Drug Addiction vs Drug Dependence: What is the Difference?

Drug addiction and drug dependence are terms that people often use interchangeably. However, there are distinct differences between them. While they are both forms of substance abuse, addiction refers to the psychological need for drugs and alcohol, while dependence means that there is a physical need.

Drug addiction or dependence does not limit itself to illicit narcotics and opiates. Instead, we often see both roles expressed when medical professionals prescribe pain killers and benzodiazepines to treat pain and anxiety.

Is It Possible to Only Be Physically Addicted to Prescribed Medication?

Yes, you can be physically dependent on drugs without being psychologically addicted. But both issues, whether dormant or active, must be addressed for the individual to move on in a healthy, happy way. Failing to do so means there is chance for relapse or re-addiction to the medications from which doctors weaned them in the first place.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between the two terms.

What Is Drug Addiction?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines the term addiction as the chronic demand for drugs, both illegal and legal. What makes it different from dependence is that the brain is more highly involved in craving drugs. Persistent drug use can alter the brain’s structure and chemical makeup so that its response to receiving drugs hits the reward center of the brain. If you do this enough times, then your mind ‘believes’ that this is what it needs to survive.

What Is Drug Dependence?

Drug dependence is a behavior that can actually become a catalyst for drug addiction. Dependence refers more to the physiological need for a particular drug. For example, a person might be ready to quit smoking cigarettes or drinking caffeine, but they find it difficult to stop due to the physical dependence on these substances. Most individuals find it to be far too stressful to approach withdrawal symptoms, so they tend to feed the physiological dependence, which can turn into a full-blown addiction.

Drug Addiction or Drug Dependence: Determining Your Current State

It can be challenging to determine if you are addicted or dependent on drugs. The truth is that only a licensed medical professional can provide you with the diagnosis you need. Ultimately, it comes down to the symptoms you experience. For instance, what type of reaction did you have when you stopped taking the medication? Did you experience withdrawal symptoms? If so, that is the first sign of drug dependence.

However, drug addiction grabs hold of our mental capacities, and we can actually use our brains to justify our actions related to drug use. It’s the primary reason why addiction may be difficult to treat in some individuals. Again, check-in with yourself and ask the following questions:

Am I emotionally ‘out of sorts’ when I am not able to take drugs?

Do I constantly think about getting more drugs before I even run out?

Have I lashed out at loved ones and friends when I don’t have what I need?

Do I secretly take more drugs than prescribed, or I admit to?

Am I willing to engage in illegal activities to obtain the drugs that I am taking?

Do I continue to take the drugs or medications despite the damage it is doing to my life?

Again, only a doctor or licensed addiction counselor can say for sure what level of addiction or dependence you are exhibiting. However, if you can answer yes to any of the questions above, you may have an addiction. Your doctor has treatment options available. The most important thing to do is seek treatment and stay aware.

About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

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