How Long Until It’s Considered an Addiction?

How long does it take to become addicted is a frequently asked question. However, it is not easily answered. There are many factors that contribute to addiction development—these range from medical and mental health risk factors to one’s substance of choice. There are certain characteristics unique to the individual or environmental factors that increase the risk of developing an addiction. Additionally, some drugs carry a higher risk for rapidly developing dependency and, therefore addiction. Understanding what addiction looks like in your teen is vital to knowing when to seek early and comprehensive addiction treatment and teen-focused treatment centers like Hillcrest.


Addiction is a disease that can affect anyone. Adolescents, teens, adults, and seniors are all potential victims of the dangerous physical and psychological impacts of drug and alcohol addiction. According to research studies, many who begin engaging in risky substance use patterns during their teen years are at an increased risk for drug or alcohol-related death. When adolescents and teens begin drinking or using early, it is more likely to evolve into a substance use disorder. 


Unfortunately, the knowledge that early experimentation with drugs and alcohol can lead to potentially deadly effects has failed to slow the rate of teen substance abuse. Between 2016 and 2020, the rate of drug use among eighth-graders increased by more than 60%. IN 2019, nearly 5000 American’s between ages 15 and 24 died due to drug overdose. As of 2019, more than 400,000 teens met the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder, and nearly 800,000 met the criteria for an illicit drug use disorder. 


Risk Factors for Addiction

Several potential risk factors may increase your teen’s risk for addiction to drugs or alcohol. Because drug and alcohol use and the process of developing an addiction are often highly individualized processes, it can be difficult to point to one specific risk factor over another period. However, common risk factors that increase teen and adult risk for alcohol and drug dependency and addiction include trauma history, family history, mental health struggles, and early experimentation with substances. 


Family History of Substance Use Disorders

Research indicates that teens with a family history of addiction may be at a higher risk for experiencing addiction during their lifetime. Also, these individuals are more likely to exhibit signs of “addictive” personalities. Meaning, when compared to peers their own age who do not have a family history of addiction, these individuals are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or develop significant struggles related to substance use. Some studies indicate that 40% to 60% of the potential risk for developing an alcohol use disorder may be linked to genetic factors (family history). Additionally, it may be up to 80% for other substances such as cocaine, heroin, and other opioids.


Trauma History

A wide body of evidence and research links trauma and substance use disorders. Whether struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma history, or experiences related to current trauma, many who have a background of abuse or traumatic experiences will also struggle with substance use disorders. Additionally, there is significant evidence pointing to a link between childhood abuse in other types of trauma and substance use or addiction-related disorders. It is not uncommon for those who’ve experienced significant trauma– especially those who have not found safe and healthy ways to process and address their experiences– to turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. This process of seeking to dull their emotions or alleviate the pain related to their symptoms generally leads to substance dependency and, inevitably, drug or alcohol addiction. Without treatment at a teen-focused mental health center like Hillcrest to learn more effective forms of symptoms management, teens who have a history of trauma are at an increased risk for significant struggles with substances. 


Co-Occurring Mental Health Struggles

There is an undeniable connection between mental health and substance use disorders. Some estimates suggest as many as 50% of those who seek help to overcome a mental health struggle also have an underlying substance use disorder. Similarly, a significant percentage of those who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse do so because they use substances to help alleviate mental health symptoms. 


Early Experimentation with Substances

Adolescents and teens may be particularly prone to developing substance use disorders as they grow. As noted above, research suggests that teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol early, while their brains are still actively growing and developing, are out of increased risk for developing dependency and addiction. This occurs because the undeveloped parts of the brain, such as the frontal regions, play a vital role in judgment and impulse control. These are the parts of the brain that are highly affected by drug and alcohol use. Additionally, other parts of the brain that regulate pleasure and reward are highly active in teens, perhaps even more so than they are in adults. This level of activity can make the “high” achieved by using drugs or alcohol more appealing and exciting for adolescents and teens.


