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Addiction Info

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Addiction to Drugs

Addiction to drugsWhat are drugs?

Drug n: a chemical substance that acts upon the brain and nervous system changing a person’s mood, emotions and state of consciousness.

Millions of people use chemical substances on a daily basis to change how they feel and enhance their emotions. Legal drugs such as caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol are widely available and accepted in society, however it is important to note that just because they are legal does not mean that they are not harmful; alcohol and cigarettes kill more people every year than all of the illegal drugs combined. Prescription medicines, such as tranquilisers and strong pain killers are often used by people to alter their mood, even though they do not have a medical need for them. Yet it is the consumption of illegal drugs that attracts the most attention from the media, government and society.

Drug Use

It is estimated that 35% of the population have tried illegal drugs at some point in their life, yet for a small minority recreational drug use can lead to the beginning of an addiction.

Such drugs can stimulate a number of emotions and effects:

  • Stimulants, e.g. Cocaine; make a person feel full of energy
  • Depressants, e.g. such as sedatives, Benzodiazepines; make a person feel relaxed
  • Hallucinogens, e.g. such LSD; make a person see, feel or hear things
  • Illegal drugs are highly dangerous due to the nature in which they are produced, handled and transported to the end user. There is no quality control, therefore a drug is likely to be mixed with a number of different substances and handled by many different people. It is these unknown substances that can cause long-term permanent damage to a person’s body.

    How to tell if a person has a drug addiction

    For someone who is addicted to drugs, their life will completely revolve around their chosen substance; dedicating long periods of time seeking and obtaining their chosen drug.

    There are a number of simple tests that a person can take in order to assess whether or not they are addicted. In this example, a dependant user will display THREE or more of the following signs:

    • Increased tolerance, needing to use more of the drug to achieve the desired affect
    • Persistent desire to use or unsuccessful attempts to quit
    • Continuing to use drugs, despite being aware of their negative impact on physical health
    • Increasing time dedicated to seeking and using drugs
    • Using more of the drug than you initially intended to
    • Withdrawal symptoms in-between taking the drug; may include nausea, insomnia, anxiety, sweating, trembling
    • Giving up on everyday life activities as a result of drug use, such as school or job

    Other ‘self assessment’ tests use similar questions in order to assess whether a person has a drug addiction. Once an answer has been established, movements can be made in order to reduce a person’s physical and psychological dependence on drugs.

    What is a drug dependency?

    A person can said to be ‘misusing’ drugs when they take one or more on a regular basis in order to change their mood or emotion. Over time misuse can lead to dependency. This is said to occur when an individual feels a compulsion to take a drug to achieve a desired emotion; to be calm and sleepy or lively and energetic. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms if they go longer than usual without taking it.

    Whether the drug is legal, prescribed or illegal, dependency is a combination of physical and psychological factors that compel a person to continue seeking out and using the substance:

    • Physical dependency: a person will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they cease consumption of the drug. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, seizures, anxiety, tremors and insomnia
    • Psychological dependency: an individual feels that drugs are a central part of their life and that they need them on a regular basis to make them feel good

    Over time, the continued use of a drug will lead to a higher tolerance as the body becomes used to the substance. As tolerance grows, a person will need more of the substance to achieve the intended effect of the drug which may increase the likelihood of a person having an overdose.

    Why do people become drug dependant?

    It is a common theory that the consumption of ‘softer drugs’ such as Cannabis can lead to the experimentation and use of harder substances such as Heroin and Crack cocaine. However, there is evidence to suggest that this is rarely the case. Often hard drug use comes down to a number of factors.

