What’s the difference between drug addiction and alcohol addiction?

There are two types of addicted people in a rehab facility. One is there because he is addicted to cocaine, the other is dealing with an alcohol addiction. What is the difference between the two of them?

In reality, the answer is “not much.” While there are some differences between how the body and mind may be affected by drugs or alcohol, often addiction manifests itself similarly in both cases. Also, addiction—whether to alcohol or drugs—usually requires treatment in order to break its grip and help the person abusing substances regain sobriety. In fact, alcohol is just considered another type of drug; they are both substances that can be easily abused.

So really, when it comes down to it, the most significant difference between alcohol and drug addiction is a matter of societal perception. Alcohol is readily—and legally—available to adults and drinking is common whether it’s enjoying a glass of wine at dinner or raising a toast while celebrating a special occasion.

Drugs, on the other hand, are a different story. Most drugs are illicit, meaning procuring them and taking them is illegal. Drug use is also generally more demonized than alcohol use. In pop culture, for instance, drug addiction is generally portrayed as decimating the user and destroying their life, while casual drinking is a commonplace occurrence that doesn’t have serious effects when compared to drugs. People who are addicted to street drugs may be less likely to seek help because they are doing something illegal or because they are looked down upon compared to people who drink. On the other hand, people who are addicted to alcohol may find it easier to hide their addiction in plain sight, because drinking is more acceptable socially.

So what are the similarities?

Alcohol and drug addiction can both wreak havoc on your physical health and well-being. Alcoholism is well known to ravage the liver, and it can also leave addicts more susceptible to heart disease, certain types of cancers and organ damage.  Drug use also can have serious consequences, including the risk of contracting a transmitted disease such as hepatitis from sharing needles, organ damage and overdosing.

Both types of addiction also take a toll on the user’s mental health. Alcohol can cause cognitive impairment, clouding judgement or triggering risky behavior because social inhibitions wash away with each drink. Drugs that are considered stimulants, or “uppers,” such as cocaine can make a person feel confused, experience mood swings or suffer from paranoia or delusions. Opiates such as heroin have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol, as both are considered depressants. In many instances, drug and alcohol addictions have underlying mental health disorders that go hand-in-hand with substance abuse, requiring dual diagnosis treatment that will address both issues.

Signs of addiction also present themselves in the same way, whether the user’s dependence is caused by illicit drugs or alcoholism. Generally, the addiction is marked by intense craving for the particular substance.  As the addict increases the frequency of his use to satisfy that craving, it gets harder to achieve the “high” the user wants—which means he must take more and more of the substance to get the desired feeling. It is a vicious circle that makes the addiction that much harder to shake. In order to satisfy the craving, a user may go to great lengths to get the drugs or alcohol he so desperately desires, even if it means risking the things most important to him. Another sign of addiction is that the user refuses to think he can get through the day without his substance of choice, making him unable to stop using. And if he does try to stop, the resulting withdrawal symptoms can be debilitating.

The end result for addicts of all stripes can be the loss of the life they used to live. Relationships may be torn apart, work or school commitments abandoned. The activities that used to bring contentment fall by the wayside in pursuit of the next hit or drink. In the worst cases, jobs may be lost, and the resulting financial ruin can lead to homelessness or bankruptcy. There is also a higher risk of committing an illegal activity, which could lead to arrest.

Treating drug and alcohol addictions

Clearly, drug and alcohol addictions both require treatment in order to achieve sobriety.  Programs will address the specific substances a client is abusing, and there will also be treatments applicable to all kinds of other substance use disorders.

Usually, a client enters a program on an in-house basis. That’s because the first stage of treatment is detoxification, which requires medical intervention and support during this intense period. The client’s residential stay should also include a period of time with a counselor in individual or group settings to begin addressing the mental health issues behind the addiction. A person will gain the recovery tools necessary to make the transition to the outpatient phase of a program, where he can start rebuilding his life and creating a supportive environment that is conducive to sobriety.

In the end, drugs and alcohol are both considered substances, and substance abuse can spiral downward to addiction that requires treatment before it becomes life-threatening. The most important thing to remember is to seek out help today.


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