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What Causes Drug Addiction?

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

January 23, 2019

In recent decades, researchers have been able to identify factors and triggers that both lead to and perpetuate drug abuse. Understanding the root causes of drug addiction is one way to improve treatment options and outcomes for drug addiction into the future.

Drug addiction accounts for more than $600 billion in lost revenue, legal and health care costs, and damages each year in the United States alone. More than 110 people die each day from drug-related overdoses, and death from injury relating to alcohol or drug abuse is a leading cause of death in this country. There is no single factor that leads to drug addiction. Addiction is a complex disease resulting from any number of overlapping factors including genetic predisposition to addiction, socioeconomic factors, drug exposure, and a history of violence in the home.

Genetic Predisposition To Drug Addiction

For some, it only takes a minute exposure to drugs to become physically dependent. These individuals may carry specific genes linked to addiction and addictive behaviors. Research by Harvard University in the 1960s highlighted a genetic component to addiction with its “twin study.” The study compared data collected over a 10-year period between identical twins, with an identical genetic make-up, and fraternal twins, whose genetics vary. The identical twin group showed more than double the rate of co-occurring addictive behaviors between twin pairs than the fraternal twin control group.

Approximately 40 gene variations have so far been discovered and linked to addiction and addictive behaviors. Genetics can alter the way a person responds to a drug. For instance, someone who carries the Htr1b will be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and cocaine, making them more susceptible to addiction. The opposite is also true. Someone with a variant of the YP2A6 gene will have a hard time tolerating cigarette smoke, making them less susceptible to developing an addiction to nicotine.

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Socioeconomic Factors And Drug Addiction

Socioeconomic factors also appear to play a role in drug addiction, though this role is not completely clear. Under served populations including those living below the poverty line, the homeless, and incarcerated populations see higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction.

Populations with greater access to health care tend toward fewer addiction problems. It follows that for someone unable to obtain medical care, they might rely on available street drugs or alcohol to cope with chronic pain or stress. Additionally, lower income populations face a greater challenge in seeking sometimes costly treatment options. It’s estimated that fewer than 10 percent of those who need treatment are able to obtain care, with more than a third of those individuals citing a lack of insurance as the primary barrier.

During one study examining rates of co-occurring homelessness and substance abuse, more than 67 percent of those interviewed said their homelessness was the result of a preexisting substance abuse problem. Co-occurring mental health issues may be partially to blame for this disparity. For instance, someone who is unable to hold down a job due to a mental disorder, is also at greater risk of drug dependency and also homelessness.

What we can conclude is that once in the grips of poverty, greater is the availability of illicit drugs along with a disproportionate inability to access treatment options for drug addiction, increasing the risk for an addiction to develop.

Drug Exposure And Abuse

Children who are exposed to drug use in the home are at an eight-fold increase in the risk of developing addictive behaviors. Apart from socioeconomic factors, poor coping skills on part of drug-addicted parents are a characteristic passed along to children. Without good coping skills, these children as adults are at greater risk of turning to drugs to cope with stress.

Additionally, children exposed to drug abuse early on are more likely to be encouraged to participate or have greater access to drugs, putting them at high risk for addiction. Adolescent populations often have access to a myriad of drug compounds found in household cleansers, paint, and glue, to alcohol, nicotine, and prescription medications found commonly in homes across the country. Availability of these drugs, along with early exposure to drug use and poor coping strategies, play an integral role in the perpetuation of addictive behaviors within families.

History Of Sexual Or Physical Abuse

A history of sexual or physical abuse, especially among women appears to increase risk of substance abuse. More than 75 percent of women who abuse alcohol also suffered from a previous sexual trauma. Likely reasons for drug use following sexual or physical trauma include the numbing effects of drugs as part of a self-medicating coping strategy or provide an avenue toward self-destructive behaviors.

Add to this, differences between the metabolic processes for men and women and you’ll find women are more sensitive to drugs and alcohol, needing less exposure for similar effects. Consequently, women are more at risk for developing an addiction to drugs like alcohol.

Causes of Drug Addiction

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Drug exposure and availability
  • Sexual or physical violence

In one 2012 epidemiological study, nearly 10 percent of the survey population admitted to having abused an illicit drug or prescription medication in the previous 30-day period. We know now that this widespread addiction isn’t the result of a lack of willpower; it’s the result of multiple, often overlapping, factors that contribute to the incidence of drug abuse in this country. And with this knowledge, come the resources to end this cycle of addiction.

Treatment For Drug Addiction

Today more than ever, treatment for drug addiction is becoming increasingly individualized. Comprehensive plans address not only the addiction, but the underlying issues resulting in the addiction. If you or someone you know is in need of help for drug addiction, help is here. can connect you with the resources, professional services, and treatment options available in your area. Contact us today and discover a world free from addiction in recovery.

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