    • Personality of the person taking the drug. It is believed that some people have addictive traits to their personality, increasing the possibility of them becoming dependant on drugs
    • Peer pressure and a person’s social environment can lead them into initially trying the drug and their chances of repeat use
    • Addictiveness of the drug which is determined by how pleasurable taking the drug is and how quickly it takes for the drug to reach the brain

    Here are some examples of drugs, ranked in order of addictiveness:

    • Heroin
    • Cocaine
    • Tranquillisers
    • Amphetamines
    • Ketamine
    • Cannabis
    • Hallucinogens
    • Ecstasy

    (The Lancet report, 2007)

    What are the risks of drug use?

    The excessive and repeated consumption of drugs over a period of time can have a negative impact upon a person’s physical and psychological health. Every drug can lead to a number of short and long term consequences and may also lead to death; each year it is estimated that 3,000 people die every year in the UK, due to illegal drug abuse. The consequences of the most commonly used drugs are presented below.


    Short-term effects:

    • Bursts of energy
    • Hallucinations
    • Insomnia
    • Loss of appetite
    • Mood swings

    Long-term effects:

    • Mental health illness, such as depression
    • Developing eating disorders
    • Raising your blood pressure and increases heart rate – Amphetamine abuse has been linked to heart attacks
    • Blood vessels may burst, which may lead to paralysis or can be fatal


    Short-term effects:

    • Short-term memory loss
    • Loss of co-ordination
    • Sickness
    • Giggly
    • Panic and paranoia
    • Feeling hungry
    • Talkative

    Long-term effects:

    • Lung disease or lung cancer
    • Respiratory problems, for example asthma or bronchitis
    • Infertility
    • Trigger for psychotic illness such as schizophrenia

    It is argued that using Cannabis over a long period of time can trigger long-term mental health problems such as psychosis, schizophrenia and depression. Although cannabis is not chemically addictive it is argued that it can be psychologically habit forming.


    Short-term effects:

    • Anxiety
    • Paranoia
    • Tiredness
    • Jaw clenching

    Long-term effects:

    • Depression
    • Extreme paranoia
    • Insomnia
    • Damage to nasal passages
    • Impotence

    When taken in large doses, Cocaine raises a person’s blood pressure causing the temperature of the body to rise and the heart to beat irregularly; this can lead to heart failure.

    A regular user of Cocaine will experience withdrawal symptoms if they go longer than usual without taking it. As tolerance grows, this time period becomes shorter and larger quantities of the drug are needed to experience the intended high.


    Short-term effects:

    • Anxiety
    • Confusion
    • Nausea
    • Dry mouth
    • Raised blood pressure

    Long-term effects:

    • Insomnia
    • Lack of energy
    • Depression

    The use of Ecstasy has only become widespread during the last 20 years; therefore the long-term effects of regular use are still unknown. It does however cause an average of 27 deaths every year as a result of taking Ecstasy.

    Death can occur because the drug fills the user with a huge amount of energy for a long period of time causing the temperature of the body to rise dramatically and the fluid levels to drop. This can lead to extreme dehydration and cause unconsciousness, coma and potentially death.


    Short-term effects:

    • Lead to unpredictable behaviour
    • Experience of a ‘bad trip’

    Long-term effects:

    • Can make pre-existing metal health problems worse

    Hallucinogens, such as magic mushrooms, also run the risk of being mistaken for poisonous mushrooms, which may lead to some very serious health problems or even death.


    Short-term effects:

    • Slows down the functions of the body
    • Stops physical pain
    • Stops emotional pain
    • An instant rush or surge of pleasure

    Long-term effects:

    • Depression
    • Risk of Hepatitis C
    • Risk of HIV
    • Damage to veins due to injecting
    • Serious infections
    • Severe constipation

    As Heroin is an illegal drug, it is often mixed with a number of different substances to ‘bulk’ it up making it between 10-60% pure. These unknown substances may be toxic or allergic to the heroin user, proving to be extremely harmful. Impure Heroin may also lead to an overdose, causing even heart failure, unconsciousness and coma.


