Last Updated on May 29, 2024 by Dr. Alberto Solà

When talking about drug and alcohol problems, most people use the terms “addiction” and “co-dependency” interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. Often these two different problems do go hand in hand and are both present in a person, but other times they can manifest independently of each other. Knowing the differences between these two terms and the ways in which they can interact with each other is vital to providing appropriate restorative treatment.

What is Drug Dependence?

The concept of drug dependence frequently gets mislabeled as addiction, yet the reality is more complex. Dependence is characterized by a physiological necessity for a substance to maintain normalcy in daily life. It’s a state where the absence of the drug disrupts the body’s sense of equilibrium. Notably, dependence can stem from legitimate medical treatment, where prescribed drugs, initially serving therapeutic purposes, become a physical necessity. This medical origin often masks dependence, leading to a denial of the condition, as the substance in question is still viewed through the lens of medicinal use.

Both addiction and dependence can coexist, intertwining in a person’s experience with substances. However, they can also manifest independently, making it essential to discern their unique characteristics for targeted treatment approaches. Understanding these differences is not just vital for those grappling with these issues; it’s also critical for professionals to devise intervention strategies that address the specific needs of each individual.

Alternatively, someone can become dependent on a drug apart from medical advice, either through regular use of an illegally obtained drug or simply through the frequent and consistent consumption of alcohol.

A growing tolerance to medications or to recreational drugs can be seen as dependence and may indicate a developing addiction. As the brain and body adapt to the effects of a drug, a user is more likely to experience painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit. Dependence is really mainly a physical reliance on a substance.  Although a dependent user will not typically experience a loss of control over his or her life from using, he or she will experience physical symptoms of withdrawal such as nausea, vomiting, tremors, chills, sweating and low blood pressure, as well as psychological symptoms including irritability, depression, anxiety, and fuzzy thinking when unable to maintain at least a baseline level of the substance in the body.

The landscape of drug dependence is not uniform; it varies significantly based on the type of medication and the individual’s unique health profile. People rely on various drugs for conditions such as heart disease, seizures, asthma, and a myriad of other health issues. This reliance, essential for their daily well-being and management of health, does not uniformly lead to withdrawal symptoms. Missing a dose doesn’t always result in immediate physical distress, but this does not diminish the fact of their dependence. The absence of a drug can subtly erode their health and well-being, emphasizing the nuanced nature of medication dependence.

Can Drug Abuse Lead to Dependence?

The journey from drug abuse to dependence is a complex and often misunderstood path. The National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights that around 20 million Americans seek assistance for drug or alcohol issues, with drug abuse frequently evolving into substance use disorder (SUD).

SUD represents a spectrum of conditions where continued drug use triggers health complications and disrupts daily life, whether at home, work, or school. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) categorizes SUDs into six primary types:

  • Alcohol Use Disorder: This encompasses an inability to regulate alcohol intake, persisting despite previous negative consequences.
  • Tobacco Use Disorder:  A continual engagement with tobacco products, leads to significant health issues, including heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Stimulant Use Disorder: Characterized by the misuse of substances like amphetamines, cocaine, and methamphetamines, leading to heightened blood pressure and heart rate, with withdrawal symptoms including sleep disturbances and increased appetite.
  • Hallucinogen Use Disorder:  This manifests through distorted perceptions and detachment from reality, often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations.
  • Opioid Use Disorder:  This disorder, involving substances that cause euphoria, drowsiness, and mental confusion, significantly heightens the risk of overdose and serious health complications.

Several triggers are associated with SUDs, too. These triggers include:

  • Family history of drug addiction
  • History of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions
  • Living in an environment where illegal drugs are easily accessible

Also, there are four stages of drug dependence:

  1. Recreational Drug Use: An individual occasionally uses drugs in social settings.
  2. Regular Drug Use: An individual’s drug use draws him or her away from family and friends, and he or she is concerned about losing access to drugs.
  3. Drug Addiction: An individual builds drug tolerance and abandons previous interests and relationships.
  4. Drug Dependence: An individual feels that he or she can no longer live without drugs; at this time, an individual’s physical and mental health may suffer significant damage.

If you or someone you know is dealing with drug dependence, seeking medical help is critical. With a proactive approach to treatment, an individual can get support to overcome his or her drug dependence.

What is Drug Addiction?

