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Addiction is a physical or mental dependence on a behavior or substance that a person feels powerless to stop.


Addiction is one of the most costly public health problems in the United States. It is a progressive syndrome, which means that it increases in severity over time unless it is treated. The term has been partially replaced by the word "dependence" for substance abuse. Addiction has been extended, however, to include mood-altering behaviors or activities. Some researchers speak of two types of addictions: substance addictions (for example, alcoholism , drug abuse, and smoking ); and process addictions (for example, gambling, spending, shopping, eating, and sexual activity). There was as of 2004 a growing recognition that many addicts are addicted to more than one substance or process. Substance abuse is characterized by frequent relapse or return to the abused substance. Substance abusers often make repeated attempts to quit before they are successful.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is conducted annually by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among the findings of the 2003 study are the following:

  • In 2003, an estimated 19.5 million Americans, or 8.2 percent of the population aged 12 or older, were current illicit drug users. Current illicit drug use means use of an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey interview. The numbers did not change from 2002.
  • The rate of illicit drug use among youths aged 1217 did not change significantly between 2002 (11.6%) and 2003 (11.2%), and there were no changes for any specific drug. The rate of current marijuana use among youths was 8.2 percent in 2002 and 7.9 percent in 2003. There was a significant decline in lifetime marijuana use among youths, from 20.6 percent in 2002 to 19.6 percent in 2003. There also were decreases in rates of past year use of LSD (1.3 to 0.6%), ecstasy (2.2 to 1.3%), and methamphetamine (0.9 to 0.7%).
  • About 10.9 million persons aged 1220 reported drinking alcohol in the month prior to the survey interview in 2003 (29.0 percent of this age group). Nearly 7.2 million (19.2%) were binge drinkers and 2.3 million (6.1%) were heavy drinkers. The 2003 rates were essentially the same as those from the 2002 survey.
  • An estimated 70.8 million Americans reported current (past month) use of a tobacco product in 2003. This is 29.8 percent of the population aged 12 or older, similar to the rate in 2002 (30.4%). Young adults aged 1825 reported the highest rate of past month cigarette use (40.2%), similar to the rate among young adults in 2002. An estimated 35.7 million Americans aged 12 or older in 2003 were classified as nicotine dependent in the past month because of their cigarette use (15% of the total population), about the same as for 2002.


In 2003, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was 8.9 percent for youths aged 1217 and 21 percent for persons aged 1825. Among persons with substance dependence or abuse, illicit drugs accounted for 58.1 percent of youths and 37.2 percent of persons aged 1825. In 2003, males were almost twice as likely to be classified with substance dependence or abuse as females (12.2% versus 6.2%). Among youths aged 1217, however, the rate of substance dependence or abuse among females (9.1%) was similar to the rate among males (8.7%). The rate of substance dependence or abuse was highest among Native Americans and Alaska Natives (17.2%). The next highest rates were among Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (12.9%) and persons reporting mixed ethnicity (11.3%). Asian Americans had the lowest rate (6.3%). The rates among Hispanics (9.8%) and whites (9.2%) were higher than the rate among blacks (8.1%).

Rates of drug use showed substantial variation by age. For example, in 2003, some 3.8 percent of youths aged 12 to 13 reported current illicit drug use compared with 10.9 percent of youths aged 14 to 15 and 19.2 percent of youths aged 16 or 17. As in other years, illicit drug use in 2003 tended to increase with age among young persons, peaking among 18 to 20-year-olds (23.3%) and declining steadily after that point with increasing age. The prevalence of current alcohol use among adolescents in 2003 increased with increasing age, from 2.9 percent at age 12 to a peak of about 70 percent for persons 21 to 22 years old. The highest prevalence of both binge and heavy drinking was for young adults aged 18 to 25, with the peak rate of both measures occurring at age 21. The rate of binge drinking was 41.6 percent for young adults aged 18 to 25 and 47.8 percent at age 21. Heavy alcohol use was reported by 15.1 percent of persons aged 18 to 25 and 18.7 percent of persons aged 21. Among youths aged 12 to 17, an estimated 17.7 percent used alcohol in the month prior to the survey interview. Of all youths, 10.6 percent were binge drinkers, and 2.6 percent were heavy drinkers, similar to the 2002 numbers.

Rates of current illicit drug use varied significantly among the major racial-ethnic groups in 2003. The rate of illicit drug use was highest among Native Americans and Alaska Natives (12.1%), persons reporting two or more races (12%), and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (11.1%). Rates were 8.7 percent for African Americans, 8.3 percent for Caucasians, and 8 percent for Hispanics. Asian Americans had the lowest rate of current illicit drug use at 3.8 percent. The rates were unchanged from 2002. Native Americans and Alaska Natives were more likely than any other racial-ethnic group to report the use of tobacco products in 2003. Among persons aged 12 or older, 41.8 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives reported using at least one tobacco product in the past month. The lowest current tobacco use rate among racial-ethnic groups in 2003 was observed for Asian Americans (13.8%), a decrease from the 2002 rate (18.6%).

Young adults aged 18 to 25 had the highest rate of current use of cigarettes (40.2%), similar to the rate in 2002. Past month cigarette use rates among youths in 2002 and 2003 were 13 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively, not a statistically significant change. However, there were significant declines in past year (from 20.3% to 19%) and lifetime (from 33.3% to 31%) cigarette use among youths aged 12 to 17 between 2002 and 2003. Among persons aged 12 or older, a higher proportion of males than females smoked cigarettes in the past month in 2003 (28.1% versus 23%). Among youths aged 12 to 17, however, girls (12.5%) were as likely as boys (11.9%) to smoke in the past month. There was no change in cigarette use among boys aged 12 to 17 between 2002 and 2003. However, among girls, cigarette use decreased from 13.6 percent in 2002 to 12.5 percent in 2003.

Causes and symptoms

Addiction to substances results from the interaction of several factors.

Drug chemistry

Some substances are more addictive than others, either because they produce a rapid and intense change in mood or because they produce painful withdrawal symptoms when stopped suddenly.


Some people appear to be more vulnerable to addiction because their body chemistry increases their sensitivity to drugs. Some forms of substance abuse and dependence seem to run in families; a correlation that may be the result of a genetic predisposition, environmental influences, or a combination of the two.

Brain structure and function

Using drugs repeatedly over time changes brain structure and function in fundamental and long-lasting ways. Addiction comes about through an array of changes in the brain and the strengthening of new memory connections. Evidence suggests that those long-lasting brain changes are responsible for the distortions of cognitive and emotional functioning that characterize addicts, particularly the compulsion to use drugs. Although the causes of addiction remain the subject of ongoing debate and research, many experts as of 2004 considered addiction to be a brain disease, a condition caused by persistent changes in brain structure and function. However, having this brain disease does not absolve the addict of responsibility for his or her behavior, but it does explain why many addicts cannot stop using drugs by sheer force of will alone.

Social learning

Social learning is considered the most important single factor in causing addiction. It includes patterns of use in the addict's family or subculture, peer pressure , and advertising or media influence.


Inexpensive or readily available tobacco, alcohol, or drugs produce marked increases in rates of addiction. Increases in state taxes on alcohol and tobacco products have not resulted in decreased use.


Before the 1980s, the so-called addictive personality was used to explain the development of addiction. The addictive personality was described as escapist, impulsive, dependent, devious, manipulative, and self-centered. Many doctors in the early 2000s believe that these character traits develop in addicts as a result of the addiction, rather than the traits being a cause of the addiction.

When to call the doctor

The earlier one seeks help for their teen's behavioral or drug problems, the better. How is a parent to know if their teen is experimenting with or moving more deeply into the drug culture? Above all, a parent must be a careful observer, particularly of the little details that make up a teen's life. Overall signs of dramatic change in appearance, friends, or physical health may signal trouble. If parents believe their child may be drinking or using drugs, they should seek help through a substance abuse recovery program, family physician, or mental health professional.


In addition to noting a preoccupation with using and acquiring the abused substance, the diagnosis of addiction focuses on five criteria:

  • loss of willpower
  • harmful consequences
  • unmanageable lifestyle
  • increased tolerance or escalation of use
  • withdrawal symptoms on quitting


According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are three goals for the treatment of persons with substance use disorders: (1) the patient abstains from or reduces the use and effects of the substance; (2) the patient reduces the frequency and severity of relapses; and (3) the patient develops the psychological and emotional skills necessary to restore and maintain personal, occupational, and social functioning.

In general, before treatment can begin, many treatment centers require that the patient undergo detoxification. Detoxification is the process of weaning the patient from his or her regular substance use. Detoxification can be accomplished "cold turkey," by complete and immediate cessation of all substance use, or by slowly decreasing (tapering) the dose that a person is taking, to minimize the side effects of withdrawal. Some substances must be tapered because cold-turkey methods of detoxification are potentially life threatening. In some cases, medications may be used to combat the unpleasant and threatening physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. For example, methadone is used to help patients adjust to the tapering of heroin use.

The most frequently recommended social form of outpatient treatment is the 12-step program. Such programs are also frequently combined with psychotherapy. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anyone, regardless of his or her religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, can benefit from participation in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). The number of visits to 12-step self-help groups exceeds the number of visits to all mental health professionals combined. There are 12-step groups for all major substance and process addictions.

Alternative treatment

Acupuncture and homeopathy have been used to treat withdrawal symptoms. Meditation, yoga , and reiki healing have been recommended for process addictions; however, the success of these programs has not been well documented through controlled studies.


The prognosis for recovery from any addiction depends on the substance or process, the individual's circumstances, and underlying personality structure. People who have multiple substance dependencies have the worst prognosis for recovery. It is not uncommon for someone in a treatment program to have a relapse, but the success rate increases with subsequent treatment programs.

Recovery from substance use is notoriously difficult, even with exceptional treatment resources. Although relapse rates are difficult to accurately obtain, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism cites evidence that 90 percent of alcohol dependent users experience at least one relapse within four years after treatment. Relapse rates for heroin and nicotine users are believed to be similar. Certain pharmacological treatments, however, have been shown to reduce relapse rates. Relapses are most likely to occur within the first 12 months of having discontinued substance use. Triggers for relapses can include any number of life stresses (problems in school or on the job, loss of a relationship, death of a loved one, financial stresses), in addition to seemingly mundane exposure to a place or an acquaintance associated with previous substance use.


The most effective form of prevention appears to be a stable family that models responsible attitudes toward mood-altering substances and behaviors. Prevention education programs are also widely used to inform young people of the harmfulness of substance abuse.

Parental concerns

Parents and guardians need to be aware of the power they have to influence the development of their kids throughout the teenage years. Adolescence brings a new and dramatic stage to family life. The changes that are required are not just the teen's to make; parents need to change their relationship with their teenager. It is best if parents are proactive about the challenges of this life stage, particularly those that pertain to the possibility of experimenting with and using alcohol and other drugs. Parents should not be afraid to talk directly to their kids about drug use, even if they have had problems with drugs or alcohol themselves. Parents should give clear, no-use messages about smoking, drugs, and alcohol. It is important for kids and teens to understand that the rules and expectations set by parents are based on parental love and concern for their well being. Parents should also be actively involved and demonstrate interest in their teen's friends and social activities. Spending quality time with teens and setting good examples are essential. Even if problems such as substance abuse already exist in the teen's life, parents and families can still have a positive influence on their teen's behavior.


Binge drinking Consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks in a row on a single occasion.

Detoxification The process of physically eliminating drugs and/or alcohol from the system of a substance-dependent individual.

