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Drug and Alcohol Addiction: A Guide


Table of Contents

  1. What is Addiction
  2. The Disease of Addiction
  3. How Substances Change the Brain
  4. The Genetics of Addiction
  5. Signs of Addiction
  6. Symptoms of Addiction
  7. Conclusion

What is Addiction?

Addiction, also referred to as substance use disorder, is a condition where someone has uncontrolled dependence on a substance regardless of any harmful consequences that substance might pose. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a “chronic relapsing whereby in spite of knowing any harmful consequences users compulsively seek out and use drugs or alcohol”.

People with serious addiction will focus on using alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs with such an intense focus that it interferes with their ability to do daily tasks.

For example:  

  • John drinks alcohol after a long day at work but John doesn’t spend every day thinking about alcohol while he is at work and if he runs out of alcohol at home, he can continue about his evening without issue. 
  • By comparison Jake wakes up with his body shaking and wants nothing more than to drink. If there are no drinks in the house, Jake can’t function until he gets a drink. Jake stops going to work on days when he goes to the store to get more alcohol and drinks himself into a stupor. 

In these examples Jake represents an addiction to alcohol.

Addiction as a Disease

Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. When considering the example that Jake poses, it’s important to remember that Jake has not failed in some way, he’s not a bad person, he is not an immoral person, but rather, he is battling a disease that is often overlooked and ignored. 

Science indicates that addiction is a legitimate chronic illness, one that is typically accompanied by changes to the brain. There is no moral weakness in Jake nor is there a lack of willpower or Jake simply not trying hard enough to overcome his addiction.

The first time someone like Jake takes a drink or uses drugs, it’s voluntary. In Jake’s case he believed that he could control its use. But over time the alcohol doesn’t provide the same level of pleasure or the same satisfaction that it once did, so searching for more substances or searching for different substances becomes an almost constant activity, disrupting relationships with friends and family while at the same time changing the brain.

How Substances Change the Brain

There’s a small chemical in the brain that carries signals from one brain cell to another called dopamine. Dopamine gets released in response to good activities like exercise or consuming healthy food. But addiction to drugs or alcohol can take control of these dopamine pathways. Now, the brain sends similar positive rewards and responses when drugs are taken.

Worse, still, drugs released between 2 and 10 times the amount of dopamine that would be released naturally.

Consider Jake. 

When Jake exercises or eats food he gets dopamine, he gets a good feeling. But now that Jake is addicted to alcohol, when he exercises or eats food he gets what feels like a very small good feeling. When he drinks he gets a good feeling that can be ten times as positive.

The longer an individual is addicted to any substance, the less dopamine the brain produces. The person will begin to obsessively seek out the substance. Chronic drug or alcohol addiction can result in unmotivated and depressed people who can’t find pleasure or joy in things they once did. The brain no longer sends them that positive dopamine reward. It only sends it for use of the addictive substance.

If Jake stays addicted for 10 years, he won’t find any satisfaction in the things he once loved to do. Spending time with friends and family, eating, taking care of himself, or exercising don’t mean as much anymore

The Genetics of Addiction

There are genetic variables that can contribute to addiction. An individual’s level of addiction can range from moderate to highly heritable. A genetic relationship can have a direct link to an individual’s risk for addiction. 

Once someone with these genes makes the initial decision to use things like cannabis, nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs, the ensuing level of addiction can be higher than someone with the same characteristics, using the same drug, but with a non-addictive genetic disposition. 

Jake has a genetic disposition toward addiction. His family genes put him at a high risk for addiction. When Jake starts drinking, his genes make the chronic illness of addiction much worse, leaving Jake with a more severe addiction than most. 

Signs of Addiction

Thankfully people like Jake can be helped. Recognizing the signs of addiction early in yourself or in someone you care about is a critical step in finding the help necessary to overcome this chronic illness.