Someone who is only dependent on drugs without actually being addicted will likely not experience a loss of control, strong cravings for their drug of choice, participate in compulsive drug use or fail to meet obligations.  An addict, however, will likely experience all of these things.  People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are characterized as people who consistently use those substances and use them to excess.  They may find themselves in dangerous situations, may knowingly jeopardize their health, and may neglect important commitments at school, home, or work.  Addicted individuals likely participate in behavior that is destructive to jobs, homes, finances, friendships, and family relationships.  Psychology Today defines addiction as an activity initially enjoyed by a person but with repeated use and higher amounts needed to achieve a similar high that can become self-destructive or even life-threatening for the abuser.   A person who is addicted is no longer taking a drug to feel its effects but rather to escape withdrawal and feel normal.  Whereas dependence is mostly a physical reliance on a substance, addiction is more all-encompassing and includes not only a physical reliance but a mental and emotional one as well.

Unlike dependence, addiction can apply to other things besides drugs and alcohol, such as gambling, sex, eating, or compulsive internet use.  Studies have shown that addiction can form in individuals as a result of genetic makeup combined with the environment.  A child of a parent with a drug addiction is eight times as likely to become an addict himself or herself, but also, even an individual with no family history of addiction can be at risk, too.  Scientific research has found that there are actual neurochemical differences between a normal person’s brain and an addict’s brain, showing that some people are predisposed to addiction, but it is still at least a partial mystery as to why that is.

How Long Does It Take to Develop an Addiction?

There is no set amount of time that it takes for a person to become addicted to a drug. Various factors impact how quickly a person develops a drug addiction, and these include:

  • Age
  • Environment
  • Gender
  • Genetics
  • Social interactions

Additionally, there are several warning signs that indicate an individual may be dealing with drug addiction, and these signs include:

  • Bloodshot eyes or pupils
  • Changes in a person’s physical appearance and/or personal hygiene
  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Slurred speech and/or impaired motor coordination
  • Sudden lack of interest in past activities or relationships

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, don’t wait to get help. Remember, the longer it takes a person to identify and address drug addiction, the more difficult it may be for this individual to overcome his or her addiction. And in some instances, drug addiction may be fatal. Fortunately, by exploring drug addiction treatment options, a person can take the first step to beating his or her addiction.

Understanding the Difference Between Addiction vs. Dependence

The main difference between dependence and addiction, and the most simple way to differentiate between the two, is that dependence is when a drug is required to and allows someone to maintain normal functioning, whereas, conversely, addiction actually interferes with an individual’s normal functioning.  The treatment for these two conditions differs. People who are dependent on a drug or alcohol must detox from that substance; dependence can be managed and resolved by slowly lowering the dosage through tapering. They also may be prescribed medications to help them avoid relapse and will almost definitely also attend counseling and group therapy to stay off the drug in the future.  Addiction recovery treatment certainly also includes counseling and group therapy, but it may or may not require detoxing.  Furthermore, treatment for addiction must also seek the root of the problem in the individual, which may be related to mental health issues, depression, or anxiety.

In the United States today, there is no denying that we are in the midst of a terrible and tragic opioid epidemic.  Opioids, even when used as prescribed, can cause physical dependence and, when misused, can lead to addiction.  More than 500,000 in the United States are dependent on opioid prescription drugs, and many Americans use opioid pain relievers illegally or without medical supervision. Sadly, when someone becomes addicted to opioids, they quickly see firsthand how difficult it is to break free from their hold.  Some find success in traditional in-patient or outpatient drug rehabilitation programs. Alternately, others find “replacement therapy” treatment using Methadone or Buprenorphine to be helpful.  Although some consider the use of these substances to be a transfer of one addiction for another, for individuals who are mainly experiencing dependence rather than an addiction, this replacement of a similar but less dangerous drug may be all they need to break free from the opioid.

Still, others turn to ibogaine treatment, which can be helpful for both people suffering from dependence and those experiencing addiction.   An ibogaine detox such as what we offer at Clear Sky Recovery in Cancun, Mexico, can help people avoid painful withdrawal symptoms and offers a detoxification process that has changed the lives of many.  During a weeklong stay at our facility, clients receive before care, aftercare, a medically supervised detox, one-on-one therapy, and comfortable accommodations in a lovely property located right on the beach.   Ibogaine therapy allows addicted or drug-dependent individuals a way to interrupt their addiction and to go deep within themselves to find the roots of the problem.  Our intake specialists are standing by to answer your questions, so please give us a call today.  We look forward to hearing from you and to helping you get started on your recovery journey.