Reiki A form of energy therapy that originated in Japan. Reiki practitioners hold their hands on or slightly above specific points on the patient's body in order to convey universal life energy to that area for healing.



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Raczek, Linda Theresa. Teen Addiction. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2003.

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Bill Asanjo, MS, CRC Ken R. Wells

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Most definitions refer to addiction as the compulsive need to use a habit-forming substance, or an irresistible urge to engage in a behavior. Two other important defining features of addiction are tolerance, the increasing need for more of the substance to obtain the same effect, and withdrawal, the unpleasant symptoms that arise when an addict is prevented from using the chosen substance.


The term addiction has come to refer to a wide and complex range of behaviors. While addiction most commonly refers to compulsive use of substances, including alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs, cigarettes, and food, it is also used to describe excessive indulgence in activities such as work, exercise, shopping, sex, the Internet, and gambling.

Causes and symptoms


Some experts describe the range of behaviors designated as addictive in terms of five interrelated concepts: patterns, habits, compulsions, impulse control disorders, and physical addiction. There is ongoing controversy as to whether addictions constitute true physical disease in the same sense that diabetes and hypertension are considered physical diseases. Indeed, the most prevalent model of substance dependence today is the so-called disease model. This model, first introduced in the late 1940s by E. M. Jellinek, was adopted in 1956 by the American Medical Association. Since that time, the disease model of alcoholism and drug addiction has been well accepted throughout the world.

Other experts disagree with the analogy between substance abuse and physical disease. They believe that addictive behaviors can be better understood as problematic habits or behavior patterns that have been learned in accordance with the principles that guide all learning. To these experts, addictive behaviors are maladaptive habits and behavior patterns that can be "unlearned" and replaced with new, alternative, more healthful behaviors. According to learning theorists, one's past and present experiences, environment, family history, peer group influences, and individual beliefs and expectations, determine who will or will not become addicted to a substance or behavior.

Psychodynamic theorists believe that addicts suffer from an inability to soothe themselves or comfortably manage the emotions of day-to-day life. Feelings such as anxiety, depression, shame, discomfort in social situations, and anger are often believed to be causes of substance abuse. In this sense, many experts believe that addicts self-medicate, that is, use destructive substances to ease their painful emotions.

Disease model adherents believe that the compulsion to use is genetically and physiologically based and that, while the disease can be arrested, the disease is progressive and, if unchecked, fatal. Researchers have found the sons of alcoholics to be twice as prone to alcoholism as other people. Among pairs of identical twins, if one is alcoholic, there is a 60% chance that the other will be also. In spite of an apparent inherited tendency toward alcoholism, the fact that the majority of people with alcoholic parents do not become alcoholics themselves demonstrates the influence of psychosocial factors, including personality factors and a variety of environmental stressors, such as occupational or marital problems.


Both disease model and learning model adherents agree that initial positive consequences of substance abuse or addictive activities are what initially "hook," and then later keep, the addict addicted. Addicts describe feelings of euphoria when using their substance or engaging in their activity of choice. Many experts believe that these substances and activities affect neurotransmitters in the brain . Use causes an increase in endorphin levels, which is believed to be one of the chief causes of the "high" sensation experienced by addicts.

As the addict continues to use, his or her body adjusts to the substance and tolerance develops. Increasing amounts of the substance are needed to produce the same effect. Levels of substances that addicts routinely ingest would be lethal to a non-addict.

Over time, physical symptoms of dependence strengthen. Failure to use leads to withdrawal symptoms, which include flu-like aches and pains, digestive upset, and, in severe cases, seizures , and hallucinatory-like sensations, such as the feeling of bugs crawling on the skin. Damage to various organs of the body, including the brain and liver, can lead to serious and even fatal illness as well as mental symptoms such as dementia . Severe disruption of social and family relationships, and of the ability to maintain a steady job, are also symptoms of the addictive process.


According to a 1999 national survey, about 14.8 million Americans used an illicit drug at least once in the month prior to the survey, and the chances of receiving a diagnosis of substance abuse or dependence at some point in one's life is 16.7% for people over age 18. The lifetime chances of developing alcohol abuse or dependence is 13.8%; for nonalcohol substances, 6.2%. As of 1995, 6.1% of the population age 12 and older currently used illicit drugs. The most commonly used substances are alcohol and cigarettes, as well as marijuana, hashish, and cocaine. Unfortunately, substance abuse has been on the rise among children and adolescents since 1993.

According to findings of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, overall use of drugs in the United States has decreased by 50% during the past 20 years. However, drug use among adolescents has increased during the past 10 years.

Addiction is more common among men than women, and the use of drugs other than alcohol is skewed even further in that direction. Substance abuse is higher among the unemployed and the less educated. Most current illicit drug users are white. It is estimated that 9.6 million whites (75% of all users), 1.9 million African Americans (15% of users), and 1.0 million Hispanics (8% of users) were using illicit drugs in 1995.


Substance abuse and dependence are among the psychological disorders categorized as major clinical syndromes (known as "Axis 1") in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR ). Alcohol, classified as a depressant, is the most frequently abused psychoactive substance. Alcohol abuse and dependence affect more than 20 million Americansabout 13% of the adult population. An alcoholic has been defined as a person whose drinking impairs his or her life adjustment, affecting health, personal relationships, and/or work.

When blood alcohol level reaches 0.1%, a person is considered intoxicated. Judgment and other rational processes are impaired, as are motor coordination, speech, and vision. Alcohol abuse, according to the DSM-IV-TR, progresses through a series of stages from social drinking to chronic alcoholism. Danger signs that indicate the probable onset of a drinking problem include frequent desire to drink, increasing alcohol consumption, memory lapses (blackouts), and morning drinking. Other symptoms include attempts to hide alcohol from family and colleagues, and attempts to drink in secret. Among the most acute reactions to alcohol are four conditions referred to as alcoholic psychoses: alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication (an acute reaction in persons with an abnormally low tolerance for alcohol); alcohol withdrawal delirium (delirium tremens); hallucinations ; and Korsakoff's psychosis , an irreversible brain disorder involving severe memory loss.

Other substance abuse disorders are diagnosed by looking for patterns of compulsive use, frequency of use, increasing tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when the substance is unavailable or the individual tries to stop using.



Addictions are notoriously difficult to treat. Physical addictions alter a person's brain chemistry in ways that make it difficult to be exposed to the addictive substance again without relapsing. Some medications, such as Antabuse (disulfiram ), have shown limited effectiveness in treating alcohol addiction. Substitute medications, such as methadone , a drug that blocks the euphoric effect of opiates, have also shown mixed results. When an addicted individual is using a substance to self-medicate for depression, anxiety, and other uncomfortable emotions, prescription medications can be an effective treatment.

Psychological and psychosocial

It is a commonly held belief by many professionals that people with addictive disorders cannot be treated effectively by conventional outpatient psychotherapy . Substance abusers are often presumed to have severe personality problems and to be very resistant to treatment, to lack the motivation to change, or to be just too much trouble in an outpatient office setting. Unfortunately, these beliefs may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of the negative behaviors and personality problems associated with chronic substance use disappear when use of the substance stops. While some substance abusers do, in fact, have other mental disorders, they represent only a minority of the addicted population.

Most treatment for addictive behaviors is provided not by practicing clinicians (psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers ), but rather by specialized addiction treatment programs and clinics. These programs rely upon confrontational tactics and re-education as their primary approaches, often employing former or recovering addicts to treat newly admitted addicts.

Some addicts are helped by the combination of individual, group, and family treatment. In family treatment (or family therapy ), "enabling behaviors" can be addressed and changed. Enabling behaviors are the actions of family members who assist the addict in maintaining active addiction, including providing money, food, and shelter. Residential settings may be effective in initially assisting the addicted individual to stay away from the many "cues," including people, places, and things, that formed the setting for their substance use.

During the past several decades, alternatives to the complete abstinence model (the generally accepted model in the United States) have arisen. Controlled use programs allow addicted individuals to reduce their use without committing to complete abstinence. This alternative is highly controversial. The generally accepted position is that only by complete abstinence can an addicted individual recover. The effectiveness of addiction treatment based on behavioral and other psychotherapeutic methods, however, is well documented. Among these are motivation-enhancing strategies, relapse-prevention strategies using cognitive-behavioral approaches, solution-oriented and other brief therapy technques, and harm-reduction approaches.

Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have also developed widespread popularity. The approach of one addict helping another to stay "clean," without professional intervention , has had tremendous acceptance in the United States and other countries.


Relapse and recidivism are, unfortunately, very common. Interestingly, a classic study shows that people addicted to different substances show very similar patterns of relapse. Whatever the addictive substances, data show that about two-thirds of all relapses occur within the first 90 days following treatment. Many consider recovery to be an ongoing, lifelong process. Because the use of addictive substances alters brain chemistry, cravings can persist for many years. For this reason, the predominating belief is that recovery is only possible by commitment to complete abstinence from all substance use.


Prevention approaches are most effectively targeted at young teenagers between the ages of 11 and 13. It is during these years that most young people are likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Hence, reducing experimentation during this critical period holds promise for reducing the number of adults with addictive disease. Effective prevention programs focus on addressing the concerns of young people with regard to the effects of drugs. Training older adolescents to help younger adolescents resist peer pressure has shown considerable effectiveness in preventing experimentation.

See also Alcohol and related disorders; Amphetamines and related disorders; Anti-anxiety drugs and abuse; Barbiturates; Caffeine-related disorders; Cannabis and related disorders; Denial; Disease concept of chemical dependency; Dual diagnosis; Internet addiction disorder; Nicotine and related disorders; Opioids and related disorders; Relapse and relapse prevention; Sedatives and related disorders; Self-help groups; Substance abuse and related disorders; Support groups; Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome



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Hurley, Jennifer A., ed. Addiction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.

Kaplan, Harold I., M.D., and Benjamin J. Sadock, M.D. Synopsis of Psychiatry:Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. 8th edition. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1998.

Marlatt, G. Alan, and Judith R. Gordon Eds. Relapse Prevention. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1985.

Wekesser, Carol, ed. Chemical Dependency: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc., 1997.


Washton, Arnold M. "Why Psychologists Should Know How to Treat Substance Use Disorders." NYS Psychologist January 2002: 9-13.


National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 5600 Fishers Ln., Rockville, MD 20857. <>.

Barbara S. Sternberg, Ph.D.

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Addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance. The term has been partially replaced by the word dependence for substance abuse. Addiction has been extended, however, to include mood-altering behaviors or activities. Some researchers speak of two types of addictions: substance addictions (for example, alcoholism, drug abuse, and smoking ); and process addictions (for example, gambling, spending, shopping, eating, and sexual activity). There is a growing recognition that many addicts, such as polydrug abusers, are addicted to more than one substance or process.


Addiction is one of the most costly public health problems in the United States. It is a progressive syndrome, which means that it increases in severity over time unless it is treated. Substance abuse is characterized by frequent relapse, or return to the abused substance. Substance abusers often make repeated attempts to quit before they are successful.

The economic cost of substance abuse in the United States exceeds $414 billion, with health care costs attributed to substance abuse estimated at more than $114 billion.

By eighth grade, 52% of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 41% have smoked tobacco, and 20% have smoked marijuana. Compared to females, males are almost four times as likely to be heavy drinkers, nearly one and a half more likely to smoke a pack or more of cigarettes daily, and twice as likely to smoke marijuana weekly. However, among adolescents these gender differences are not as pronounced and girls are almost as likely to abuse substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. Although frequent use of tobacco, cocaine and heavy drinking appears to remain stable in the 1990s, marijuana use has increased.

