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What Is Drug Tolerance?

Developing drug tolerance can be dangerous. Learn more about the dangers of drug tolerance and resources that can help.

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What Is Drug Tolerance?

When someone takes a prescription or recreational drug for a long period, the body may build up a tolerance to it. A drug tolerance will cause someone to feel like they need to take more of a drug to receive the same effects. Drug tolerance is common in those who struggle with addiction. This leads to taking large doses of drugs, which can be very dangerous and have many negative life consequences. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources available that can help.

Drug Tolerance Definition

Drug Tolerance Definition

A drug or medication tolerance means that your body is no longer responding to the drug at the current dose. Drug tolerance is common and can even occur in those taking a prescription medication at recommended doses over a long period. Once the body develops a medication tolerance, higher doses of a drug will need to be taken to get the same effects.1

Substance tolerance can be very dangerous for those who struggle with addiction and lead to many negative side effects and consequences. When someone has a tolerance to a drug, they will continue taking higher doses, making an overdose more likely to occur. Over time, taking high doses of drugs can damage the mind and body, which could potentially cause lifelong health problems.

Acute vs. Chronic Drug Tolerance

The main difference between acute and chronic tolerance is the amount of time it takes to develop a substance tolerance. Acute tolerance occurs within a short period. People who use cocaine can often develop an acute tolerance to it that occurs within the first few times of using the drug. On the other hand, chronic tolerance is a drug tolerance that occurs after a more extended period. For instance, a medication tolerance to prescription opioids can take a longer period to develop a tolerance to the drug.

What Is the Difference Between Drug Tolerance and Drug Dependence?

Both tolerance and dependence on the drug may develop when someone struggles with substance use addiction. However, though they are related, these two terms do not mean the same thing. It is important to distinguish between the two experiences in order to best articulate relevant recovery options.

Drug Tolerance vs. Dependence

The main difference between having a tolerance to a drug and having a dependence on a drug is how the body is affected by taking the substance. When someone has a substance tolerance, the body will require higher doses to get the same effects from the drug. However, when someone is dependent on the drug, they will experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms if they don’t take the substance. A dependence can make someone feel like they can’t function normally without taking a substance. Although a tolerance will likely lead to drug dependence, both do not necessarily occur together. 2

Types of Drug Tolerance

There are different types of tolerance that can occur. It’s important to be aware of the different types of tolerance in drug addiction to provide the best treatment for an individual’s needs.

Metabolic Tolerance

A metabolic tolerance occurs when the body metabolizes drugs at a faster rate. This means that the drugs will still have similar effects on the brain, but the body will quickly get rid of the substance. Although the brain is still affected by the drugs, since the body is processing the drug quicker, the substance will still have diminishing effects.2

Physical Tolerance

Physical tolerance to drugs means that the person’s response to taking a substance will lessen over time. This leads to needing to take higher doses to receive the same effects. Physical tolerance is typical in prescription drugs like opioid painkillers. Therefore, someone with a medication tolerance to opioids would need to continuously take higher doses to receive the same pain relief they once did. This type of physical tolerance can also lead someone prescribed prescription painkillers or other medications to develop a dependence on a substance.

Behavioral Tolerance

A behavioral tolerance refers to a decreased amount of disruption in someone’s behavior after taking a drug for a long time. Behavioral tolerance to a drug can cause someone to feel more functional even when they are intoxicated. This can also make it hard to tell if someone is struggling with addiction since they can go about some daily activities while still under the influence. Behavioral tolerance can also be dangerous since it can lead to people driving or taking other actions that may be dangerous while under the influence of drugs.

How Does Tolerance Affect a Drug User?

A drug or medication tolerance can affect someone in many ways. A high tolerance to drugs will lead to someone taking increased doses to receive the same effects. This can lead to using drugs in a binge-like pattern, resulting in overdose and negative health effects on the mind and body.

Drug Tolerance Risks and Dangers

There are many risks and dangers associated with tolerance to medication or drugs. Come dangers of drug tolerance include:


  • Addiction: A drug tolerance can easily lead to addiction when someone starts regularly taking high doses of a substance.
  • Chronic pain: Drug tolerance can also lead to chronic pain due to the effects that high doses of drugs can have on the body. Chronic pain may also be a withdrawal symptom related to drug dependence.
  • Dependence: Taking high doses of a drug can also lead to dependence on the substance. The combination of tolerance and dependence can be very dangerous since it will likely lead to using drugs in a binge-like pattern.
  • Immune-related conditions: Drug tolerance can also lead to harsh effects on the body’s immune system and the ability to fight off illness or infections. This can lead to several health conditions that can have lifelong effects on someone’s health and wellbeing.
  • Mental health: Drug tolerance and addiction can have many negative mental health effects. Taking high doses of drugs takes a toll on the mind that can commonly lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
  • Overdose: One of the main risks and dangers of drug tolerance is overdose. When high doses of drugs are taken, there is an increased risk of a fatal overdose.

Drug Tolerance Psychology

Studies have also been conducted on drug tolerance psychology. Psychological professionals define drug tolerance as a state of progressively decreased responsiveness to a drug. This can affect the mind and how someone responds to drug use. When someone builds a tolerance, their behaviors toward drugs may change, and it may even begin to feel like a regular part of their life. This can lead to doing everyday activities while under the influence of drugs. Diminishing effects while on drugs can also lead to taking more risks when using drugs, such as turning to more potent substances or taking dangerously high doses of substances.

How to Prevent Drug Tolerance?

Some steps can be taken to prevent or reverse drug tolerance. To prevent drug tolerance from occurring, you should:4


  • Consider non-pharmaceutical treatments: If you are struggling with a health condition, you should consider non-pharmaceutical alternatives before taking a prescription drug. Finding a solution without medication can help you avoid side effects that are common with prescription drugs.
  • Dispose of unnecessary prescriptions: If you have unused or old prescriptions around, you should dispose of them to keep yourself and your family safe.
  • Keep track of your recovery: If you are prescribed a prescription drug for an injury or health condition, you should manage your wellbeing and use your medication responsibly.
  • Take medications at recommended doses: If you are prescribed medications, you should only take them at the recommended dose and duration that your doctor provides. Prescription medications have been studied, and guidelines are given to keep you safe.

Reverse Drug Tolerance

Some steps can be taken to reverse a drug tolerance if it occurs. If you notice you have a tolerance to a prescription or recreational drug, you should talk to your doctor, or you could also contact a drug treatment center if you think you may be struggling with an addiction.

Treatment With Great Oaks Recovery Center

If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction, Great Oaks Recovery Center can help. Great Oaks can provide you with detoxification, residential treatment, and continuing care to get you through every step of the recovery process.


Detoxification is the first step in the addiction treatment process. Detox is necessary to get the drugs out of the body’s system, so you can begin to recover from addiction. Withdrawal symptoms will be experienced during the detox process, so going to a treatment center is important to make this process as safe and comfortable as possible.

Residential Care

Residential care is a good option if you are looking for addiction treatment. Residential treatment will allow you to stay at a treatment center for a time while working through a recovery program. Residential care will provide you with around-the-clock support to get the best possible results from your treatment program.

Continuing Care

When you choose treatment at Great Oaks, you will also receive continuing care after your treatment program has finished. Continuing care will help you transition back into everyday life and provide you with aftercare and follow-ups from treatment professionals. This helps ensure a complete recovery so you can maintain long-term sobriety.

Get Help Today

To learn more about how Great Oaks can help you, contact us today at (877) 977-3268 for more information.



Questions About Treatment?

Our knowledgeable team is ready to discuss your situation and options. Your call is confidential with no obligation required.