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What Is Drug Dependence

Learn about drug dependence, its symptoms, and the medications used to help treat this condition in this informative article.

What Is Drug Dependence?

Drug dependence is a serious problem in the US, and it grows more serious with each passing day. In 2019, a national survey found that 57.2 million people aged twelve or older used illicit drugs. 1

Drug dependence is characterized as the body’s inability to function normally without the aid of a drug or substance. In other words, the body depends on the drug to work properly. However, this doesn’t necessarily indicate any drug misuse, abuse, or addiction.

Does Drug Dependence Only Include Illicit Drugs?

Drug dependence can include any type of drug—illicit (e.g., cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine) and prescription medication. Diabetics, for example, can be dependent on insulin supplements to help regulate their blood sugar. The same can be said for a patient who requires blood pressure medication to keep their blood pressure lowered to healthy levels or an organ transplant patient who must maintain a regimen of anti-rejection medication to ensure there are no issues with their new organ. In all of these cases, the individuals are dependent on their medication, or drugs, to help their body function correctly.

Drug Dependence vs. Drug Addiction

drug dependence

One of the major reasons why drug dependence is often confused with drug addiction is that dependence on drugs can develop due to drug abuse. However, drug addiction can occur independently of drug dependency, as it can often result from misuse.

Drug Addiction: a Consequence of Drug Dependence

Drug addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing condition indicated by compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Another sign of drug addiction is continued drug use by an individual, despite obvious harmful effects or consequences. Drug addiction is considered a psychological condition that causes measurable changes to brain chemistry. Brain imaging studies on people with drug addictions have shown physical changes to the brain responsible for self-control, pleasure, and reward, explaining the uncontrollable urges associated with addiction. 2

Substance Use Disorder

So, while drug dependence is a term often used interchangeably with drug addiction, there are some distinct differences. Nonetheless, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), has integrated diagnoses of dependence and addiction into a singular condition referred to as substance use disorder.

Symptoms of Drug Dependence

There are a wide variety of drug dependence symptoms that can be encountered. While this list is not exhaustive, it does include the most common signs of alcohol and drug dependence.

Signs of Drug Dependence

The most commonly reported indicators include:

  • Anxiety or panicked feelings
  • Depression
  • Muscle weakness or loss of coordination
  • Nightmares, insomnia, or other disruptions to the sleep cycle
  • Body aches
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Caring less about personal appearance and hygiene
  • Diminished ability to focus or concentrate at school or work
  • Spending more time with others who abuse drugs
  • Lower enthusiasm for hobbies or activities
  • Getting in trouble at work or school
  • Criminal activity
  • Blackouts
  • Using the drugs while alone
  • Increased isolation from family and friends
  • High tolerance to the drug

In many cases, it will be close friends or family members that are able to recognize the earliest signs of dependence. If you have noticed some of these changes in someone close to you, or even in yourself, there is a good chance that there may be dependence developing or already present.

What Is a Drug-Dependent Person?

When someone refers to a “drug-dependent person,” they are simply talking about an individual who has become dependent on one or more drugs. This may or may not be used in conjunction with drug abuse, but in many cases, the dependence stems from initial drug misuse, abuse, or addiction.

Drug Dependence

Which Medicines Are Available to Help With Drug Dependence?

Many medications are available for those living with drug dependence. Most will be designed to help minimize dependency on specific drugs or those in certain stages of dependency and can only be prescribed by doctors or other healthcare professionals specializing in substance dependence.


Research has shown methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone to be some of the most efficient and helpful medicines in treating opioid use disorders, such as heroin or prescription pain medication addiction. These drugs will target the same receptors as opioids like heroin and fentanyl and help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Some can block the effects of other opioids altogether and assist in medically assisted detox. 3


While research is still ongoing into medication to effectively treat stimulant dependence, one of the most promising so far is Modafinil. It acts as a mild stimulant, which counters the drop in energy experienced with stimulant withdrawal. Other medications include propranolol and bupropion. 4


Those with an alcohol dependency may be prescribed one of three different medications to help minimize the effects of their dependency:

  • Naltrexone blocks the same receptors that opioids use, which reduces the reward for drinking.
  • Acamprosate relieves post-acute withdrawal symptoms, such as sleep disruption, anxiety, and general dysphoria.
  • Disulfiram creates an uncomfortable sensation when someone drinks excessively, which helps those with high motivation to quit. 


There is a significant lack of medication for the treatment of benzodiazepine dependence, although there are some treatments that are used. Many patients are prescribed one or several anticonvulsants, antihypertensives, and antidepressants to help reduce the severity of withdrawals.


Two medications can currently be prescribed to those with a tobacco dependency—bupropion and varenicline. Each one has a different method for helping an individual quit and prevents relapse, and both are FDA approved. There are also several over-the-counter treatments like gum, patches, and lozenges.

Get Help With Drug Dependence at Genesis Recovery

If you or someone you love is displaying physiological or psychological dependence on drugs or any drug dependency symptoms, it may be time to reach out to local professionals for help. The drug dependency and addiction treatment experts at Genesis Recovery can help create a personalized treatment plan to ensure a safe and long-lasting recovery. Contact us today to learn more.


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