An estimated four million Americans over the age of 12 used prescription pain relievers, sedatives, and stimulants for "nonmedical" reasons during one month.

In the United States, 25% of the population regularly uses tobacco. Tobacco use reportedly kills 2.5 times as many people each year as alcohol and drug abuse combined. According to data from the World Health Organization, there were 1.1 billion smokers worldwide and 10,000 tobacco-related deaths per day. Furthermore, in the United States, 43% of children aged 2-11 years are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, which has been implicated in sudden infant death syndrome, low birth weight, asthma, middle ear disease, pneumonia, cough, and upper respiratory infection.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating, affect more than five million American women and men. Fifteen percent of young women have substantially disordered attitudes toward eating and eating behaviors. More than 1,000 women die each year from anorexia nervosa.

A Harvard study found that an estimated 15.4 million Americans suffered from a gambling addiction. More than one-half (7.9 million) were adolescents.

Causes and symptoms

Addiction to substances results from the interaction of several factors:

Drug chemistry

Some substances are more addictive than others, either because they produce a rapid and intense change in mood; or because they produce painful withdrawal symptoms when stopped suddenly.

Genetic factor

Some people appear to be more vulnerable to addiction because their body chemistry increases their sensitivity to drugs. Some forms of substance abuse and dependence seem to run in families; and this may be the result of a genetic predisposition, environmental influences, or a combination of both.


Addictive personality A concept that was formerly used to explain addiction as the result of pre-existing character defects in individuals.

Process addiction Addiction to certain mood-altering behaviors, such as eating disorders, gambling, sexual activity, overwork, and shopping.

Tolerance A condition in which an addict needs higher doses of a substance to achieve the same effect previously achieved with a lower dose.

Withdrawal The unpleasant, sometimes life-threatening physiological changes that occur, due to the discontinuation of use of some drugs after prolonged, regular use.

Brain structure and function

Using drugs repeatedly over time changes brain structure and function in fundamental and long-lasting ways. Addiction comes about through an array of changes in the brain and the strengthening of new memory connections. Evidence suggests that those long-lasting brain changes are responsible for the distortions of cognitive and emotional functioning that characterize addicts, particularly the compulsion to use drugs. Although the causes of addiction remain the subject of ongoing debate and research, many experts now consider addiction to be a brain disease: a condition caused by persistent changes in brain structure and function. However, having this brain disease does not absolve the addict of responsibility for his or her behavior, but it does explain why many addicts cannot stop using drugs by sheer force of will alone.

Scientists may have come closer to solving the brain's specific involvement in addiction in 2004. Psychiatrists say they have found the craving center of the brain that triggers relapse in addicts. The anterior cingulated cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain is the area responsible for long-term craving in addicts. Knowing the area of the brain from which long-term cravings come may help scientists pinpoint therapies.

Social learning

Social learning is considered the most important single factor in addiction. It includes patterns of use in the addict's family or subculture, peer pressure, and advertising or media influence.


Inexpensive or readily available tobacco, alcohol, or drugs produce marked increases in rates of addiction.

Individual development

Before the 1980s, the so-called addictive personality was used to explain the development of addiction. The addictive personality was described as escapist, impulsive, dependent, devious, manipulative, and self-centered. Many doctors now believe that these character traits develop in addicts as a result of the addiction, rather than the traits being a cause of the addiction.


In addition to a preoccupation with using and acquiring the abused substance, the diagnosis of addiction is based on five criteria:

  • loss of willpower
  • harmful consequences
  • unmanageable lifestyle
  • tolerance or escalation of use
  • withdrawal symptoms upon quitting


Treatment requires both medical and social approaches. Substance addicts may need hospital treatment to manage withdrawal symptoms. Individual or group psychotherapy is often helpful, but only after substance use has stopped. Anti-addiction medications, such as methadone and naltrexone, are also commonly used. A new treatment option has been developed that allows family physicians to treat heroine addiction from their offices rather than sending patients to methadone clinics. The drug is called buprenorphine (Suboxone).

Researchers continue to work to identify workable pharmacological treatments for various addictions. In 2004, clinical trials were testing a number of drugs currently in use for other diseases and conditions to see if they could be used to treat addiction. This would speed up their approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For example, cocaine withdrawal is eased by boosting dopamine levels in the brain, so scientists are studying drugs that boost dopamine, such as Ritalin, which is used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and amantadine, a drug used for flu and Parkinson's diease.

The most frequently recommended social form of outpatient treatment is the twelve-step program. Such programs are also frequently combined with psychotherapy. According to a recent study reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), anyone, regardless of his or her religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, can benefit from participation in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). The number of visits to 12-step self-help groups exceeds the number of visits to all mental health professionals combined. There are twelve-step groups for all major substance and process addictions.

The Twelve Steps are:

  • Admit powerlessness over the addiction.
  • Believe that a Power greater than oneself could restore sanity.
  • Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God, as you understand him.
  • Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of self.
  • Admit to God, yourself, and another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.
  • Become willing to have God remove all these defects from your character.
  • Humbly ask God to remove shortcomings.
  • Make a list of all persons harmed by your wrongs and become willing to make amends to them all.
  • Make direct amends to such people, whenever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continue to take personal inventory and promptly admit any future wrongdoings.
  • Seek to improve contact with a God of the individual's understanding through meditation and prayer.
  • Carry the message of spiritual awakening to others and practice these principles in all your affairs.


The prognosis for recovery from any addiction depends on the substance or process, the individual's circumstances, and underlying personality structure. Polydrug users have the worst prognosis for recovery.


The most effective form of prevention appears to be a stable family that models responsible attitudes toward mood-altering substances and behaviors. Prevention education programs are also widely used to inform the public of the harmfulness of substance abuse.



Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Substance Abuse: The Nation's #1 Problem. Princeton, N.J., 2001.


Kalivas, Peter. "Drug Addiction: To the Cortex and Beyond." The American Journal of Psychiatry 158, no. 3 (March 2001).

Kelly, Timothy. "Addiction: A Booming $800 Billion Industry." The World and I (July 1, 2000).

Leshner, Alan. "Addiction is a Brain Disease." Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 3 (April 1, 2001).

"A New Office-based Treatment for Prescription Drug and Heroin Addiction." Biotech Week (August 4, 2004): 219.

"Research Brief: Source of Addiction Identified." GP (July 19, 2004): 4.

"Scientists May Use Existing Drugs to Stop Addiction." Life Science Weekly (Sepember 21, 2004): 1184.


Al-Anon Family Groups. Box 182, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Box 459, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163.

American Anorexia Bulimina Association.

American Psychiatric Association.

Center for On-Line Addiction.

eGambling: Electronic Joural of Gambling Issues.

National Alliance on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. 12 West 21st St., New York, NY 10010. (212) 206-6770.

National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 6000 Executive Boulevard, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-7003.

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Addictions can be physical (of the body), psychological (of the mind), or both. In fact, almost any behavior can be termed an addiction if it becomes the primary focus of a person's life, and especially if it results in harmful effects to one's physical health and well-being. The term addiction is most commonly associated with a person's compulsive and habitual desire to consume a chemical substance, such as alcohol or other drugs. The addict's life is eventually dominated by the craving. It is estimated that up to 25 percent of the American population displays some form of addictive behavior.

Chemical addictions

Alcohol. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that reduces inhibitions and anxiety. As the body becomes accustomed to a particular quantity of alcohol, more and more alcohol is needed to alter the drinker's mental state in the desired way. Eventually, the liver (an organ that plays a key role in digestion, filtration of the blood, and the storage of nutrients) can become damaged by constant exposure to alcohol and its metabolites (by-products of alcohol's breakdown). A damaged liver loses its ability to detoxify the blood, which can result in permanent mental changes, organ failure, and death.

The opiates: opium, morphine, and heroin. Opiates (also called narcotics) are addictive drugs derived from opium, a drug made from poppy juice. They have a narcotic effect upon the body, meaning they dull the senses. In moderate doses, they relieve pain, promote a sense of well-being, and induce sleep; excessive doses, however, can cause coma or convulsions. Opiates include opium and its derivativesmorphine and heroin.

Opium, a drug derived from the poppy, has been known since ancient times for its pain-relieving qualities and its ability to induce sleep. From the 1600s through the 1800s, it was widely used in Western medicine to treat a variety of ailments and was highly effective in deadening the sensation of pain during surgery. In China, addictive opium smoking was rampant by the late 1700s, where opium dens flourished. Some artists and writers of the nineteenth century claimed that opium use intensified their creativity by reducing their inhibitions.

Opium is grown around the world, and in some countries smoking the drug continues to be common, though it is outlawed except for medicinal purposes in most Western nations. Preparations of opium, such as paregoric, are sometimes prescribed for diarrhea. Codeine, an opium derivative, is an ingredient in many pain-relieving medications and cough syrups.

Words to Know

Detoxify: To remove poisonous substances from the body, generally performed by the liver and kidneys.

Endorphins: A group of naturally occurring substances in the brain that act as analgesics, or pain relievers, and are released in response to emotional or physical stress; sometimes referred to as "internal morphine."

Narcotic: A drug, such as an opiate, that dulls the senses, relieves pain, and causes sleep.

Opiate: Any derivative of opium, for example, morphine or heroin.

Withdrawal: The act of giving up the use of a drug by an addict, usually accompanied by unpleasant symptoms.

Morphine is the active ingredient in opium. Discovered in 1805 by Friedrich Sertürner (17831841), a German pharmacist, it is the most effective naturally occurring compound used for the relief of pain in medicine and surgery. Its narcotic properties also produce a calming effect, protecting the body's system during traumatic shock. Once the hypodermic syringe (needle) was invented in 1853, the use of morphine injections for the relief of pain was adopted enthusiastically by the medical community. (Some doctors even taught their patients how inject themselves.) Morphine's popularity extended to America's Civil War battlefields, where the drug was used to treat wounded soldiers. Tragically, thousands of people worldwide became addicted to the drug.

In 1898, the Bayer corporation (the maker of aspirin) synthesized (produced by chemical means) heroin from morphine and marketed it as a remedy for morphine addiction. Heroin, however, proved to be even more addictive than morphine. Used in a powder form that is dissolved in water and injected into the user's vein, heroin provides an immediate sensation of warmth and relaxation. Physical or mental pain is relieved, and the user enters a deeply relaxed state for a few hours. The powder also can be inhaled for a milder effect. Heroin is extremely habit-forming: with only a few doses the user is "hooked."

Cocaine. Cocaine is a white, crystalline powder produced from the leaves of the coca plant, a South American shrub. It is extremely and powerfully addictivesome people need only a single exposure for addiction to occur. For centuries, South American Indians have chewed the coca leaves for their stimulating and exhilarating effect. Cocaine came into use as a local anesthetic in the late 1800s because of its numbing properties. As a pain reliever and stimulant, it was a common ingredient in popular nonprescription medicines of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the end of the twentieth century, cocaine was used only occasionally in the medical field, sometimes as a local anesthetic for some kinds of surgery. Most cocaine now is purchased and used illegally. The white powder is often inhaled ("snorted"), sometimes injected, and as free base is smoked. A solid crystalline form known as crack, the most potent form of cocaine, is also smoked. Unlike the opiates, which cause drowsiness, cocaine gives its users energy.

Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola drinks. It has been part of the human diet for many centuries and is one of the most widely used central nervous system stimulants in the world. In recent years, researchers have raised questions about possible risks associated with high caffeine intake, but no definite conclusions have been reached about the harmfulness of moderate amounts. However, some experts consider drinking large amounts of coffee or cola beverages evidence of a true addiction to caffeine.

