How many times does someone have to take a drug to become an addict?
No one knows. A person’s genetic makeup plays a role. That’s why some people seem to get addicted almost immediately, but for others, it takes more time. There is a lot we still don’t know about who becomes addicted and why, and after how much drug exposure. We do know that each person is different, so it’s a little like playing a game of chance if you choose to use drugs. But, if you do, the earlier you stop, the more likely you will be to avoid addiction and the harmful brain changes that lead to it.
Here’s the science behind it: With repeated drug use, dopamine function in a drug abuser’s brain becomes abnormal. Because dopamine is involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation, the person feels flat, lifeless, and depressed when they are not taking the drug. Without drugs, an abuser’s life seems joyless. Now the abuser needs drugs just to bring dopamine levels up to normal levels. They need it just to get them close to where they were before they even tried drugs in the first place. Larger amounts of the drug are needed to create a dopamine flood or high, an effect known as tolerance.
By abusing drugs, the addicted person has changed the way his or her brain works. Drug abuse and addiction lead to long-term changes in the brain. These changes cause addicted drug users to lose the ability to control their drug use. Drug addiction is a disease.1