Addiction is a complex disease. Every time you research it, surprising facts about addiction unfold.

Across addiction treatment blog, we’ll be drilling down on the issue over the long haul. This way, we can continually probe the many facets of this incurable but treatable disease in bite-sized chunks.

Today, we’ll get straight down to business with a glimpse at ten surprising facts about addiction.

Surprising Facts About Addiction

1) Alcohol Is The Most Abused Substance

The first staggering fact about addiction is not merely that alcohol is the most abused substance. Where it’s legal, that alone gives it far greater reach than drugs you need to pick up off the street on the black market.

And that reach is enormous.

Over half of all American families can trace some history of alcohol abuse. The 2015 NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) reported over 86% of all adults having consumed alcohol at some point with 56% of these drinking during the month leading up to the survey.

While this sets the scene generally, how about outright alcohol abuse?

The same survey from 2015 highlighted over 15 million adults with AUD (alcohol abuse disorder). This equates to 6% of the entire adult population.

Since less than 7% of this vast number received treatment, the extent of the problem is clear.

In terms of consequences, 88,000 US citizens die each year from alcohol-related causes making this third only to tobacco and poor diet as a leading cause of preventable death.

So, it’s not just crack addicts sucking on a blackened glass pipe or bankers snorting cocaine crying out for treatment for addiction. Alcohol might be socially acceptable in small doses, but when dependence sets in, the costs can be ruinous.

And it’s the raw cost that’s the next surprising fact about addition…

2) Addiction’s $740 Billion Bill

NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports an enormous financial cost to addiction.

It’s always tough to establish a uniform financial baseline for the kind of backlash exerted by addiction. NIDA kept things simple by considering all the major addictive groups from tobacco and alcohol through to illegal drugs and prescription pills.

Tobacco, an insidiously addictive vice, leads the pack by some distance exacting a cost of $168 billion in terms of health care alone each year with overall costs rated at a cool $300 billion.

While the healthcare costs of alcohol are a fraction of this at $27 billion annually, things spiral out of control in terms of overall costs of $249 billion when factoring in incarceration, damage caused through drink driving and vandalism and a significant loss of productivity in the workplace.

The bottom line for illegal drugs is $193 billion a year while prescription opioids are running the government $78.5 billion annually.

In case you were wondering, NIDA draws these figures from a range of official sources from reports from the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Surgeon General through to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as scientific studies on the economic burden of addiction. Combining data on drug usage, emergency room figures, the cost of treatment programs and feedback from significant employers, NIDA arrive at that ruinous annual cost of $740 billion or over $2 billion a day.

3) Addiction Can Alter Your Brain Structure

As well as the obvious financial costs of addiction, the cost to anyone addicted to a substance can be more dangerous still.

Systematically abusing any substance can change the way your brain is structured.

Why is this?

Well, addictive substances are so hard to put down because using them gives your brain a shot of dopamine, a chemical messenger and neurotransmitter that can affect mood. The front portion of the brain houses the reward center, and this area is electrically stimulated by dopamine.

There’s a sound biological reason for this happening in your brain to ensure healthy, life-sustaining behaviors like eating when you’re hungry.

Alcohol along with other mood-altering drugs replicate this pleasure and reward but do so even more efficiently and intensely than occurs naturally.

The artificial high delivered makes it difficult to stop using the substance. Over time, though, the effect of the drug on dopamine diminishes. This is mainly responsible for growing tolerance and the desire for more of the drug to achieve the same pleasurable outcome.

Even worse, eventually the reward system stops functioning leaving the user feeling lethargic and deflated. Willpower and impulse control are damaged as you continue to flood your nervous system with the drug. This makes giving up harder than ever before while you simultaneously need increasing quantities of the substance.

With the pleasure-seeking part of the brain on the hunt for more dopamine and the control area of the brain diluted, this change in structure is terrible news.

4) Multiple Genes Play a Part in Addiction

If you’ve started doing any reading at all about addiction, you’ve probably encountered the concept of an “addictive gene.”

This over-simplified outlook is incorrect. There is no single gene that predetermines whether or not you’ll become addicted to any given substance.

Dr. Yngvild Olsen, the Medical Director at Institutes for Behaviour Resources, Inc describes addiction as an “interplay between genetics, environment, and childhood trauma” and goes on to state that “there is no addiction gene” while admitting that “many genetic factors” can lead to substance abuse.

The general consensus is that genetics are roughly 50% responsible for addiction to environmental factors and lifestyle also playing a significant role.

Dr. Olsen has urged the government and medical community to continue aggressively investigating addiction as a disease. This ties in with the standpoint of AA, NA, and most treatment centers who treat addiction as a legitimate disease with as little blame attached to the end user as would be to someone suffering from cancer or mental illness.  The next surprising fact about addiction: the prevalence of co-occurring disorders…

5) Co-Occurring Disorders: Addiction and Mental Illness

Co-occurring disorders involve more than one health condition – generally mental health disorders – simultaneously.

The most common instance of this is substance abuse in tandem with any of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • OCD
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Bipolar
  • Personality disorders
  • Psychotic disorders

In the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health was established that 40% of Americans with substance abuse also exhibited another mental health problem. This means over 8 million US citizens are struggling with addiction while at the same time fighting another mental battle.

This is one of those issues that feeds on itself as well.