Nicotine. Nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco, is highly addictive, and cigarette smoking is among the most difficult habits for people to break. Many societies throughout the world have prized nicotine for its mood-altering properties: it is said to produce either relaxation or arousal, depending on the user's state. Addiction to nicotine results in more than 400,000 premature deaths each year from smoking-related illnesses such as emphysema and lung cancer.

Withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are caused by psychological, physiological, and chemical reactions in the body that are brought on as the amount of the addictive chemical in the blood begins to fall. Abrupt withdrawal from alcohol can result in uncontrollable bodily shaking,

hallucinations, and seizures. Withdrawal from cigarettes can cause irritability and intense craving for nicotine. A coffee drinker may experience headaches and mood changes without the beverage. The hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine produce intense, sometimes violent, withdrawal symptoms. Abdominal pain, nausea, chills, tremors, sweating, hallucinations, and panic increase until eased by more of the same drug or treatment with medication to relieve the symptoms.

Nonchemical addictions

Gambling. Compulsive gambling begins with placing small bets on horses or playing low-stakes card games or craps. As the gambler experiences the exhilaration of winning, he or she engages in bigger, more frequent, and more irrational betting. Gamblers place ever-larger bets to make up for their losses and have been known to lose their jobs, their homes, and their families as a result of their addiction.

Work. Among addictions, no other is so willingly embraced than that of a workaholic, or a person addicted to work. On the surface, it might be difficult to tell if a person is a workaholic or just a hard and loyal worker. However, if work overshadows all other responsibilities in a worker's life, then the results can be telling. Focusing on work, workaholics tend to neglect their families, leaving the responsibility of raising their children solely to their spouses. All other social obligations are often neglected, as well. Finally, workaholics tend to neglect themselves, experiencing deteriorating health as they push themselves to the limit at work without regard for sleep or food. Counseling to identify the reason a person throws himself or herself into work is key for overcoming this addiction.

Internet. The Internet connects people all over the globe, exposing them to new cultures and offering vast amounts of information. But when the computer world begins to rival the real world, it becomes an addiction. Internet addiction insulates people from intimate settings and relationships. Some people would rather commune with a computer than with their spouses and children. Many marriages, families, and even promising careers at work have been lost because an individual has become addicted to the Internet. Since this is such a relatively new disorder, few self-help groups exist. Strangely enough, there are some on-line support groups designed to wean people from the Internet.

Others. Other compulsions or addictions include exercise, especially running. Running long distances triggers the release of morphinelike substances in the brain called endorphins, producing a feeling of euphoria or happiness. This is the "high" that runners often describe. The high feels so good that the compulsive runner may engage in his hobby despite bad weather, injury, or social and family obligations. Excessive weight loss can also occur as a result of compulsive exercise.

The addict

The single characteristic common among all addictswhether their addiction is chemical or nonchemicalis low self-esteem. Some experts believe that certain people are born with the predisposition (tendency) to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, particularly if one or both of the biological parents was a substance abuser. Social and psychological factors also may lead an individual to addiction. A desire to fit in, an attempt to relieve anxiety, an inability to cope with the stresses of daily lifeall of these factors have been cited as possible springboards to addiction.

Treatment of addiction

Treatment of chemical addiction includes medical care of symptoms related to substance abuse and enrollment in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program. In addition, participation in a self-help group such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous can provide the emotional support an addict needs to stay away from drugs or alcohol. Psychological counseling and self-help groups can also be effective in treating nonchemical addictions.

It is often difficult to break the psychological and physical grip of addiction. Success depends upon the willingness of the addict to admit that a problem existsand possession of the strength and determination to overcome it. Many former addicts have enough resolve to avoid drugs and alcohol for the rest of their lives, but studies show an equal number will take up the habit again.

[See also Alcoholism; Cocaine; Eating disorders; Marijuana ]

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The term addiction, as applied to substance use, denotes an advanced level of dependence on a substance, marked by a compulsive need to obtain and consume it despite negative consequences. Dependency may consist of physical dependency, psychological dependency, or both. Physical dependency is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that occur if the substance is discontinued. This physical dependence thus produces a cycle in which the individual continues to use the substance to prevent the withdrawal symptoms. Psychological dependency, while no less powerful than physical dependency, refers to an individuals perceived need for the substance. When the individual is unable to acquire the drug, negative psychological experiences may occur, prompting the individual to continue substance use. Individuals who experience addiction may find themselves unable to function effectively without the substance or substances to which they are addicted. What distinguishes addiction from less extreme forms of dependence is a loss of control and a markedly intense preoccupation with the substance.

The term addiction is not part of the clinical framework presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR ) of the American Psychiatric Association. Yet, the diagnostic classifications in the 2000 edition of the DSM-IV-TR acknowledge the symptoms of physical and psychological dependence, including withdrawal and tolerance. Withdrawal, the prominent feature of addiction, is characterized by physical symptoms and often by inability to function without the substance. Tolerance occurs when over time individuals experience a decreased substance effect or must increase their dosage of the substance to experience the same effect.

Individuals may develop addiction to a variety of substances, including alcohol and drugs. Drugs of addiction include both illicit drugs like heroin and prescription or over-the-counter drugs like prescription oxycodone. Whether individuals can become addicted to behaviorssuch as gambling, eating, and sexual promiscuityis, however, controversial. Scholars who favor an expanded definition of addiction argue that certain behaviors may serve an emotion-regulating function and can thus lead to addiction.

The use of potentially addictive substances is quite prevalent. According to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 7.9 percent of the population aged twelve or older used illicit drugs in 2004 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] 2005). However, substance use and addiction are not equally prevalent in all social categories. According to the 2004 NSDUH, rates of illicit drug use among those twelve and older increase until ages eighteen to twenty, after which rates gradually decrease (SAMHSA 2005). Rates of current illicit drug use also vary by race/ethnicity, with rates highest among individuals reporting two or more racial/ethnic groups and those of American Indian or Alaskan Native descent (SAMHSA 2005). Rates are similar for whites, Hispanics, and blacks, but markedly lower among Asians (SAMHSA 2005). With regard to socioeconomic status, rates are higher for the unemployed than the employed (SAMHSA 2005).

In addition to variations by social category, distinct patterns are observed for different classes of drugs. Tobacco and alcohol use are even more prevalent than illicit drug use (SAMHSA 2005).


Differences in patterns of use may be due to both social and biological factors. Furthermore, factors involved in initial and in continued substance use may differ. For example, individuals may begin use as a means of social enhancement or in response to pressure from peers and may continue use to avoid negative emotions or withdrawal.

Animal models have improved understanding of addiction and, in tandem with the findings of twin studies, strongly suggest a genetic component (see Crabbe 2002 for review). Scientists have identified neurotransmitter systems that are involved in the development of addiction. In recent years, this genetic component has received increasing attention as research on addiction has shifted from the domain of sociologists and psychologists to that of geneticists and neurobiologists. This focus on the role of brain chemistry (e.g., Koob, Sanna, and Bloom 1998) and genetics (e.g., Nestler 2000) has many potential implications for the study and treatment of addiction: It may lead to revolutionary new treatments and reduce addictions stigma. Especially useful are gene-environment interaction models in which social environments/circumstances and genetics interact to determine whether an individual develops addiction.


Addiction is costly to both society and the individual. At the societal level, the prevention, control, and treatment of addiction require substantial resources. The types of societal investments made depend in part on whether addiction is viewed as primarily a medical or a criminal issue. Policies based on medical models favor rehabilitation and other treatments and generally attempt to minimize the stigma of addiction. Policies based on criminal models focus on punishing addicts and deterring addiction in the same way that other crime is deterred. In practice, both policies, or elements of both policies, are observed.

Addiction usually entails a variety of social costs as well. Individuals with addictions are highly motivated to attain the substance of their addictions and may engage in self-destructive behaviors or criminal acts in this pursuit. Drugs per se do not necessarily make individuals more violent, but the need to attain the drug, often to ward off withdrawal, may disinhibit individuals and lead to unhealthy and/or criminal activity. At the familial level, parents who have an addiction may be unable to responsibly care for their children. Moreover, children of substance users are themselves at increased risk of substance use (see, e.g., White, Johnson, and Buyske 2000). At the individual level, addiction is associated with a multitude of negative health effects. This may be due to the substance itself or to the way that the substance is consumed. For example, drugs that are smoked may contribute to lung cancer, whereas drugs that are taken intravenously pose risks associated with injection (i.e., use of unsterile needles may be associated with the transmission of infectious diseases like HIV). Negative health effects also include withdrawal, which can be fatal with some drugs and with alcohol if not medically supervised.


Many agencies exist to assist individuals in overcoming addiction, including outpatient facilities, residential communities, and hospital-based programs. In addition, self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are quite common. The twelve-step model of AA has been embraced by the treatment community and often provides the structural framework for both inpatient and outpatient treatment. A variety of pharmacotherapies are available for treating addictions, including agonist medications, antagonists, agonist-antagonist medications, and anticraving medications (see OBrien 1997 for discussion). Supervised medical detoxification may be required for individuals addicted to certain drugs and for alcohol-dependent individuals with medical problems. Treatment for addiction can be quite costly.

Approaches to the treatment of addiction are predominantly based on a biopsychosocial model, which holds that the biological, psychological, and social bases of addiction all need to be addressed. Within that approach, differences in understandings of the causes of addiction may prompt some treatment providers to favor certain approaches over others. For example, some treatment providers favor a medical model in which addiction is viewed as a disease and treated within a medical framework, whereas others may lean toward more behavioral models that conceptualize substance abuse as resulting from deficient coping skills. Some providers more than others pay special attention to social and cultural explanations for addiction and advocate culturally sensitive programs that focus on overcoming social disadvantage. Individualized treatment programs and programs that respond to differences in gender and sexual orientation have great potential for success.

Addiction is a phenomenon with social, medical, and legal dimensions. A multifaceted public health problem, its treatment and prevention require contributions from multiple disciplines. Medical scholars, legal scholars, sociologists, psychologists, and policymakers are all needed if progress is to be made.

SEE ALSO Drugs of Abuse; Tolerance, Drug


American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Rev. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Crabbe, John C. 2002. Genetic Contributions to Addiction. Annual Review of Psychology 53: 435-462.

Koob, George F., Pietro Paolo Sanna, and Floyd E. Bloom. 1998. Neuroscience of Addiction. Neuron 21 (3): 467-476.

Nestler, Eric J. 2000. Genes and Addiction. Nature Genetics 26 (3): 277-281.

OBrien, Charles P. 1997. A Range of Research-Based Pharmacotherapies for Addiction. Science 278 (5335): 66-70.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2005. Overview of Findings from the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. NSDUH Series H-27; DHHS Publication No. SMA 05-4061. Rockville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies.

White, Helene Raskin, Valerie Johnson, and Steven Buyske. 2000. Parental Modeling and Parenting Behavior Effects on Offspring Alcohol and Cigarette Use: A Growth Curve Analysis. Journal of Substance Abuse 12 (3): 287-310.

Alexis T. Franzese

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Addiction in its broadest sense can be defined as the habituation to a practice considered harmful. A more narrow definition of the term refers to chronic use of a chemical substance in spite of severe psychosocial consequences. Terms such as "workaholic," "sex addict," and "computer junkie" arose to describe behaviors that have features in common with alcoholism and other substance addictions. The most convincing data supporting a role of genetics in addiction has been collected for alcoholism, although genetics most likely has a role in other forms of addiction.


