugs such as:
- Rohypnol (known widely as the “date rape” drug)
Symptoms resulting from benzo addiction may include:
- Loss of coordination or muscle weakness
- Slurred speech
- Cognitive impairment
- Drowsiness or fatigue
- Depression or moodiness
Similar to the issues found with other prescription drug abuse, people who are addicted to benzos may obtain multiple prescriptions from different doctors or pharmacies, or pills may be used up too quickly or stolen.
As described by the National Institutes of Health’s MedLine encyclopedia, methamphetamine is a highly potent stimulant drug ingested as a pill, snorted or injected in powder form, or smoked in its crystal form. Use results in an intense, quick high that has a powerful effect on the brain, resulting in quick addiction. It creates a feeling of energy, control, and intense focus, and it produces euphoria during the initial high.
Visual images of people who are addicted to methamphetamine (meth or crystal meth) have saturated the media in many places. This is because addiction to meth has some specific physical effects that are easy to spot, including:
- Meth mouth: loose, rotting teeth or tooth loss, and dry mouth
- Open, irritated sores on the body that will not heal
- Potentially dangerous weight loss
- Excessive muscle twitching and nervousness
Other symptoms of addiction to meth include:
- Itchiness and constant picking at the skin
- High body temperature and increased heart rate and breathing
- Agitation or mood swings
- Aggression or violent behavior
- Depression and fatigue between uses
Cocaine is another type of stimulant that NIDA describes as having once been used medically. In some rare cases, it still is; however, cocaine has also become a highly popular street drug. Along with the usual feeling of euphoria that comes from using most addictive substances, cocaine can also make a person feel particularly alert and energetic.
People who are addicted to cocaine may experience symptoms of:
- Dilated pupils and hypersensitivity to light and sound
- Increased heartbeat and respiration
- Nausea and stomach upset
- Problems with nosebleeds and loss of sense of smell, if snorted
- Damage to the stomach or intestines from decreased blood flow
- Agitation or paranoia
The addictive substance in marijuana is called THC, a compound that, according to Live Science, affects thinking, coordination, memory, and pleasure responses in the brain, and can alter perceptions of time and physical senses. Marijuana can cause hallucinations and delusions, as well as create euphoria. Symptoms of marijuana addiction and use may include:
- Abnormal heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Problems with memory recall
- Motor impairment and delayed reactions
- Lowered IQ and problems with cognitive function, especially in young people
- Breathing problems related to smoking the drug
There is some evidence that prolonged use of marijuana can result in psychosis in some individuals.
Alcoholism is the condition of addiction to ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, a substance that is achieved through fermenting beverages from the sugars and starches in grains, fruits, and other plant materials. Alcohol is a sedative that can cause euphoria, a sense of deep relaxation, and slowed motor response.
According to Healthline, symptoms experienced by those who are struggling with alcoholism may include:
- Depressed motor function
- Inability to concentrate
- Heart or liver disease
- Sexual problems
- Depression or anxiety
- Slowed or suppressed breathing
Cigarette smoking is a well-known addictive behavior. The substance that makes smoking tobacco addictive is nicotine, a drug that acts as both a stimulant and a sedative, according to Psychology Today. Along with the familiar euphoria, nicotine can cause increased energy, while at the same time producing a sense of wellbeing. However, these feelings are very short-lived, which is what drives many people who are addicted to nicotine to smoke repeatedly throughout the day.
Symptoms that may indicate nicotine addiction include:
- Agitation or anxiety
- Depression or fatigue
- Chronic cough
- Stomach upset
- Heart and lung problems
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable health issues and death in the US. However, addiction to nicotine makes it extremely challenging for the people who smoke to quit.
General Addiction Symptoms
The definitive guide on diagnosing substance use disorders and addiction is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM-5). No matter the substance, there are certain signs and symptoms that can indicate a person is dealing with addiction.
According to an article from the Verywell health information website, mild substance abuse is diagnosed if two or three of the following symptoms occur regarding the use. Four or five symptoms indicate a moderate disorder, and six or more can mean that the disorder is severe.
- Using more of the substance than intended, or using it for longer than intended
- Being unable to stop using the substance
- Focusing large amounts of time or effort on getting or using the substance, or recovering from its use
- Experiencing cravings to use the substance
- Being unable to keep up with daily responsibilities at work, school, or home because of use
- Having relationship problems with friends, family, or a partner because of substance use
- Stopping participation in activities that used to be enjoyed before substance use
- Using the substance in risky situations
- Continuing to use the substance even in the face of consequences
- Developing tolerance (a need to use higher or more frequent doses to get the same effect)
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal if substance use is stopped