    Short-term effects:

    • Feelings of relaxation
    • Lead to unpredictable behaviour
    • Tolerance develops quickly

    Long-term effects:

    • High blood pressure
    • Damage to kidney
    • Damage to bladder
    • Lead to unconsciousness
    • Risk of choking on own vomit
    • Flashbacks

    Ketamine is an anaesthetic and in high doses can suppress a person’s breathing and brain function, potentially leading to them falling unconscious and the risk of a person choking on their own vomit.


    Short-term effects:

    • Hallucinations
    • Dizziness
    • Vomiting
    • Blackouts

    Long-term effects:

    • Damage to kidney
    • Damage to liver
    • Damage to brain
    • Memory loss
    • Irrational thoughts

    Solvents contain chemicals that may have an effect on a person’s heart, increasing the risk of a person having a heart attack, which may prove to be fatal.


    Short-term effects:

    • Nausea
    • Anxiety
    • Headaches
    • Confusion

    Long-term effects:

    • Highly addictive
    • Collapse of veins
    • Serious infections
    • Death of tissue

    Tranquillisers have the potential to be fatal. They are often found in tablet form; so many people choose to crush them up and directly inject them into the bloodstream and can cause veins to collapse. If the tranquilliser comes as a gel capsule, it is melted down but may solidify once in the bloodstream and can lead to death.

    Social impact of drug use

    There are also a number of wider implications that can be attributed to prolonged drug use. Drugs nearly always take priority over nearly every aspect of a person’s life; becoming more important than personal relationships, well-being and any hobbies, interests and ambitions. It also makes it difficult for a person to hold down a job. This can, in part, explain why some people resort to desperate and illegal measures in order to obtain their supply of drugs. Such activities include begging, burglary, street crime; shop lifting, burglary and prostitution.

    Often there is a breakdown in the relationship between the drug user and their friends and family. Many drug users lose touch to avoid the perceived criticism directed from their loved ones and to hide the extent of their problem. Also, friends and family members may lose patience with a person and their unreasonable behaviour as a result of their addiction.

    Getting help

    If a person decides that they no longer want to be dependent on drugs, there are a number of options available to them. It is important to note that both the causes and treatment of all addictions are fundamentally the same, whether this is prescribed or illegal drugs. With a dependency on drug use, stopping using altogether can provoke withdrawal symptoms and the risk of relapse:

    Withdrawal symptoms

    Withdrawal from drugs may be likened to a severe case of flu. Prolonged drug use can alter the chemical balance of the human body, however over time the body slowly adapts to the regular presence of the substance. If use of the drug is stopped suddenly it can affect the nervous system and lead to a number of withdrawal symptoms including, insomnia, restlessness, tremors, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations and seizures.

    The threat of relapse

    Recovery can be a very confusing time, involving periods of mixed feelings and emotions. Many drug users feel that a life without drugs is unachievable and end up relapsing. This is when a person begins to step back towards their old behaviour patterns after believing that they are no more susceptible to dependency to a drug than anyone else.

    Relapse may also be down to boredom, a better financial situation, the arrival of good news and excuse to celebrate or regularly being in the presence of drugs. In order to minimise the likelihood of a person relapsing, they must have an adequate ‘drug relapse prevention plan’ which recognizes that the road to recovery can be bumpy in parts and that it is possible to overcome and pull through it.

    The first step to recovery is admission; that a person acknowledges their problem and that they require help in overcoming it. This is often the hardest step to make, but the most important one. It is only once a person has recognized their own pattern of drug misuse, can they then begin their journey of recovery.

    There are a number of different treatment options available to people considering recovery, catering to different people’s needs and the nature of their dependency.

    Visit your local GP

    The first point of contact for anyone considering recovery should be their local GP. A person will be given reliable information, advice about what to expect during their journey through recovery and will also be given the opportunity to ask any questions to help reduce any worries they may have.

    There are two ways that a GP can help in the treatment and recovery of a person. They can be separated by two distinct categories; pharmacological and psychological.