In order to assess alcoholism, or any form of addiction, a clear definition of the condition is necessary. The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization have developed clinical criteria (DSM-IV and ICD10, respectively) that are widely used for the diagnosis of substance-use related disorders. DSM-IV criteria recognizes ten classes of substances (alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, nicotine, opioids, phencyclidine, and sedatives) that lead to substance dependence, another term for addiction.

The precise diagnostic criteria for dependence vary among substances. DSM-IV defines dependence as manifesting, within a twelve-month period, at least three of the following criteria:

  • Tolerance (increased dose needed to achieve the same affect, or reduced response to the same dose)
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Progressive increase in dose or time used
  • Persistent desire for, or failure to reduce substance use
  • Increasing efforts made to obtain substance
  • Social, occupational, or recreational activity is replaced by activity associated with substance use
  • Continued substance use despite recognized physical and psychological consequences

Heritability in Humans

Most family, twin, and adoption studies have shown that addiction to alcohol has significant heritability. For example, there is an increased risk for alcoholism in the relatives of alcoholics. Depending on the study, the risk of alcoholism in siblings of alcoholics is between 1.5 and 4 times the risk for the general population. The identical twins of alcoholics (who share 100 percent of their genes) are more likely to be alcoholics than the fraternal twins of alcoholics (who share only about 50 percent). Adoption study data suggest that the risk for developing alcoholism for adopted children is influenced more by whether their biological parents were alcoholics than whether their adopted parents are alcoholics, suggesting that genes contribute to alcoholism more than environment. Similar but less extensive data has been collected for nicotine addiction. Very little genetic epidemiological data has been collected for illegal drugs.

The only genes that have been conclusively shown to affect susceptibility to addiction in humans are genes that encode proteins responsible for the metabolism of alcohol. In the body, ethanol ("drinking" alchohol) is oxidized by enzymes to acetaldehyde and then to acetate. Certain alleles of aldehyde dehydrogenase genes that are common in some populations, such as Asians, lead to increased levels of acetaldehyde when alcohol is consumed. Acetaldehyde causes an unpleasant flushing reaction that leads to a voluntary reduction of alcohol consumption. The systematic search for other genes that affect susceptibility to alcohol and nicotine addiction in humans has lead to the identification of chromosome loci that may contain genes that affect susceptibility to addiction, but has not lead to the identification of any specific genes.

Models of Addiction

Progress in genetic analysis of addiction in animal models has been more successful. The pharmacologic effects of abused substances can readily be demonstrated in many model systems, from worms to rodents. Rodents can be trained to voluntarily consume alcohol and other abused substances. Once trained, these rodents will expend energy to continue to receive drugs and will display withdrawal symptoms when denied drugs. Chromosomal regions with naturally occurring variants that affect voluntary consumption, intoxication, and withdrawal have been mapped in mice. The specific genes responsible for these effects have not yet been identified.

Cell biology and neurochemistry studies in humans and model systems have identified many molecules that have altered abundance and distribution, enzymes with altered activity, and genes with altered expression resulting from substance abuse. In particular, the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitter systems have been the focus of intense studies. These are brain systems directly involved in many basic responses, including pleasure and reward systems.

To directly test the role of specific genes and pathways, mice have been engineered to delete or over-express genes. Mice lacking any of these genes (called PKCε, DRD2, and DBH) are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and consume less alcohol. In contrast, mice lacking any one of four other genes (PKA regulatory IIβ, NPY, or 5-HT1b) are less sensitive to the effects of alcohol and consume more alcohol. Mice cannot be trained to self-administer alcohol if they lack the Mu opioid receptor, which is involved in transmitting signals to the body's own internal opiate system.

Mutant fruit flies with altered responses to alcohol intoxication have also been created. Two mutants, called "cheapdate" and "amnesiac," arise from different mutations in the same gene. These mutations affect the cellular level of the signal transduction molecule cyclic-AMP. As the names imply, flies with cheapdate mutations are very sensitive to the affects of alcohol, and flies with amnesiac mutations are unable to learn.

The major conclusion from work in model systems is that the pathways and systems involved in addiction are central to normal behaviors with instinctive reward processes, such as feeding and procreation. Addiction is a process that involves learning and the subversion of these basic reward pathways.

see also Complex Traits; Disease, Genetics of; Gene and Environment; Signal Transduction; Twins.

Kirk C. Wilhelmsen


American Psychiatric Association Task Force on DSM-IV. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Begleiter, Henri, and Benjamin Kissan, eds. The Genetics of Alcoholism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Tamara J. Phillips, et al. "Alcohol Preference and Sensitivity Are Markedly Reduced in Mice Lacking Dopamine D2 Receptors." Nature Neuroscience 1 (1998): 610-615.

Theile, Todd, et al. "Ethanol Consumption and Resistance Are Inversely Related to Neuropeptide Y Levels." Nature 396 (1998): 366-369.

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The Latin addictus refers to a person who is bound and dependent as a result of unpaid debts. Metaphorically, this term came to be used for any behavior that results from a heavy dependence on something, such as a drug. A number of common substances or those that can be freely purchased can be used as drugs or become addictive substances: medication, alcoholic beverages, glue, and so on. Psychoanalytically, the power of a particular addiction depends both on the unconscious fantasies that underlie the subject's ingestion, and the substance's actual chemical effect.

Sigmund Freud refers to addiction in an early paper on "Hypnosis" (1891d, p. 106), and in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess of December 22, 1897, he refers to masturbation as the "primary addiction" (1950a, p. 272; 1985c, p. 287). Karl Abraham (1908/1927) studied alcohol addiction. Sándor Radó (1933) associated addiction with a regression to childhood. Otto Fenichel (1945) developed the concept of addiction as a regression to infantile stages, and his descriptions of alcohol as a means of diluting the superego are especially interesting. Herbert Rosenfeld (1965) referred to the manic-depressive signs that underlie addiction, and connected addiction to pathological narcissism of the Self. Donald Winnicott (1951/1953) associated addiction with a pathology of the transitional. Winnicott's transitional object, a creation/discovery of the subject, opens up an intermediary zone of experience, which then expands into play and cultural life, while the transitional object is disinvested and loses its meaning. In addiction, this process of opening up and development is held back, and the transitional object continues to carry out its original function (counter-acting depressive anxiety), in the form of a continuing disavowal. The transitional object is concretized, is "fetishized," and becomes susceptible to replacement by a drug as an object that can be manipulated by the omnipotent subject, enabling him to deny the separation and the resulting depression.

A number of authors who have studied compulsive behavior have included a dependence on alcohol or another substance into their inquiry. Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, provides a clear description of the motivations that underlie addictive behavior, such as sexual dependency and pathological games.

Addiction to a substance is sometimes replaced with another form of dependence, for example, addictions to food, to sex with prostitutes, to gambling, to spree-buying, to physical exercise, to web surfing, or to playing video games (whereby the internal world is projected onto the characters who fight, kill, love, or hate on screen). There is also the addiction to pseudo-religious cults, which serves as a substitute for a dependence on and subjugation to drugs. It is important to note that the other can also become an addictive object (McDougall, 1982), serving as a drug might, to fill holes in the subject's identity.

David Rosenfeld

See also: Alcoholism; Alienation; Cocaine and psychoanalysis; Dependence; Dipsomania; Freud: Living and Dying ; Passion.


Abraham, Karl. (1927). The psychological relations between sexuality and alcoholism. In Selected papers on psychoanalysis, London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1908)

Freud, Sigmund. (1891d). Hypnosis. SE, 1: 103-114.

. (1897a). Infantile cerebral paralysis. (Lester A. Russin, Trans.). Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1968.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

. (1985c [1887-1904]). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (Jeffrey M. Masson Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA, London: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Fenichel, Otto. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. New York: W.W. Norton.

McDougall, Joyce. (1982). The narcissistic economy and its relation to primitive sexuality. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 18, 373-396.

Radó, Sándor. (1933). The psychoanalysis of pharmacothymia. Psychoanalytic Quarterly. 2, 1-23.

Rosenfeld, Herbert. (1965). Psychotic states: A psychoanalytic approach. London: Hogarth Press.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, a study of the first not-me possession. Collected papers, through paediatrics to psycho-analysis (pp. 229-242). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34 (1951), 89-97.)

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addiction The consumption of any psychoactive drug, legal or illegal, can be thought of as comprising three stages: use, abuse, and addiction. Initially the user may consume the drug simply to obtain the resulting pleasurable or other beneficial effects. If use of the drug then escalates to the point where it is interfering with the ability of the user to function normally, use may turn into abuse, and if drug consumption increases further the user may become addicted. People can also become addicted to other pleasurable activities, including gambling, computer games, exercise, surfing the Internet, or sex.

The terms ‘abuse’ and ‘addiction’, however, have been defined and re-defined over the years. Addiction used to be a term used to describe only those conditions in which terminating use leads to unpleasant physical signs of withdrawal. These are particularly prominent in regular users of such ‘hard drugs’ as heroin and cocaine, and in alcoholics. The most commonly accepted current modern system of diagnosis is that published by the American Psychiatric Association, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), (Washington DC, 1994). This uses the term substance dependence instead of ‘addiction’ and defines it as follows:
DSM-IV Criteria for Substance Dependence (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) A maladaptive pattern of substance abuse, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12-month period:(1) Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:(a) A need for markedly increased amount of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect.(b) Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.(2) Withdrawal, as defined by either of the following:(a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance.(b) The same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.(3) The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.(4) There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.(5) A great deal of time is spent in activities to obtain the substance (e.g. visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances), use the substance (e.g. chain-smoking), or recover from its effects.(6) Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.(7) The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (e.g. current cocaine use despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression or continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

This new way of thinking about drug-dependence is significantly different from much of the earlier work in this field. It means that neither physical dependence nor tolerance need necessarily be present to make the diagnosis of ‘substance dependence’. The diagnosis can be made simply on the grounds of psychological dependence. This removes, for example, some of the confusion from previous debates over whether tobacco smoking is ‘addictive’. Even though it does not lead to tolerance or physical dependence, smokers find it very difficult to quit, as do many gamblers, athletes, and surfers of the Internet.

Leslie L. Iversen

See also alcoholism; drug abuse; nicotine; smoking.

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Addiction is a dependence on a substance, such as the drug heroin, or a type of behavior, such as gambling. The dependence is so strong that it may seem as if the person is unable to break away from the dependence.


At one time, the term "addiction" was used almost exclusively for substance addiction. That is, addicts were thought of as people who were totally dependent on drugs such as heroin, cocaine, nicotine, or alcohol. That form of addiction is now known as "substance addiction."

Experts also recognize that people can become addicted to certain behaviors. Some individuals may develop a dependence on gambling, shopping, sexual activity, eating, or many other activities. Addictions of this kind are sometimes called "process addictions."

The costs associated with addiction cannot be calculated. They go beyond the actual dollar amount that individuals spend. Addictions cause enormous personal harm to not only the addict, but to their families and friends as well. People who become addicted to drugs may develop any number of health problems. They may also experience personality changes and lose the ability to interact with other people socially.

Addicts may have trouble staying in school or holding a job. If they do hold a job, they may pose a certain risk to their co-workers, to their customers, and to any individuals with whom they interact. For example, a truck driver who is addicted to alcohol may pose a serious safety threat to other drivers on the road.

Addiction is also responsible for a host of societal problems. Because many addictions are very expensive, addicts may turn to crime in order to get the money they need. The business of providing addicts with the substances and activities they require has become a huge enterprise. Casino operators, tobacco and alcohol companies, and other operations are kept in steady business.