Using drugs can trigger depressive bouts while those with a mental illness are twice as likely to use illegal drugs as those in pristine mental health.

It’s also a chicken and egg scenario. Does the mental illness stem from drug use or does taking drugs stem from self-medicating to alleviate crippling depression or anxiety?

Whichever viewpoint you take, this is a dangerous combo and one that’s anything but uncommon.

6) Americans Consume 80% of All Prescription Pills Globally

No, you didn’t misread that!

While Americans make up just 5% of the global population, US citizens consume fully 80% of the world’s supply of prescription pills.

The staggering statistic is in large part due to the way doctors continue to prescribe opioids for treating chronic or acute pain.

Worsening this situation, the prevalence of opioids readily available online means anyone who fancies some Oxycontin can easily get hold of them without a prescription and without needing to leave home.

Available from multiple sources and intensively addictive with tolerance building rapidly, the US appetite for painkillers is remarkable and shows no signs of abating.

The unfortunate knock-on effect of this is the sobering fact that someone who abuses prescription opioids is fully 40% for likely to use heroin than someone who doesn’t. This is due to opiates and heroin having a similar chemical structure. As a result, they deliver very similar effects. Ironically, someone who develops an opioid addiction might turn to street heroin as a cheaper alternative, but one that’s even more ruinous.

7) Prescription Drugs Have a Higher Fatality Rate Than Illegal Drugs

Continuing the prescription drug path, it might surprise you to know that legal pills kill more people than illegal drugs.

Cocaine, heroin and crystal meth overdoses tend to grab those headlines, but over the decade to 2010, 48,000 American women died from opioid overdoses. Women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, more likely to receive prescriptions for opioid painkillers and use them at higher doses for more extended periods resulting in dependence in tens of thousands of cases, death by overdose.

Men don’t escape either, though, with more than a 200% increase from 1999 to 2010 in death from opioids.

In 2012, 16,000 deaths occurred in the US at the hands of prescription drugs in total.

None of this is to suggest that illegal drugs are not a destructive force, but the menace of opioids should be given more weight when considering addiction.

8) Most Addicts Work For a Living

Think about the stereotype of an addict…

A homeless, unemployed bum, right?

Crack addicts creating mayhem on the trail of their next rock, meth-heads clustered around a park bench and smokers spending all day in a weed-cloud having opted out of society.

These all make for far better news stories than a gainfully employed man heading off to work in the morning even though he’s struggling under the pressing weight of drug addiction.

According to SAMHSA, three-quarters of all people with a drinking or drug problem are employed. With none of them living on the street.

Addiction respects no boundaries and happens regardless of background or income level. By adjusting how we think about addiction, we’re more likely to focus on solutions like an ongoing treatment rather than formulating negative and false images of all addicts as unemployed wasters.

9) Early Intervention is More Effective Than Waiting For That Rock Bottom Moment

Another enduring myth about addiction concerns the need for someone to bottom out entirely before seeking treatment.

Undoubtedly, if someone’s life is coming apart at the seams with disastrous consequences, seeking treatment is vital.

There’s no need to wait for that to happen, though.

If you’re addicted to drink or drugs yourself, it’s much more prudent to take action once you’ve identified the warning signs and admitted that you have a problem. Don’t keep pushing it until your hand is forced.

When you’re trying to help an addict in the family, the same applies. If you can edge your loved one into treatment of their own volition, the earlier, you do so, the better. If, on the other hand, you meet with resistance and need to stage an intervention, there’s no need at all to wait until chaos abounds. However, note, the importance of hiring a professional to assist in this process.

Behavior change and recovery is a process so the earlier you can kickstart this process, the sooner normality can resume.

10) Heroin Was Once Perfectly Legal

While rightly vilified today, heroin was once not only legal but marketed as non-addictive.

Launched by Bayer in 1898 as a cough suppressant and a safe substitute for morphine, this was perhaps not the cynical move we sometimes suspect pharmaceutical giants pull. During this period in history, pneumonia and TB were laying waste to huge swathes of the population. Heroin plugged the gap as an effective method of both pain relief and suppressing the coughs that were killing thousands.

Due to its addictive nature, this was a product that practically sold itself. All was well until people started becoming addicted. In short order, public opinion turned against the substance, and it was banned worldwide.

11) Fear The Flesh-Eating Krokodil

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. In the case of Krokodil, the extent of the havoc wreaked by this drug simply beggars description.

Effects of Krokodil

Springing in the poorest sectors of Russia, Krokodil is a flesh-eating alternative to heroin costing one-tenth the price based on the synthetic desomorphine.

Codeine tablets are mixed with anything from petrol and paint thinner to red phosphorus and hydrochloric acid with absolutely no regard for the end user. Tolerance builds rapidly and, for a Krokodil addict, life expectancy is as little as two years.

Before that point, though, the addict undergoes unimaginable horrors. Injecting the drug first causes blood vessels to burst then the surrounding tissue withers and dies. In the worst scenario, flesh starts falling off in chunks exposing bone and muscle leading to its nickname “the zombie drug.”

Unfortunately, Krokodil made its way to the US with the first confirmed cases of the drug back in 2013.

Wrap-Up

You should also see that addiction takes on many forms but with one commonality: it is a disease that can be treated effectively, especially with professional assistance from an alcohol treatment center focusing on substance abuse.