Drug of Choice Matters

Another factor that must be considered when discussing how long it takes someone to become addicted to drugs or alcohol is the type of substance that they use. In short, some substances are significantly more addictive than others. Data released by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration list some of the most addictive substances.  This list includes powerful opioids such as heroin, fentanyl (in some prescription medications), cocaine, methamphetamines, and stimulants such as Ritalin. 


Unfortunately, because the amount of time it takes to become addicted to a substance varies based on the substance your teen uses, determining an exact window of time it takes to become addicted is difficult. Some drugs like cocaine can lead to addiction after just one use. Whereas other substances like alcohol require a pattern of chronic, escalating misuse before dependency and addiction often take hold.


A good way to identify how habit-forming a particular medication might be is to look at its half-life. The half-life of the drug is the amount of time it takes for the body to metabolize and eliminate a dose of the drug from the bloodstream. Drugs that have a short half-life often produce effects more quickly; however, they also leave the body faster. Drugs that have a higher risk of withdrawal symptoms and a higher risk of abuse and dependency are shorter-acting drugs. This is because those who used them to achieve a high experience rapid results, although the high wears off equally as fast. The quick resolution of benefits leads to more frequent and escalating use of the substance, which is an early sign of developing an addiction. 


Signs of Addiction 

As previously noted, addiction is an individualized challenge. This means that while two people may struggle with the same addiction, the impacts of drugs or alcohol on their system and the challenges they face when trying to get sober will inevitably be different. Just like one person may experience mild liberal symptoms, another may experience potentially life-threatening consequences. Therefore, seeking help at a professional treatment center like Hillcrest to put struggles with addiction in the past is the safest and most effective way for your teen to get and stay sober.


Understanding the signs of addiction is beneficial to knowing when it is vital to seek help for your teen. Addiction develops differently for different people. The signs and symptoms of addiction may be physical, psychological, or behavioral. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of addiction include cravings, increased isolation from friends and loved ones, changes in social circles, problems managing everyday tasks and responsibilities, new or worsening mental health symptoms, physical struggles (such as headaches, body aches, stomach upset, or weight loss), failing grades, changes to hygiene or personal appearance, and a range of others. 


Another key indicator of developing an addiction is withdrawal symptoms. If your teen is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse and tries to stop or reduce how often they use particular substances (especially opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol), they will experience withdrawal symptoms. Like addiction, withdrawal looks different from person to person. However, it is important to note that some withdrawal symptoms can be powerful, overwhelming, and sometimes life-threatening. If you are concerned that your teen is experiencing withdrawal, it is vital to seek urgent medical help right away. Once they have successfully detoxed, it is possible to transition into a therapeutic addiction treatment program where they can address the roots of their addiction while learning how to move forward free from drugs or alcohol.


Addiction Recovery in Teens

Overcoming addiction is a challenge regardless of age. It can be especially difficult for teens who struggle with overwhelming day-to-day stressors that lead to powerful mental health symptoms or for teens who live in an environment where trauma frequently occurs. These individuals are at a greater risk for turning to drugs or alcohol to help feel a “normal period.” Unfortunately, using drugs or alcohol in this way can lead to life-threatening and life-changing consequences.


As a parent, it can be difficult to acknowledge that your teen needs help to overcome drugs or alcohol. Acknowledging that your child has a harmful relationship with substances is a difficult first step towards improving their health and wellness long term. Seeking help from a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest can help your teen and your family begin a journey to lasting recovery. Our caring and compassionate treatment team at our Los Angeles rehab understand the challenges that teens and their families face when it comes to treating addiction. We also understand that the most successful treatment programs are those that consider the unique nature of teen-focused treatment. To learn more about treatment at Hillcrest, contact our admissions team today. We are here to help you learn more about how specialized, teen-focused treatment care can help your teen achieve lasting health and sobriety.