Addiction is a very complex behavior. Humans have been trying to understand its causes for many years. At one time, moral weakness was accepted as the primary reason for addiction. According to this theory, some people do not have the moral strength to withstand an addiction. Although still believed by some members of the general public, this theory is no longer accepted by professionals.

Addiction: Words to Know

Withdrawal; the process by which a person gives up a substance or activity to which he or she has become addicted.
An inability to carry on normal everyday functions because of an addiction.
A chemical given to addicts to help them overcome their addiction to heroin.
Physiological dependence:
A condition in which a person's body requires certain behaviors or the intake of some substance, without which it will become ill.
Process addiction:
A condition in which a person is dependent on some type of behavior, such as gambling, shopping, or sexual activity.
Psychological dependence:
A condition in which a person requires certain activities or the intake of some substance in order to maintain mental stability.
Substance addiction:
A condition in which a person is dependent on some chemical substance, such as cocaine or heroin.
The ability of a body to endure a certain amount of a substance that had previously been too much for it to tolerate.
Twelve-step program:
A plan for overcoming an addiction by going through twelve stages of personal development.
The process by which a person adjusts to the absence of some substance or activity to which he or she has become addicted.

Today, researchers understand that a variety of factors can contribute to making a person an addict. Many events in a person's background may

lead him or her to begin using addictive substances. Some of these events include:

  • Use of illegal substances by family members and friends.
  • Poor family upbringing where love, warmth, praise, and acceptance are lacking.
  • Lack of direction from the family about the proper ways to get along with others.
  • Poverty, poor living conditions, or isolation from other people.
  • Failure in school.
  • Failure to develop the ability to get along with peers.
  • Growing up in a neighborhood in which drug use is common and widely accepted.
  • Frequent family moves to new homes.
  • Medical use of prescription drugs for legitimate reasons. For example, a doctor may prescribe a drug to an individual suffering from back pain. While the drug is intended to alleviate the pain, it may also contain some addictive side effects. Such drug use is carefully monitored by the physician, but it is also up to the patient to use the drug only as prescribed.

Addictions grow stronger over time for two reasons. First, a person's body may become biologically dependent on the substance or behavior. That is, the body may begin to need and expect that it will receive a certain substance each day or each hour. If it does not receive that substance, it responds by becoming ill. When this happens, the person is said to be physiologically dependent on the substance or activity.

This explanation has been used for addictive behavior as well as addictive substances. Some types of behavior cause a person to become very excited. Their body chemistry may actually

change as they win a jackpot or make another sexual conquest. Over time, body chemistry may demand repetition of the activities that produced this level of excitement.

People can also become psychologically addicted to substances and activities. That is, the substance or activity makes them feel happy, more self-confident, or better in some other way. In order to keep experiencing these feelings, they believe they must continue to use the substance or activity that gave them these feelings. In this case, a person is said to be psychologically dependent. In many cases, addictions involve both physiological and psychological aspects.


All forms of addictions have some common symptoms, including:

  • Loss of control. Addicts are unable to manage their behavior or their use of a substance. They may decide to quit the behavior or using the substance one day and then fall back into the habit the next day.
  • Tolerance. In most forms of addiction, a person needs more and more of the substance or behavior over time. Early in an addiction, a person may need only one "hit" of heroin a day. A few months later, he or she may need two, six, or a dozen "hits" to get the same response.
  • Impairment. Addicts often continue to use a substance or demonstrate a behavior even when they know the undesirable effects it may have. For example, a gambling addict may continue to wager money even though he or she has lost everything in previous gambling experiences.


Diagnosis of an addiction may be made by a medical doctor or by a mental health professional. Often, patients go for help because they feel they can no longer deal with their addictive behavior by themselves. Sometimes family or friends intervene and bring the patient for diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, individuals are brought to the attention of professionals because of legal problems related to their addiction.

The standards used for diagnosing addiction include the three symptoms listed under Symptoms. A person who displays these three symptoms is diagnosed as being addicted to some substance or type of behavior.


There are many treatments available for people who suffer from addiction. These treatments are designed to deal with one or both forms of addiction: physiological and psychological. For example, people who are addicted to certain substances must often go through withdrawal therapy. Withdrawal therapy involves placing patients in a protected area where they are no longer allowed to use and where they have no access to the substance to which they are addicted.

This form of withdrawal therapy is sometimes called "drug detoxification." The term means that the toxins (poisons) in a person's system caused by drug addiction are being removed from the body.

Withdrawal therapy can be very difficult. The person's body may still be expecting its daily ration of the abusive substance. When the substance is not provided, the body may react strongly. Nausea, vomiting, pain, and hallucinations are common side effects of withdrawal therapy. In some cases, patients must be physically restrained to help them get through this period.

Medications are also available for treating addictions. Perhaps the best known example is methadone. Methadone is a chemical that has many properties similar to heroin. For example, it is addictive, just as heroin is. But methadone does not have the narcotic effects of heroin. A narcotic is a substance that dulls the senses and makes a person drowsy and sleepy. People who are addicted to heroin may be treated by giving them methadone instead. Ideally, the methadone treatment can very slowly be reduced until the patient is no longer addicted to either drug.

Various forms of counseling are also used to treat addictions. The theory behind counseling is that people become addicts because of serious problems in their lives. If those problems can be resolved, they may be less inclined to depend on addictive substances or behavior.

In some cases, one-on-one counseling may work best. An addict meets regularly with a trained mental health worker, and the two discuss the patient's life and try to find solutions to problems that may have led to addiction. Group counseling is another option. People with common addictions may meet with a professional counselor to discuss their problems.

Perhaps the best-known examples of group counseling are the so-called 12-step programs. The original 12-step program was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The term "12-step" comes from the stages of recovery through which AA members are expected to pass. The AA 12-step model is now used by other groups working to overcome other types of addiction.

Alternative Treatment

Acupuncture (a Chinese therapy technique where fine needles puncture the body) has been used to decrease withdrawal symptoms. Meditation and yoga have been suggested to help control behavior addictions.


The prognosis for addictions is varied. Many factors are involved in determining whether a person can recover from an addiction, including:

  • The substance or activity to which a person is addicted
  • The reasons for the addiction
  • The length of time the addiction has existed
  • The patient's desire to be cured of the addiction
  • The amount and type of support available to the addict

Medications may be successful in treating the immediate symptoms of some addictions. But recovery is likely to be partial and temporary unless underlying issues that led to the addiction have been resolved.


One way to prevent addictions is to eliminate the substances and activities to which one may become addicted. One major thrust of the drug prevention program in the United States is to prevent illegal drugs from entering the country. People who support this method of prevention argue that if illegal drugs are not available, people cannot become addicted to them. Similarly, people who are concerned about addictions to gambling argue that legal gambling should not be permitted. They claim that if gambling casinos do not exist, people are less likely to become addicted to them.

Another approach to prevention is to deal with the kinds of problems that lead to addiction. People who grow up in warm, supportive, healthy, financially secure environments may be less likely to become dependant on certain substances and activities to achieve happiness or security. In this regard, improving family structures, home life, and social institutions is an important step in preventing addictions.

See also: Alcoholism.



Carnes, Patrick. Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. Center City, MN: Compcare Publications, 1992.

Horvath, A. Thomas, Reid K. Hester, and G. Alan Marlatt. Sex, Drugs, Gambling & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers, 1999.

Landau, Elaine. Hooked: Talking about Addictions. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Peel, Stanton, and Archie Brodsky, with Mary Arnold. The Truth about Addiction and Recovery. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Smith, Miriam, et al. Addiction: The 'High' That Brings You Down. Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

West, James W., and Betty Ford. The Betty Ford Center Book of Answers: Help for Those Struggling with Substance Abuse and for the People Who Love Them. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.


Al-Anon Family Groups, PO Box 182, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159.

Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, 1010 Wayne Avenue, Suite 850, Silver Springs, MD 20910. (800) 7296686.

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Department of Health and Human Services, 200 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20201. (301) 4433673.

Web sites

"About Drug Addiction and Drug Abuse." [Online] (accessed on October 5, 1999).

"Addiction Resource Guide." [Online] (accessed on October 5, 1999).

"Alcoholism/Drug/Teen/Gambling Treatment Information." [Online] (accessed on March 27, 1999).

"Gambling Addiction." [Online] (accessed on March 27, 1999).

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. [Online] (accessed on June 15, 1999).

The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. [Online] (accessed on October 5, 1999).

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(formerly the British Journal of Addictions ) is the oldest specialist journal in its field, originating in 1884 as the Proceedings for the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety. The bound volumes provide a unique perspective on the historical development of clinical practice, policy debates, and the emergence of a scientific tradition. Addiction is today among the most international of journals focusing on addiction. In addition to publishing refereed research reports, editorial policy has been directed at establishing it as a leading forum for informed debatespecially commissioned "commentary" series contribute to this purpose. The prestigious Addiction Book Prize is awarded annually. In furtherance of its role as an international medium of scientific exchange, the journal, which has its head office in Britain, in 1993 established regional offices in the United States and Australia.

Griffith Edwards

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What Is Drug Addiction?

What Causes Drug Addiction?

Who Is at Risk of Addiction?

What Are Some Addictive Drugs?

What Is an Addictive Disorder?

What Are the Signs of a Drug Addiction?

What Are the Signs of an Addictive Disorder?

How Is an Addiction Diagnosed and Treated?


Addiction (a-DIK-shun) refers to the use of a substance, such as alcohol or another drug, to the point where a person develops a physical or psychological need for it. The term also may be used to describe a harmful habit that is out of control, such as gambling or spending too much time on the Internet.


for searching the Internet and other reference sources

Chemical dependence

Substance abuse

Tobacco addiction

Without Drugs = Withdrawal

When long-term or heavy drug use suddenly stops, people may soon experience a number of unpleasant symptoms.

These symptoms vary, depending on the substance involved. Some common symptoms are:

  • Alcohol and sedatives: shaking hands, upset stomach, vomiting, anxiety, sweating, rapid heartbeat, restlessness, trouble sleeping, seizures, and hallucinations.
  • Amphetamines and cocaine: bad mood, tiredness, vivid nightmares, increased appetite, and sleeping too much or too little.
  • Caffeine: tiredness, sleepiness, depression, anxiety, upset stomach, vomiting, and headache.
  • Heroin and morphine: bad mood, upset stomach, vomiting, muscle aches, runny nose or eyes, sweating, diarrhea, yawning, fever, and trouble sleeping.
  • Nicotine: bad mood, depression, trouble sleeping, crankiness, anger, anxiety, short attention span, restlessness, slower heartbeat, increased appetite, and weight gain.

When friends first told Josh that his drinking and drug use were out of control, he ignored them. He liked to party, he said, but he could stop anytime he wanted. He did not stop, though, no matter how much his grades fell and his soccer game suffered. He still did not stop even after he was kicked off the soccer team and lost many of his friends. Eventually, Josh had to admit that his use of alcohol and drugs had gotten out of hand. He had developed an addiction, he now said, and he needed help to fight it.

What Is Drug Addiction?

We often say that people who have an addiction are hooked on a substance or behavior. It is an apt choice of words, since addicts often feel as if they are dangling like a trout from a fishing hook and that they cannot break free. Fortunately, this is not true. Treatment can help people with an addiction overcome their bad habits and regain control of their lives.

Physical dependence

People with an addiction to alcohol or another drug develop a dependence on it, which is a strong need to use the substance no matter how bad the consequences may be. Sometimes the need is physical. One sign of physical dependence is called tolerance. When someone develops tolerance for a certain substance, it means that over time he or she starts to need more and more of it to get drunk or feel high. If someone keeps using the same amount of the substance, after a while he or she may notice that it does not have the same effect anymore.

Another sign of physical dependence is withdrawal, which means that people who are hooked on a substance can have physical symptoms and feel sick if they stop using it. The symptoms are so unpleasant that people may be driven to start drinking or using drugs again just so they can feel better. This is one effect that keeps people coming back for more of a substance, even after they realize that they have a serious problem.

Psychological dependence

Some people feel as if they have lost control of their drinking or drug use, yet they do not show signs of tolerance or withdrawal. While these people may not be physically hooked on a substance, they can still have a strong psychological dependence on it. Like people with a physical dependence, they may feel an intense craving and find themselves drinking or using drugs in larger amounts or more often than they intend.

The Tiniest Addicts

What could be sadder than a tiny baby in the throes of drug withdrawal? This tragic scene is played out when babies of drug-abusing mothers are born with an addiction. Babies born addicted to heroin, for example, sneeze, hiccup, twitch, and cry. They also may have such symptoms as restlessness, shakiness, trouble sleeping and eating, a stuffy nose, vomiting, diarrhea, a high-pitched cry, fever, irregular breathing, and seizures*. These symptoms usually start within a few days after birth, and some can last for 3 months or more.

* seizures
can occur when the electrical patterns of the brain are interrupted by powerful, rapid bursts of electrical energy, which may cause a person to fall down, make jerky movements, or stare blankly into space.

People who are dependent on alcohol or other drugs, either physically or psychologically, often spend much of their time finding ways of getting the substance, using it, hiding it, and recovering from its ill effects. Friendships, school, work, sports, and other activities all may suffer as a result. As the problems pile up, people may want desperately to give up the substance, yet they find it very hard to do so despite repeated efforts to kick the habit. Often, users will not see the connection between drug use and life problems. They think that the issues in their lives justify their drug and alcohol use and deny that their substance abuse is a real problem.

What Causes Drug Addiction?

Addiction usually begins with a conscious choice to drink or use drugs. People often turn to alcohol or other drugs to avoid things that bother them. For teenagers, this may mean pressure from friends, stress at home, or problems at school. Teenagers also may think that drinking or using drugs will help them fit in, let them overcome their shyness at parties, or make them look older or cooler. Some just like the feeling of being high. In the long run, though, they end up feeling worse. The more they drink and use drugs, the more problems arise, and the harder it is to stop. By this point, however, people may feel as if they no longer have a choice, because the urge to use alcohol or drugs has become so powerful.

To understand how alcohol and drugs can gain such a strong hold on people, it helps to grasp how these substances act inside the body. Once a substance is taken in through drinking, smoking, injecting, or inhaling, it travels through the bloodstream to the brain, which has its own built-in reward system. When people do things that are important for survival, such as eating, special nerve cells in the brain release chemicals that make people feel pleasure. In this way, the brain is programmed so that people want to repeat these actions that make them feel good.

Substances that are addictive affect the brains reward system. Instead of teaching people to repeat survival behaviors, though, they teach them to take more drugs. The way this happens varies from substance to substance. Some drugs, such as heroin* or LSD*, mimic the effects of a natural brain chemical. Others, such as PCP*, block the sending of messages between nerve cells. Still others, such as cocaine*, interfere with the molecules that carry brain chemicals back to the nerve cells that released them. Finally, some drugs cause brain chemicals to be released in larger

* heroin
is a narcotic, an addictive painkiller that produces a high, or a euphoric effect. Euphoria (yoo-FOR-ee-a) is an abnormal, exaggerated feeling of well-being.
short for lysergic acid diethylamide (ly-SER-jik A-sid dye-thel-AM-eyed), is a hallucinogen, a drug that distorts a persons view of reality and causes hallucinations.
short for phencyclidine (fen-SY-kle-deen), is a hallucinogen, a drug that distorts a persons view of reality.
* cocaine
(ko-KAYN) is a stimulant, a drug that produces a temporary feeling of alertness, energy, and euphoria.

amounts than normal. Methamphetamine, a type of amphetamine* also known as speed, is one example. At first, drug use may seem fun, because it leads to feelings of pleasure or relaxation. Over time, though, drug use gradually changes the brain so that people need to take drugs just to feel normal.

* amphetamines
(in-HAY-lunts) are substances that a person can sniff, or inhale, to get high.

Addiction is believed to change the brains pleasure circuits and pathways. A complex cascade of signals within the brain creates the craving that characterizes addiction. Thus, an addiction to a substance may be both psychological and physiological, as the body creates demands that are out of the persons control.

Who Is at Risk of Addiction?

Addicts come in all shapes and sizes. The homeless man sleeping on the street may have an addiction, but so may the captain of the high school soccer team. Any person who abuses alcohol or other drugs is at risk of becoming addicted. For some people, however, the risk is especially high. For one thing, problems with drinking and drug use, just like heart disease or cancer, often run in families. Children whose parents are addicted to alcohol, for example, may be more likely than other people to have an alcohol or drug problem themselves.

People who have certain mental disorders also have a higher than average risk of addiction. This is not surprising, since it is thought that many mental disorders are caused in part by an imbalance in the same kinds of brain chemicals that drugs affect. People who suffer from depression, for example, may find that a certain drug lifts their mood for a while. The self-medication theory of addiction says that people learn to respond to a particular mood by taking a drug, in a misplaced effort to relieve their mental pain.

What Are Some Addictive Drugs?

People can become addicted to a wide range of substances, including alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, inhalants*, LSD, marijuana*,

* inhalants
(am-FET-ameenz) are stimulants, drugs that produce a temporary feeling of alertness, energy, and euphoria.
* marijuana
(mar-a-WA-na) is a mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves from the hemp plant that a person can smoke or eat to get high.

morphine*, tobacco, PCP, and sedatives*, just to name a few commonly abused drugs.

* morphine
(MOR-feen) is a narcotic, an addictive painkiller that produces a high.
* sedatives
(SAID-uh-tivs) are drugs that produce a calming effect or sleepiness.

People who use cocaine often feel smart and powerful. Actually, a brain impaired by cocaine use is less active than a healthy brain. These positron emission tomography (PET) scans show areas of high brain activity in red and yellow. Note that brain activity is reduced in the cocaine user, especially in the frontal lobes (arrows) where ideas, thoughts, plans, and memories are created. Photo Researchers, Inc.

Marijuana addiction

Some people believe that marijuana use is relatively safe, because it does not lead to addiction. However, regular marijuana users may become psychologically dependent on the drug. Some longtime, heavy users also can experience mild signs of physical dependence, including tolerance and withdrawal. Some studies suggest that marijuana affects the brains reward system in much the same way as other addictive drugs.

Alcohol addiction

Alcoholism (AL-ko-hall-i-zm) is the common name for an addiction to alcohol. Some people with alcoholism develop a tolerance that lets them drink large amounts of alcohol without seeming drunk or passing out. Others have nasty withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. Delirium tremens (de-LEER-ee-um TRE-munz) is the name given to the most severe withdrawal symptoms seen in people who have alcoholism. These symptoms include confusion, disordered thoughts, and hallucinations*.

* hallucinations
(ha-loo-si-NAY-shuns) are sensory perceptions that have no cause in the out-side world. A person with hallucinations may see and hear things that are not really there.

Tobacco addiction

Cigarette smoking is a very tough habit to overcome. This is because tobacco contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance that is added to tobacco when it is made into cigarettes. Smokers can build up a tolerance for nicotine, as shown by the fact that most smokers work up to smoking at least a pack a day by the age of 25. They also go through withdrawal when they are unable to smoke, which explains why many smokers rush to light up as soon as they leave a place where smoking is not allowed.

From Use to Misuse to Abuse to Addiction

Alcohol or drug use by teenagers typically moves through four stages as it goes from occasional use to full-blown addiction. The stages are:

  • Occasional use: Teenagers at this stage typically use beer, marijuana, or inhalants on weekends with their friends. There are few obvious changes in behavior during the week.
  • Regular misuse: Teenagers at this stage actively seek the high they get from drinking or using drugs. They may try stimulants (for example, amphetamines or cocaine) or hallucinogens (for example, LSD or PCP), and they may use drugs four or five times per week, even when they are alone. Grades start to slip, activities fall by the wayside, and old friends are replaced with new ones who also use alcohol or drugs.
  • Frequent abuse: Teenagers at this stage can have mood swings that go from extreme highs to such lows that suicide becomes a concern. Many start to sell drugs to support their habit. As the drug use continues, lying, fighting, stealing, and school failure become problems.
  • Full-blown addiction: Teenagers at this stage may need alcohol or drugs every day to fend off withdrawal. They will use whatever drug is handy and do whatever it takes to get high. Drug use is all they think about, and they may feel as if they have lost control. Guilt, shame, and depression are common emotions, and overdoses and medical problems may occur.

Caffeine addiction

Among the most widely used mind-altering chemicals in the world is caffeine (ka-FEEN), a substance found in coffee, tea, colas, and many nonprescription medicines. It is no accident that coffee, a potent source of caffeine, is the favorite wake-up drink in so many homes. People often use caffeine for the temporary surge of energy it produces, much like the buzz that comes from some other drugs. Owing to tolerance, however, it eventually takes more and more caffeine to get this feeling. When daily coffee drinkers stop using caffeine, they may have withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and irritability.

What Is an Addictive Disorder?

People also may develop harmful behavior patterns that share many of the same traits as dependence on alcohol or other drugs. Such behaviors sometimes are referred to as addictions too. Among the types of behavior that can be taken to an unhealthy extreme are gambling, sexual activity, and Internet use. When people say they have an addiction to gambling, for example, they mean that they have trouble controlling their desire to gamble, even when they experience harmful consequences, such as losing a lot of money.

Experts disagree about whether this kind of out-of-control behavior should be termed an addiction. Many doctors prefer to call it an impulse control disorder. People with an impulse control disorder are unable to curb their urge to do something that is harmful to themselves or others, even though they may try to resist and feel guilty for failing to do so. In everyday conversation, though, people often refer to excessive gambling, sexual behavior, and Internet use as addictions, since people with these problems act much like people who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Rather than responding to outside chemicals, however, such people may be responding in part to natural chemicals released inside the brain. Exciting activities, such as gambling and sexual behavior, can trigger the release of brain chemicals that have an arousing effect. This is similar to the effect that people get from taking cocaine or amphetamines.

Gambling addiction

Gambling addiction, also sometimes called pathological (pa-tha-LAH-ji-kal) gambling, refers to out-of-control gambling with harmful consequences. Like people addicted to substances, gambling addicts may need to risk ever-increasing amounts of money to feel the same excitement they got from gambling a small amount at first. They also may become restless or cranky if they try to cut down or stop gambling, which makes it hard for them to quit. The continued gambling causes trouble at home, school, or work. Yet gambling addicts use their habit as a way of escaping problems or feeling better, much the way someone else might use alcohol or drugs. They may find that much of their time is spent thinking about their next bet or scheming to get more money. They also may start lying to friends and family to hide how much they are gambling, or they may need to borrow money to cover their losses. As things get worse, they may even turn to stealing. Despite the problems, such people find it nearly impossible to stop gambling.

Sexual addiction

Sexual feelings and desires are a normal, healthy part of life, but some people take these natural feelings to an unhealthy extreme, to the point where they are unable to control their sexual thoughts or behavior. Some people might spend hour after hour looking at pornography*, while others might have casual sex with partner after partner. In either case, there can be serious negative consequences. People who spend too much time looking at sexual pictures or videos may lose friends or drop out of other activities. Those who have numerous sex partners risk an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease (an infection, such as herpes or HIV, that can be passed from person to person by sexual contact).

