There isn’t a set time that it takes to get addicted to a drug. The timeline for how long it takes to get addicted depends on the drug, the dosage, the frequency of use, and other personal characteristics.
The Addiction Epidemic
In the past decade, the highly publicized epidemic of opioid addiction in the U.S. has brought more awareness and understanding of the large population of individuals who are dependent on drugs. As substance abuse has skyrocketed throughout the country, nearly everyone now knows someone who has been touched by addiction.
A 2017 Pew Research study found that 46 percent of U.S. adults have a family member or close friend who is addicted to drugs or has been in the past. In a 2018 Pew Research study, most Americans considered drug addiction to be a major problem in their local community, whether they lived in a rural, urban, or suburban area.
A 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, titled “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health,” revealed that in 2015, more than 27 million people in the U.S. reported the use of illicit drugs or abuse of prescription drugs. The report also indicates that one in seven Americans will struggle with addiction in their lifetime.
Are Certain People More Likely to Get Addicted to Drugs?
Many factors can make certain individuals more susceptible to addiction than others.
Family history of addiction
Individuals with a family history of addiction may be much more likely to experience addiction in their lifetime or to exhibit signs of an “addictive personality.” It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of the risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) is related to genetic factors, and it may be as high as 60 to 80 percent for other substances, including cocaine.
History of trauma or abuse
There is substantial evidence linking childhood abuse and many other types of trauma to substance abuse and addiction. Many who have experienced pain or trauma, especially those who have not come to terms with or seek help in processing these experiences, may self-medicate with a substance, seeking an escape from their unresolved issues.
Mental health problems
A 2015 study found that about half of people who struggled with substance abuse also had another mental health disorder. Similar to survivors of trauma and abuse, many with mental health problems may be looking to self-medicate with drugs.
Early substance use
Teens may be extremely vulnerable to addiction because parts of their brains are not fully formed. This is especially impactful when considering that the undeveloped parts of the brain include the frontal regions, which play an important role in risk assessment and impulse control. The parts of the brain that regulate the feelings of pleasure and reward are also hyperactive in teen and adolescent brains, which can make drug use more appealing and exciting.
Are Some Drugs More Addictive than Others?
While some people are more likely to become addicted to substances, it’s also true that some drugs are more addictive than others. The drugs topping the list in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment are some of the most addictive.
Heroin and opioid drugs
Ranked as No. 1 in a 2007 study of the most addictive substances published by the medical journal The Lancet, heroin (an illicit opioid) is extremely habit-forming. Opioid prescription drugs, as well as synthesized opioids, are also highly addictive.
Fentanyl — an extremely potent opioid responsible for many fatal overdose deaths — is now commonly used in the manufacturing of illicit opioid drugs, often without consumers even knowing about it. This increases the likelihood of addiction as well as overdose. Opioid-related overdose deaths increased 45.2% from 2016 to 2017.
This stimulant can be snorted, smoked (in crack or freebase form), or injected. As a stimulant, cocaine affects the central nervous system and may make the user feel euphoria, increased energy and alertness, and anxiety and paranoia. Many users also feel cravings for more of the drug as soon as it starts to wear off, which is one reason it’s so addictive.
Because it’s a concentrated form of cocaine, crack delivers a more intense high, and its effects fade more quickly. This makes it more addictive. A crack high only lasts around 5 minutes compared to between 15 to 30 minutes for powdered cocaine.
Long-term use of cocaine can alter the brain’s behavior, affecting its pleasure and reward system and increasing the risk of addiction.
A highly addictive stimulant, methamphetamine or crystal meth affects the levels of dopamine, a brain chemical. Dopamine plays several important roles in brain activity. It is active in motor function and the processing of pleasure, reward, and motivation sensations. Methamphetamine also affects the part of the brain associated with emotion and memory.
Like cocaine, methamphetamine can make a user experience more energy and feelings of euphoria. Also like cocaine, users may develop an almost immediate dependency, craving more as soon as the effects start to fade. Methamphetamine lasts longer, however, with a high lasting as long as 12 hours.
As drug cartels have taken over meth distribution in the U.S. in recent years, street meth has also become more potent. Meth may have severe effects on the brain, with long-term effects on dopamine activity that can negatively impact a user’s motor functioning and cognitive abilities. Long-term psychological effects, like depression and mood swings, maybe common as well. These effects can last long after a user stops using meth, and they may begin to reverse after a year of abstinence.
How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to a Drug?
Again, it depends. There isn’t a simple formula for how long it takes an individual to become addicted. Some users will begin craving the drug immediately after it wears off the first time and decide to use it more.
Others may use a drug recreationally several times, or even binge on it a few times, before developing a daily drug habit.
Users of habit-forming prescription drugs may be able to prepare for and prevent dependency by speaking to their prescribing doctor about the possible risks of dependency. While short-term use of habit-forming drugs may be effective in treating some conditions, long-term use may lead to tolerance and dependency, especially in those who have a history of substance abuse.
A good indication of how habit-forming a medication is can be its half-life — the time it takes for half of a drug’s dosage to be metabolized and eliminated from the bloodstream.
Those with a shorter half-life may take action more quickly, but they also leave the body more quickly. These drugs have a higher risk of withdrawal symptoms and a higher risk of abuse or dependency.
Signs of Addiction
People develop addictions in different ways, and they may exhibit a wide and varied range of symptoms of substance dependency. Signs of addiction include:
- Strong cravings for the drug or substance after the initial effects begin to wear off
- Minimizing or hiding drug use from friends and family
- Beginning to take the drug more frequently or at different times than before (For example, an individual who takes anti-anxiety medication to help with a sleep disorder begins to take the medication in the morning as well.)
- Trying to get a more intense or long-lasting high, either by seeking out more intense street drugs or trying to get a higher dose prescription. This indicates the individual has developed a tolerance.
- No longer finding enjoyment in activities that used to be a source of pleasure, such as spending time with family
- Problems keeping up with everyday responsibilities, like work or family obligations
- “Needing” the drug to get through certain situations, such as a stressful work deadline or social event
- Withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped
- Feelings of anxiety and/or depression without the substance
When dealing with highly habit-forming substances, there are few rules when it comes to addiction. Some individuals are more prone to substance abuse and dependency because of genetics, past traumas, and other factors.
While addiction may be unpredictable, many of today’s illicit drugs are reliably more powerful, potent, and dangerous than ever before, manufactured with little regard for human life. With such powerful substances, it doesn’t take long to get addicted to continued use.