Drug addiction

A dependence on either an illegal drug or a medication can be described as a drug addiction. When a person is addicted to a drug/drugs they find it difficult to control their drug use and often continue to use the drug even when it has damaging effects on their body or their mental wellbeing.


Drug addiction often starts with social or casual use of a drug. When using this drug becomes more frequent, people can start to feel that they need more of the drug to feel its effects. Some people find that they can only feel good when they take the drug and that it has become increasingly difficult to go without the drug.

When a person is addicted to a drug they can find that stopping using it will give them intense cravings and make them feel physically unwell (this is sometimes called withdrawal symptoms).

There are particular signs of drug addiction that are specific to the drug being used but some general symptoms of drug addiction can include:

  • having to use the drug regularly
  • compulsive drug seeking
  • failing in attempts to stop using the drug
  • making certain that a supply of the drug is maintained
  • spending more money on the drug than can be afforded
  • doing things to obtain the drug that are out of character (such as stealing)
  • needing the drug to deal with problems
  • driving or taking risks when under the influence of the drug
  • spending more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug.


The aim of treatment for drug addiction is to get a person off drugs and to prevent a relapse. The type of treatment given for drug addiction depends on what drug or drugs a person is addicted to. Treatment can involve a combination of medication, behavioural treatments, counselling and medically assisted withdrawal.


Medications can be prescribed to help with various stages of the treatment process for drug addiction. For example some medicines can help manage symptoms of the withdrawal process and others can help to re-establish normal brain function, prevent relapse and reduce cravings.

Behavioural treatments

Behavioural treatments help patients to get involved more actively with the treatment process, to modify their attitude and behaviour, and to learn life skills which help them to cope when not using drugs.

Behavioural treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which will help the patient to understand their addiction and to recognise and avoid situations that encourage their drug use.

Withdrawal therapy

Withdrawal therapy (detoxification) helps a person to stop taking the drug as quickly and safely as possible. Detoxification may involve gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances that have less severe side effects (such as methadone). Some people may be able to go through withdrawal therapy as an outpatient but others may need to be admitted as an inpatient to ensure they get the support they need during this process.

Advice and support

If you are concerned about your drug use, or someone else's, a good first step is to visit your GP. They will be able to discuss the services and treatments available.

To find out more about support for drug problems, visit this NHS Choices page.

Search for information about our addictions services here

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