* pornography
is the depiction of sexual activity, in writing or in pictures or videos, that is meant to cause sexual excitement.

Internet addiction

A new problem in the computer age is seen among people who are unable to control their on-line behavior. Some people feel driven to surf websites or play computer games for hours on end, to the point where they lose interest in off-line activities. Others spend so much time chatting with on-line buddies that they have no time for real-world friends. Still others who already have trouble controlling their desire to gamble or look at pornography spend a lot of time at websites that cater to their frequent, strong cravings.

What Are the Signs of a Drug Addiction?

It is not always easy to tell when someone is suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction, since the person may go to great lengths to hide the problem. Nonetheless, there are usually signs that something is terribly wrong. Typical warning signs in young people include:

  • getting drunk or high on a regular basis
  • having to use more alcohol or drugs to get the same effect
  • wanting to quit but being unable to do so
  • lying about or hiding the alcohol or drug use
  • avoiding friends in order to get drunk or high
  • giving up other activities, such as homework or sports
  • pressuring others to drink or use drugs
  • taking risks, including having unsafe sex
  • driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • getting into trouble with the law
  • being kicked out of school for a reason related to alcohol or drugs
  • thinking that the only way to have fun is to drink or use drugs
  • being unable to remember actions the night before while drunk or high
  • feeling run-down, hopeless, or depressed.

Twelve 12-Step Groups

Since its founding in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has mushroomed to nearly 2 million members in more than 99,000 groups worldwide. Not surprisingly, dozens of other self-help groups have since tried to copy this successful model. They include:

What Are the Signs of an Addictive Disorder?

People with an addictive disorder may act much like those with alcohol or drug addiction. Typical warning signs include:

  • taking part in the behavior more often or intensely than intended
  • having to increase the behavior to get the same effect
  • wanting to quit but being unable to do so
  • feeling restless or cranky if the behavior stops
  • continuing the behavior despite knowing that it causes real problems
  • giving up other activities, such as homework or sports
  • thinking about or planning for the behavior all the time
  • spending a lot of time on the behavior and its aftereffects.

How Is an Addiction Diagnosed and Treated?

An addiction is a tough problem to beat, but it can be done. The first step is to seek professional help. To make a diagnosis, a physician or mental health professional, such as a psychologist, social worker, or counselor, will ask the person about past and present alcohol and drug use. If possible, the doctor or mental health professional also will talk to the persons family or friends. In addition, he or she will perform a full medical checkup and may order tests to check for diseases that are more common among addicts. For example, a person who injects drugs might be tested for HIV infection, which can be contracted by sharing needles with an infected person.

Once a diagnosis has been made, there are several treatment options. Medications can help control drug cravings and relieve withdrawal symptoms. These are not the same kinds of drugs that are involved in the addiction but rather medications that help lessen the addiction problem. Talk therapy can help people with addictions understand their own behavior, develop higher self-esteem, and cope better with stress. For most people, a combination of medication and talk therapy works best. Talk therapy can be done one-on-one with a therapist or in a group.

Many people do quite well being treated at a clinic while living at home, but others may need to spend a short time in a hospital. This is especially true if they have other mental disorders, are not motivated to change, have friends who still use alcohol or drugs, or have failed in past treatment efforts. Peer group self-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, have become cornerstones of treatment for addiction problems.


Some medications block the effects of addictive drugs and relieve withdrawal symptoms. For example, methadone (METH-adon) is a medication used to treat heroin withdrawal, while naltrexone (nal-TREK-zone) blocks the effects of heroin and related drugs. Other medications discourage the use of addictive drugs. For example, disulfiram (dy-SUL-fi-ram) works against alcohol use by causing severe nausea and other unpleasant symptoms when a person drinks alcohol.

Talk therapy

Several kinds of talk therapy (psychotherapy) are used to treat addiction. Cognitive (COG-ni-tiv) therapy targets the faulty thinking patterns that lead to alcohol and drug use. For example, people who think that alcohol protects them from pain may be helped to recognize the pain alcohol has caused them (such as loss of friends, work, self-esteem). People who use drinking as the only way to cope with problems may be helped to identify other ways to cope with problems. They are then helped to reconsider their old beliefs that alcohol is the only way to cope, and that drinking protects them from pain. By discovering that old beliefs are false, it is possible for them to decide what beliefs are more accurate. In this way, with time and effort, thinking patterns and false beliefs can change. Behavioral (bee-HAV-yor-al) therapy takes aim at negative forms of behavior, often by using a system of rewards and punishments to replace harmful behaviors with more positive ones. A teenager, for example, might get movie tickets for having a drug-free urine sample or lose the privilege of driving the car as a result of a setback. Behavioral therapy may also focus on identifying behaviors that keep a drug or alcohol problem in place (such as going to bars for recreation or spending time with friends who drink) and choosing behaviors that help beat the problem (going to the gym instead of a bar). Family therapy works on problems at home that may play a role in alcohol or drug abuse, such as conflict between family members. Family members may be taught to communicate better, or to solve problems more effectively.

Self-help groups

Self-help groups can be very helpful to people who are trying to deal with an addiction and to their family members. Many are 12-step groups, patterned on the 12 steps that are the guiding principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Those who attend group meetings receive personal support from other people who are fighting the same addiction and winning.

See also



Substance Abuse


Tobacco Addiction



McLaughlin, Miriam Smith, and Sandra Peyser Hazouri. Addiction: The High That Brings You Down. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1997.


Alcoholics Anonymous, P.O. Box 459, New York, NY 10163. This oldest and largest 12-step group offers information about its program and referrals to local meetings. Telephone 212-870-3400

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 20 Exchange Place, Suite 2902, New York, NY 10005. This national organization provides information about alcohol and drug addiction and referrals to local support groups. Telephone 800-NCA-CALL

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, P.O. Box 2345, Rockville, MD 20847-2345. This government clearinghouse is the worlds largest resource for current information and materials on substance abuse and addiction. Telephone 800-729-6686

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 6000 Executive Boulevard, Bethesda, MD 20892-7003. This government institute provides in-depth information on alcohol abuse and addiction. Telephone 301-443-3860

National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 5213, Bethesda, MD 20892-9651. This government institute provides detailed information about drug abuse and addiction. Telephone 301-443-1124

Nemours Center for Childrens Health Media, A. I. duPont Hospital for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This organization is dedicated to issues of childrens health. Their website has valuable information for children, teens, and parents on addiction and related topics.

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addiction Inability to control the use of a particular substance, resulting in physiological or psychological dependence. It is most frequently associated with drug addiction. In a medical context, addiction requires a physical dependence. When the dose of a drug is reduced or withdrawn, the addict experiences withdrawal syndromes. Psychological dependence on activities such as gambling or exercise are difficult to distinguish from a disorder or mania.

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addiction (ă-dik-shŏn) n. a state of dependence produced either by the habitual taking of drugs or by regularly engaging in certain behaviours (e.g. gambling). See also alcoholism, tolerance.

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ad·dic·tion / əˈdikshən/ • n. the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.

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"addiction." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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addictionashen, fashion, passion, ration •abstraction, action, attraction, benefaction, compaction, contraction, counteraction, diffraction, enaction, exaction, extraction, faction, fraction, interaction, liquefaction, malefaction, petrifaction, proaction, protraction, putrefaction, redaction, retroaction, satisfaction, stupefaction, subtraction, traction, transaction, tumefaction, vitrifaction •expansion, mansion, scansion, stanchion •sanction •caption, contraption •harshen, Martian •cession, discretion, freshen, session •abjection, affection, circumspection, collection, complexion, confection, connection, convection, correction, defection, deflection, dejection, detection, direction, ejection, election, erection, genuflection, imperfection, infection, inflection, injection, inspection, insurrection, interconnection, interjection, intersection, introspection, lection, misdirection, objection, perfection, predilection, projection, protection, refection, reflection, rejection, resurrection, retrospection, section, selection, subjection, transection, vivisection •exemption, pre-emption, redemption •abstention, apprehension, ascension, attention, circumvention, comprehension, condescension, contention, contravention, convention, declension, detention, dimension, dissension, extension, gentian, hypertension, hypotension, intention, intervention, invention, mention, misapprehension, obtention, pension, prehension, prevention, recension, retention, subvention, supervention, suspension, tension •conception, contraception, deception, exception, inception, interception, misconception, perception, reception •Übermenschen • subsection •ablation, aeration, agnation, Alsatian, Amerasian, Asian, aviation, cetacean, citation, conation, creation, Croatian, crustacean, curation, Dalmatian, delation, dilation, donation, duration, elation, fixation, Galatian, gyration, Haitian, halation, Horatian, ideation, illation, lavation, legation, libation, location, lunation, mutation, natation, nation, negation, notation, nutation, oblation, oration, ovation, potation, relation, rogation, rotation, Sarmatian, sedation, Serbo-Croatian, station, taxation, Thracian, vacation, vexation, vocation, zonation •accretion, Capetian, completion, concretion, deletion, depletion, Diocletian, excretion, Grecian, Helvetian, repletion, Rhodesian, secretion, suppletion, Tahitian, venetian •academician, addition, aesthetician (US esthetician), ambition, audition, beautician, clinician, coition, cosmetician, diagnostician, dialectician, dietitian, Domitian, edition, electrician, emission, fission, fruition, Hermitian, ignition, linguistician, logician, magician, mathematician, Mauritian, mechanician, metaphysician, mission, monition, mortician, munition, musician, obstetrician, omission, optician, paediatrician (US pediatrician), patrician, petition, Phoenician, physician, politician, position, rhetorician, sedition, statistician, suspicion, tactician, technician, theoretician, Titian, tuition, volition •addiction, affliction, benediction, constriction, conviction, crucifixion, depiction, dereliction, diction, eviction, fiction, friction, infliction, interdiction, jurisdiction, malediction, restriction, transfixion, valediction •distinction, extinction, intinction •ascription, circumscription, conscription, decryption, description, Egyptian, encryption, inscription, misdescription, prescription, subscription, superscription, transcription •proscription •concoction, decoction •adoption, option •abortion, apportion, caution, contortion, distortion, extortion, portion, proportion, retortion, torsion •auction •absorption, sorption •commotion, devotion, emotion, groschen, Laotian, locomotion, lotion, motion, notion, Nova Scotian, ocean, potion, promotion •ablution, absolution, allocution, attribution, circumlocution, circumvolution, Confucian, constitution, contribution, convolution, counter-revolution, destitution, dilution, diminution, distribution, electrocution, elocution, evolution, execution, institution, interlocution, irresolution, Lilliputian, locution, perlocution, persecution, pollution, prosecution, prostitution, restitution, retribution, Rosicrucian, solution, substitution, volution •cushion • resumption • München •pincushion •Belorussian, Prussian, Russian •abduction, conduction, construction, deduction, destruction, eduction, effluxion, induction, instruction, introduction, misconstruction, obstruction, production, reduction, ruction, seduction, suction, underproduction •avulsion, compulsion, convulsion, emulsion, expulsion, impulsion, propulsion, repulsion, revulsion •assumption, consumption, gumption, presumption •luncheon, scuncheon, truncheon •compunction, conjunction, dysfunction, expunction, function, junction, malfunction, multifunction, unction •abruption, corruption, disruption, eruption, interruption •T-junction • liposuction •animadversion, aspersion, assertion, aversion, Cistercian, coercion, conversion, desertion, disconcertion, dispersion, diversion, emersion, excursion, exertion, extroversion, immersion, incursion, insertion, interspersion, introversion, Persian, perversion, submersion, subversion, tertian, version •excerption

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