People use substances for a variety of reasons. It becomes drug abuse when people use illegal drugs or use legal drugs inappropriately. This includes the repeated use of drugs to produce pleasure, alleviate stress, and/or alter or avoid reality. It also includes using prescription drugs in ways other than prescribed or using someone else’s prescription. The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary. However, when addiction takes over, a person’s ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired. Addiction occurs when a person cannot control the impulse to use drugs even when there are negative consequences—the defining characteristic of addiction. These behavioral changes are also accompanied by changes in the brain and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.
Brain-imaging studies from people addicted to drugs show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of an addicted person.
Every year, illicit and prescription drugs and alcohol contribute to the death of more than 90,000 Americans, while tobacco is linked to an estimated 480,000 deaths per year.
Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics.