Drug Addiction - The Complete Guide

This is the complete guide to drug addiction. If you feel that you may be developing a dependency to a particular substance, are a parent of a child who you suspect has been taking drugs, or are concerned about a friend’s alcohol intake then this site is for you.

It also contains useful and relevant information for healthcare professionals and anyone connected with drug addiction.

A neutral, uncritical approach

We are not here to pass judgement on anyone or to criticise a mode of behaviour. An addiction can happen to anyone and it is a case of ‘there but for the grace of god’ in this situation. An addiction can develop from the most unlikely source or in someone you might have assumed is the last person on this earth to become dependent so a rational approach is called for here.

So, the information on this site is presented in an objective and sympathetic manner which is designed to help you gain a greater understanding about drug addiction.

Types of addiction ...its not just drugs

There are numerous forms of addiction which include gambling, shopping, coffee and computer usage but this guide deals primarily with drug addiction.

Drug addiction is a major problem in the UK which is caused by a variety of factors. Heroin, cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy, these are just a few of the many substances which are misused on a regular basis. These are also the substances which have a high profile and seen as a contributor to many of the problems in British society today.

But there are other less obvious forms of drug addiction, for example ‘legal drugs’ such as alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine. These are used by many people on a recreational basis and in the case of alcohol and caffeine are seen as socially acceptable.

Yet they can have far reaching effects. Misuse can cause serious, long term damage both mentally and physically, not to mention the social and emotional consequences as well.

The problem is deciding when something which appears to be a habit becomes an addiction.

Drug addiction is a major problem

This is one of the major forms of addiction in the UK which causes untold misery to many people. It doesn’t just affect the addict: it also encompasses their families, friends, colleagues and the authorities.

All drugs have their problems -  whether they are classed as ‘hard’ drugs or ‘soft’  drugs but addiction can be broken - as long as the addict wants to give up.

And that’s the most difficult part. There are many drug addicts who either deny that they have an addiction, hide the signs of it or flatly refuse to get any help. As with any addiction the first step is usually the most important: this is recognising that you have an addiction and want to do something about it.

It is easy to feel embarrassed or ashamed about your habit but don’t be. Many people are in the same position as you and feel the same way but it can be beaten. 

This means going into ‘rehab’  for a drug treatment programme and attending support groups and/or networks. Very few people can beat their addiction on their own so help and support from family and friends is vital.

It takes a great deal of willpower, determination and persistence to break a drug addiction. Many people suffer from relapses and several sessions of treatment are required before they can be said to have ‘kicked their habit’. 

This is discussed in greater detail in our treating a drug addiction section.

But before you visit this section why not spend some time learning more about the various drugs available, their use and abuse. This section is designed to provide information for people who think that they may be developing a dependency (or an addiction); are worried about a friend’s addiction; are the parent of a child who they suspect is taking drugs or someone who wished to know more about the risks of drugs.

Learning more about these types of drugs can help you to better understand your addiction and how it might be dealt with. 

Drug addiction affects us all

Sad but true. Most if not all of us have come into contact with drugs or know someone who takes drugs. Many drugs are easy to obtain - legally or illegally and a habit can start from what might be considered an unlikely source e.g. prescription drugs.

How does drug addiction start?

Drug addiction can start for a variety of reasons which include experimentation, escapism, and dependency on prescription drugs or a need to relax. It can also develop from a desire to ‘fit in’ either at work or school or from doing competitive sport.

What is important to remember is that it is a highly complex condition which occurs for a variety of reasons with no easy ways of dealing with it.

Why are drugs so addictive?

Drug addicts are controlled by their habit. Everything they do is geared towards satisfying their need. This need is uncontrollable which often leads addicts to turn to crime to pay for their habit.

Addicts will persist in taking drugs even though they are fully aware of the consequences.

But why you might be asking? Why continue to take something which could kill you? Also why is it so difficult to give up?

The answer to these is that drugs have a dramatic impact upon your physical and mental health. They alter the structure and function of the brain to the extent that it behaves in an irrational and unpredictable manner. Concentration, judgement, rational thinking, empathy and self-discipline are all affected and these plus other changes are what cause the cravings and desire for drugs impossible to resist.

The problem is that the first few times you take a drug there appears to be no ill-effects. You find that it is a pleasurable experience and something you are likely to repeat.

However there are some drugs which can cause an addiction the first time they are taken.

But what happens is that as you take the drug over time your body becomes used to it. It develops a tolerance and you require larger doses in order to feel the same effects. If you don’t then withdrawal symptoms occur and these are so unpleasant that you take more drugs to ease them. You feel as if you can’t cope without the drug or that life is too difficult to manage unless you have your fix.

The drugs start to consume you and basically, take over your life.

The effects of drug addiction

Each drug affects a person in a particular way so the effects of heroin will differ from solvents or amphetamines. But the one thing that is common to them all is the power to change the chemistry of the brain so that it develops uncontrollable cravings for that drug.

Your addiction will mean more to you than your partner/spouse, family, friends, career and even your health.

So why take drugs?

There is no simple answer to this. Some people start by experimenting with friends whilst still at school. Others started when they attended a party or socialised with colleagues after work.

Others developed an addiction to prescription drugs over a period of time.

There are people who use drugs in order to boost their confidence and self-esteem. Others use them to relax or wind down at the end of a stressful week.

There is also the fact that some people appear to be vulnerable to drug addiction. They have what is called an ‘addictive personality’ and find it difficult to resist the temptation.

Find out more in our about drug addiction section.

Signs of drug addiction

Each drug has its own physical and psychological effects but the signs of addiction are usually the same whatever the substance.

Drug addiction can be a process in which you start with casual drug use which leads to dependency and finally addiction. The problem here is that when you have reached the stage of dependency then you may also be at that point in which self-denial has set in. You may not be aware of the hold that drug has over you or the damage it is doing to you and others around you.

Common indicators of drug dependency and/or addiction include:

  • Have developed a tolerance to the drug so require ever increasing amounts to feel the same effects.
  • Have started to neglect or evade your responsibilities to your family, work colleagues or your boss.
  • Taking a drug in a dangerous situation such as combining it with another substance or using a dirty needle.
  • Withdrawing from your family and friends. Acting in a secretive manner or being mysterious about any new friends you have acquired.
  • Stealing or lying to others. Committing crime to pay for your addiction.
  • Giving up all your hobbies, sports, interests etc as a result of your addiction.
  • Losing control of your drug addiction.
  • Spending every minute of the day thinking about drugs and your addiction.
  • Continuing to use drugs even though you are suffering from ill effects such as blackouts or even an overdose.

Any drug has the potential to be abused even something relatively innocuous as sleeping pills.

Physical signs of drug addiction

Drug addicts will often try and hide the signs of their habit, for example by wearing a long sleeved top to hide needle tracks on their arms, even on a hot day.

But if you are concerned then look for the following:

  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils or black rimmed eyes
  • Spots around the nose and mouth
  • Pale skin
  • Facial skin in a poor condition (spots, blotches etc)
  • Shakes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Needle marks on arms and legs

Psychological signs of drug addiction

There are also psychological indicators of drug addiction which include:

  • Paranoia
  • Secretive behaviour
  • Mood swings
  • Outbursts
  • Irritability
  • Extremes of behaviour (‘highs’ and ‘lows’)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Change in personality

There are also social aspects to this as well which include poor performance at work or school; stealing money from family or friends or begging for money; furtive behaviour; getting into trouble with the police and dropping old friends, hobbies and interests.

If you are the parent of a teenager then it can be even harder to detect if he/she is taking drugs as some of the social indicators of addiction could be normal teenage behaviour.

Find out more in our young people and addictions section.

Have you developed an addiction?

No-one likes to think of themselves as a drug addict as the picture it conjures up is not a pleasant one. Drug addicts are not seen in a favourable light in our society and generally public opinion is negative towards them.

With this in mind it is very easy to deny that you have a problem or may have become an addict. Plus there is the fact that you may find it difficult to believe that you have developed an addiction so it must be a sign of a weakness in your character or that you are a ‘bad’ person.

Added to this is the fact that you cannot break your habit.

If you suspect that you may have a problem with drugs then ask yourself any of the following:

  • Do you lie about your drug addiction to other people?
  • Do you feel a sense of guilt or shame about your drug addiction?
  • Do you take drugs to cope with everyday life, to reduce stress or to relax?
  • Do you feel helpless or unable to stop taking drugs?
  • Have you ever committed a crime to pay for addiction?
  • Have you spent money you cannot afford on your drug habit?
  • Have you used more than one drug?

If you find that you have answered ‘yes’ to more than one of these questions then that suggests that you may have a problem. It also means that you are prepared to face up to your addiction which is far harder than people realise.

However you need to talk about this with someone you can trust, for example your GP or contact a drugs helpline.

Help with drug addiction

To start with it’s important to enlist the help and support of family and friends rather than try to go it alone. Trying to break an addiction on willpower alone is extremely difficult and only a few people can manage to do so.

You are better seeking help via a drug treatment programme or go for counselling.

This also means that you have to make changes, such as your lifestyle, circle of friends, environment and your own behaviour. That can mean changing the way you deal with a problem or stress, or in the way you interact with other people.

In order for you to succeed in beating this addiction, it means making changes on a permanent basis.

There is more information on this in our treating a drug addiction section.

If you are concerned about drug addiction then this section contains individual pages which cover each drug in turn, what it does, the effects and the consequences. It is important to note that no two people are affected in the same way by taking the same drug. There are other factors involved which need to be taken into account, such as sex, age, height, genetics etc.

So what drugs are covered in this section? Here is a list of the substances discussed in this guide:

  • Amphetamines
  • Anabolic Steroids
  • Barbiturates
  • Cannabis
  • Codeine
  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy
  • Gammahydroxybutrate
  • Hallucinogens
  • Heroin
  • Ketamine
  • ‘Legal high’ drugs
  • Marijuana
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Prescription drugs
  • Solvents
  • Tranquilisers

Some you will be familiar with and others less so. You might be surprised to see anabolic steroids in this list but these can be addictive and like other drugs, can be fatal.

Each drug will be talked about in terms of what it is, what it looks like, how it is consumed (injected, inhaled etc), its effects, its addictive qualities and its consequences.


These drugs act as a stimulant on the body and are designed to increase energy. They also enable you to stay awake and alert.

Their street names include ‘speed’,  ‘whizz’ and ‘uppers’. 

They are either inhaled (snorted), smoked, taken as pills or injected.

Anabolic Steroids

A synthetic derivative of the male hormone testosterone: these drugs are popular with bodybuilders and athletes who use them to build muscle mass and strength.

Street names include ‘roids’  and ‘gear’. 

These drugs can be injected or taken as pills.

Find out more in our anabolic steroids section.


These drugs were routinely prescribed to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia. But this has been largely curtailed due to the risk of an accidental overdose. They are only prescribed, if at all, for severe insomnia.

Street names include ‘barbies’,  ‘blue devils’ and ‘blue bullets’.

They are usually taken as pills or injected.

Find out more in our barbiturates section.


A naturally occurring drug (cannabis plant), that is also known as marijuana. It is usually mixed with loose tobacco to form a cigarette (‘joint’) or smoked through a pipe (‘bong’.

Some people choose to mix it with food or add it to drinks.

Street names include ‘weed’,  ‘hash’ and ‘grass’.

Find out more in our cannabis section.


Many popular forms of painkillers contain codeine - a type of opiate which is used in these medications to help relieve pain. This opiate is found in the seed pod of the poppy although other opiates are synthetically produced. They come in a variety of forms such as pills, capsules, suppositories and syrups.

Street names include ‘junk’  and ‘percs’.

Find out more in our codeine section.


This stimulant increases energy and alertness as well as giving a feeling of euphoria (‘high’). It increases heart rate, breathing and body temperature and makes the user feel more confident and assured.

It takes the form of a white powder which can be inhaled (sniffed) or injected. It can also be made into a solid rock called ‘crack’ which is then smoked or prepared for injecting. Cocaine can also be mixed with other drugs, e.g. heroin.

Street names include ‘charlie’,  ‘snow’ and ‘rock’. 

Find out more in our cocaine section.


A popular drug often used by clubbers in order to be able to dance for hours on end. It became the drug of choice during the ‘acid house’ scene of the 1990’s.

It is artificially produced in laboratories and is usually a combination of MDMA and other drugs as well.

It comes in tablet form although the powder form is increasingly being used. This powder is either inhaled (snorted) or in a few rare cases, prepared for injecting.

Street names include ‘E’,  ‘XTC’ and ‘love drug’.

Gammahydroxybutrate (GHB)

This is a synthetic chemical, available in liquid form which is often found in paint strippers and stain removers.  It comes in small bottles or capsules and when consumed using a teaspoon, causes euphoria and uninhibited behaviour.

This is a high risk drug which is even more dangerous if combined with other substances such as alcohol or other recreational drugs.

Street names include ‘liquid ecstasy’,  ‘GBH’ and ‘GHB’.


These types of drugs are often referred to as ‘psychedelic drugs’ and affect the senses in a variety of ways. People who use these drugs report that they are able to see, smell, hear or touch things which in reality, don’t exist.

They can have a good experience -  a ‘good trip’ or an unpleasant one - a ‘bad trip’. 

Some hallucinogens come in natural plant forms whereas others are produced artificially in laboratories.

Find out more in our hallucinogenic drugs section.


This is another opiate, produced from morphine (derived from poppies) which was originally designed as a painkiller. However this highly addictive Class A drug is used by all sorts of people.

Pure heroin comes as a white powder but other versions are sold on the street, e.g. brown as many of these are mixed or ‘cut’ with other substances. 

It can be inhaled, smoked, snorted or injected. Injecting is the most popular form of use as this tends to give an instant ‘hit’.

Street names include ‘H’,  ‘horse’ and ‘brown’.


This hallucinogenic drug was originally designed for veterinary purposes, mainly as an anaesthetic during animal surgery but has been appropriated for recreational use in clubs.

It comes in liquid form although a powder is also available and can be injected, added to drinks or smoked with tobacco. It causes intense hallucinations and feelings of weightlessness.

It can also act as a sedative and has been referred to recently as a ‘date rape’ drug.

Street names include ‘special K’,  ‘vitamin K’ and ‘K’.

‘Legal High’ drugs

The term ‘legal high’ refers to drugs which are legally available for personal use. These drugs cause users to experience a ‘high’ in the same way as taking an illegal drug. Examples of these drugs include herbal smoking mixtures e.g. ‘Spice’, caffeine powders, salvia and mephedrone.

However, many of these drugs have been banned (or are about to be banned) as they have a range of dangerous side effects which in some cases have proven to be fatal.

Street names include ‘Spice’ and ‘Meow Meow’.

Find out more in our legal highs section.


This is a drug from the opiates family which is commonly used to treat heroin withdrawal symptoms. But people who use this can develop a tolerance to it which means that they require increased amounts to achieve the same effect.

Methadone acts as a sedative and causes users to feel safe and relaxed. It also reduces anxiety. 

Whether this can be classed as an addiction is still open to debate.

It is usually available in liquid form although it can be taken as a tablet or injected.

Street names include ‘meth’  and ‘mixture’.


This is another drug from the opiates family which is designed to ease chronic or acute pain. However it is a highly addictive substance which affects both the mind and body and is comparable to heroin.

People can become addicted to morphine very quickly and because of this, it is very difficult to break this addiction. This drug has the highest rate of relapse than any others.

Morphine can be injected or taken orally.

Street names include ‘M’,  ‘morph’ and ‘Miss Emma’.

Prescription drugs

These include drugs such as anti-depressants, tranquilisers and sleeping pills. These drugs are prescribed to treat a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and insomnia. They are successful at doing so but it is easy to develop a tolerance to these drugs which can result in dependence.

It is possible to become addicted to over the counter medicines as well.

Find out more in our prescription drugs section.


This group includes lighter fuels, glue, aerosols, dry cleaning fluids and air fresheners. They are easy to obtain and use but were designed for everyday use and not as recreational drugs.

Their accessibility means that they are popular with children and young people who find that they can experience an instant ‘buzz’ from them.

These substances are inhaled, sniffed or directly squirted into the back of the throat.

Street names include ‘sniff’  and ‘glue’. 

Find out more in our solvents section.

Background to drug addiction

There are people who appear to have ‘addictive personalities’ in that they are particularly susceptible to developing an addiction. They have behaviour traits which appear to predispose them towards dependency. The issue here is whether this can be used as an explanation for an addiction or whether it is a convenient excuse for personal actions and behaviour?

Deciding whether someone has an addiction or not involves a variety of factors such as genetic predisposition, their environment; their response to external triggers, e.g. stress and their relationship with family and friends.

The about drug addiction part of this site discusses these and other related issues in detail. This may help you to decide if you or someone you know has developed a dependency.

If you want to know more about the various forms of drug addiction then our types of addictions section contains individual descriptions of commonly misused substances. These include drugs such as cannabis and cocaine as well as smoking, alcohol and caffeine abuse.

Teenagers and young people like to experiment with drugs and other substances for several reasons which include peer pressure, home environment or as a form of rebellion.

However it’s important that these are dealt with when they are still young as they may lead to a lifelong dependency.

Find out more in our young people and addictions section.

Once an addiction has been diagnosed then the next step is treating that addiction. This has to start with awareness on the part of the person concerned that they have an addiction and want to beat that addiction. There is help available to do so which includes support groups, counselling, rehabilitation, detoxification and drug control therapies.

Find out more about these and others in our treating a drug addiction section.

Our FAQs section contains a list of the most commonly asked questions about drug addiction.

Medical terminology has been used throughout this site but with an accompanying explanation. If not then visit our glossary section.

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Medic8® Family Health Guide : Drug Addiction
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