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If you suspect a loved one might be addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’re probably struggling with a lot of emotions, like fear, resentment and helplessness. You may also have a lot of questions about how to recognize addiction. This primer will help you help you decide whether your loved one might need help recovering from a substance use disorder.

What Exactly is Addiction?

You’ve probably heard the terms “abuse,” “addiction” and “dependence” used interchangeably, but these are not the same, and knowing the difference is crucial for determining whether your loved one might be addicted.

Drug abuse – using alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription drugs in a way that causes problems with health, the law, finances, relationships, or work or school. Those who abuse   often take risks while under the influence, such as having unprotected sex or getting behind the wheel.

Binge drinking is the most common pattern of drug abuse in the U.S. and is characterized by drinking enough in two hours to bring your blood alcohol level to .08 percent.1 This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five for men.

Addiction – compulsive drug or alcohol use despite negative consequences. Someone with an addiction will continue to use drugs or alcohol even though it’s causing serious problems in their life, and likely won’t be able to stop for long even if they want or try to.

Dependence – withdrawal symptoms occur when drugs or alcohol are withheld from the body. Dependence develops when the brain begins to function more “normally” when drugs or alcohol are present. When they’re withheld, brain function begins to rebound, and this causes symptoms that can be severe and even dangerous.

An important sign of a developing dependence is tolerance. Building a tolerance means that you need higher and higher doses of a substance to achieve the desired effects.

Recognize Addiction: Criteria for Diagnosing Substance Use Disorders

A substance use disorder is the umbrella term for substance abuse, addiction and dependence. This disorder is characterized as mild, moderate or severe, depending on how many of the criteria are met. If two to three criteria apply in the past year, it’s considered mild, while four to five is moderate and six to seven is severe.

These are the 11 diagnostic criteria:

  1. Taking a substance in larger amounts or for a longer period of time than intended.
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using but being unable to.
  3. Spending a lot of time seeking out, using, and recovering from using.
  4. Experiencing intense cravings.
  5. Experiencing problems at work, home, or school as a result of drug or alcohol use.
  6. Continuing to use a substance despite the recurring social or interpersonal problems it contributes to.
  7. Losing interest in hobbies and activities once enjoyed.
  8. Taking risks while under the influence.
  9. Continuing to use a substance despite the onset or worsening of physical or mental health problems.
  10. Developing a tolerance wherein increasingly larger doses are needed to get the desired effects.
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the substance is withheld.

Treatment Works

In most cases, willpower and good intentions alone are not enough to send an addiction into remission for the long-term.2 Professional help is usually needed in order to address the highly complex issues that underlie addiction, which most often include past trauma, chronic stress and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The best thing you can do right now if you recognize addiction in your loved one is to learn everything you can about this disease and how people recover.

Give us a call or come visit our California Outpatient Treatment Center


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction
How to Recognize Addiction in Someone You Love
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