The signs of addiction can manifest in many ways depending on the individual whether they are behavioral signs, psychological signs, or physical signs related to addiction, or an overdose, or the environment

Behavioral Signs

Behavioral signs can include:

  • Obsessive thoughts or obsessive actions where someone is focused more on using or acquiring a drug over all other priorities including work, school, and family
  • Exhausting finances in order to pay for the addictive substance
  • A complete disregard of responsibilities and even an engagement in criminal conduct in order to get the addictive substance
  • A disregard for any harm that is caused mentally or physically by a drug
  • A complete loss of control and mood swings that are not explained by anything else
  • Complete denial or downplay of drugs or addiction
Physical Signs

There are physical signs of addiction that can manifest somewhat differently depending on the type of drug used but in general they include:

  • Enlarged or shrunken pupils
  • Insomnia
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unexplained, sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Unusual body odors
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • General disheveled appearance
Psychological Signs

There are also psychological signs for someone in the grip of a serious addiction which include:

  • Sudden mood swings that can potentially violent
  • Severe, unexplained paranoia
  • Changes in attitude or personality unexplained buy anything else
  • Inattentiveness
  • Anxiousness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Mentally or emotionally withdrawing from others
  • A lack of motivation
Environmental Signs

Then there are the environmental signs which refer to the paraphernalia associated with different drugs and these can include things like:

  • Hidden alcohol bottles
  • small pieces of tin foil with burn marks in them
  • Loose shoelaces or rubber bands
  • Small balloons that are brightly colored
  • Needles
  • A lot of lighters
  • Spoons that have burn marks

Symptoms of Addiction

The symptoms of addiction can manifest in changes to everyday activities, social life, or psychological well-being depending on the type of substance and the individual. 

Social Symptoms

Social symptoms can include:

  •  People battling with an addiction will give up activities that they once enjoyed. Someone like Jake, for example, mites turn down a friendly invitation to go camping if there’s no alcohol for the evening just the same as someone with a nicotine addiction might turn down add dinner with friends if they are going to a smoke-free restaurant.
  • Other social signs can include no longer partaking in favorite sports, Hobbies, or other activities. Dependence on certain things like tobacco might leave an individual physically unable to participate in their favorite sport.
  • Legal issues can happen for those who are as a result of public disorders, violence, or breaking the law to get their hands on the substance itself.
  • Social isolation tends to happen if the individual is very secretive and uses their substance alone.
  • Similarly social symptoms might include a lack of money or changes to the way in which someone lives because they are putting most of their money toward getting a hold of their addictive substance.
Physical Symptoms

There are physical symptoms which include:

  • Withdrawal symptoms from someone whose dependence has dropped below a certain threshold. Someone in the middle of a drug withdrawal or alcohol withdrawal might experience things like Cravings, trembling and seizures, sweating, diarrhea, constipation, or violence.
  • It can also include changes to appetite. Cocaine addiction for example might significantly reduce appetite while marijuana addiction can increase appetite.
  • Certain addictive substances like crack or tobacco can lead to lung cancers and respiratory diseases. Someone who was injecting illicit drugs might show problems with their arteries or their brains, maybe an infection near the elbow joint. Tangential damage or diseases are physical symptoms of substance abuse.
  • Insomnia is a common withdrawal symptom especially for illicit stimulants like ecstasy or speed which can disrupt the sleep cycle and lead to individuals staying up for several nights in a row without any sleep.
Psychological Symptoms

There are also psychological symptoms which include:

  • Psychological symptoms can include continuing an addiction to a substance even after they have developed related health conditions. Someone like Jake might develop cirrhosis of the liver and be advised to stop drinking but continue to do so anyway.


Addiction is a serious disease and it needs to be treated as such. Some people have a genetic component that makes their addiction even more serious. When someone shows signs of an illness we take them to the doctor. Addiction should be no different. When someone shows signs or symptoms of addiction, they should get the help they deserve. Symptoms of addiction can also lead to increased solitude, confrontations with the law, and a withdrawal from responsibilities or what were once important activities. If you or someone you love shows these symptoms it is important to seek treatment for the chronic illness in a safe and judgement free zone.

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Brooke Abner,

Motivational Coach