Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction: What’s in a Word?

upset man hugging legs to his chest - toleranceWhen talking about addiction, the words tolerance and dependence also get used often. Some people use these terms interchangeably, thinking they are the same. This isn’t the case. Knowing the difference between tolerance, dependence, and addiction could save your life or the life of someone you love.

What is Tolerance?

Tolerance means that with repeated exposure to alcohol or drugs at a certain level (dose), the body gets used to the presence of the substance. At that point, more of the drug (or a different one) is needed to achieve the desired effect. Tolerance can happen over several weeks but may occur more quickly, such as in the case of some people who use cocaine or LSD where tolerance happens almost immediately.

Some factors that affect how quickly tolerance may develop include a person’s genetic makeup, whether they are using other drugs, and whether there are any underlying medical conditions. Tolerance also develops at different rates for different effects of a particular drug. For example, with opioids, a person may become more quickly tolerant of the high they experience than of the respiratory depression the drug can cause.

What is Dependence?

Someone who is physically dependent on a drug will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it suddenly. These symptoms can be physical and mental, mild to life-threatening, depending on the type of drug involved, the amount being used ,and how long a person has been using it.

There’s a difference between the relatively mild withdrawal symptoms that someone giving up smoking or caffeine would experience to those of a long-term alcoholic. When someone is dependent on alcohol or drugs, they may need a medically-supervised detox for their health and safety.

Many prescription medications (opioid pain medications, antidepressants, beta blockers, and others) also require a gradual tapering, with doctors helping patients slowly lower the dose over time to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Developing a physical dependence on these medications is considered normal, even when they are used properly. Weaning off properly-used medications isn’t the same thing as going through detox for addiction treatment, since the patient wasn’t addicted to the medication.

What is Addiction?

An addicted person has developed a tolerance to and dependence on their substance of choice. In addition, the substances have changed their brain chemistry in a way that causes the person to experience powerful cravings for their drug of choice and a physical inability to resist these cravings. Even experiencing negative consequences of their actions isn’t enough to make an addicted person stop drinking or using drugs. Addiction is a disease, and the disease is firmly in control of their behavior.

Signs of Addiction to Prescription Medication

How do you tell whether a loved one is addicted to their prescription medication? Here are some signs to look for:

  • Avoiding activities with family and friends; isolating themselves
  • Doctor-shopping (making visits to several physicians to request the same medication)
  • Inability to stick to the medication schedule as prescribed by a doctor
  • Making frequent reports of lost or stolen medications
  • Taking several doses at one time
  • Using illicit drugs along with prescription medications

If your loved one is using prescription pain medication for something other than pain relief, it could be a sign of a problem. The relaxation, energy boosts, or highs these drugs can produce is what makes them so addictive. Someone who complains to their doctor that only opioid medications “are strong enough” to provide any pain relief or that they must have a form of medication that will provide the fastest type of relief may have crossed the line from dependence to addiction.

Are you concerned that someone you love may be addicted to drugs or alcohol? Great Oaks Recovery can help. Our inpatient treatment facility is committed to offering caring, individualized treatment programs for our clients. Contact us today to learn more.

If you or someone you love is in need of alcohol or drug treatment, contact our Houston drug addiction recovery center, anytime at (877) 977-3268. We are here to help.

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