    This is where prescribed medication is used as a substitute to the original drug, in order to ease the effects of withdrawal. This method of treatment only applies to treatment for Heroin and Tranquiliser abuse. There are a number of medications used each of which act in a different way to combat the addiction:

    • Methadone and Buprenophine: man-made opiates that ‘trick’ the brain into thinking that it has received a dose of Heroin and so the person does not experience any withdrawal symptoms. It is also used to help maintain recovery until a person feels physically and mentally ready to begin life without medication
    • Naltrexone: a medication used by those who are worried that they might relapse after abstaining from Heroin for a long period of time. It works by blocking the effect of Heroin on the brain and so even if a person does take it, they will not experience any pleasure from doing so
    • Tranquillisers: like Methadone and Buprenophine, they are used to ease the uncomfortable effects of withdrawal and help maintain recovery. The dose of Methadone is reduced over time until a person feels ready to like their life without it


    • Self-Help Groups: such as Narcotics Anonymous. This is a support group for people with a problem with drugs. It uses the same 12-step framework set out by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The benefit of the programme comes from meeting people who have been through similar experiences, lifting the shame that often prevents recovery. Attending meetings and socialising with people fills the void that their addiction once filled and gives people a sense of belonging to a group, without the dependence of a substance

    If a person does not feel comfortable visiting their local GP, there are a number of alternative options available to then that may help in a person in their search of recovery.

    Drug Agencies/ Drug Dependency Units (DDU)

    There are a number of drug agencies that offer similar information and advice about recovery and detoxification. Services such as counselling, needle exchanges, prescription drugs for opiate users, support groups and alternative therapies are also offered to aid in the road to recovery. These agencies work on an appointment only basis and waiting lists can be long.

    Residential Rehabilitation

    Some people find that recovery is too difficult to complete from their home and local community because there are too many reminders of their life during addiction. In such cases it is recommended that a person stays at a residential rehabilitation where there is 24-hour medical care and assistance to help a person deal with the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

    This level of care can take place in an NHS hospital ward or a privately funded unit, normally over a twelve week period. It is often reserved for those who have unsuccessfully attempted to tackle their addiction in the past via other methods and for people with a medium or high level of drug dependence.

    A residential rehabilitation unit offers a structured programme throughout the day that includes one-to-one and group therapies along with family and couples therapy for relatives. There are also a selection of recreational activities such as cooking, sports and art therapy that contribute to providing a routine and degree of predictability to a person’s life.

    Needle exchange schemes: A scheme that provides clean injecting equipment for intravenous drug users. The scheme also offers information and advice to those who are considering detoxification from their chosen drug and frequent health check-ups

    Contingency Management: a person is offered financial incentives if they abstain from drugs. They are monitored by regular urine tests and are given greater incentives the longer they stay off drugs.

    Friends and Family

    When a person is heavily addicted to drugs, it is a very difficult time for the friends and family that surround and care for them. Many feel a compulsion to approach a drug user and inform them of their concern and desire to help. It is advised that before any person is approached and confronted about their problem, it is vitally important that their loved one undertakes as much research as possible about the subject of drugs and addiction so that they are armed with the right facts and information about where to go and seek help.

    It is important to choose the right moment to broach the subject with a loved one; choose a time when everyone is feeling calm and relaxed, not too emotional and not intoxicated. Consider an approach from the other person’s point of view and think about how they may react to a suggestion that they may have a problem with drugs.

    Show concern and empathy rather than disapproval. Do not criticise them, make a judgement or label them. Try and keep questions open so to avoid yes/no answers, and keep the language positive, but always maintain a feeling of concern.

    For family and friends there is a support group called Families Anonymous which is a support group specifically for the friends and family of a person with a drug misuse problem.

    Finding help

    The Inexcess Support Directory lists more than 1600 service providers throughout the UK and is divided by region to help support and advise people how to find help in their own area. Click here to visit the Support Directory.