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Substance Addiction vs. Dependence: What’s the Difference?



Substance addiction and dependence are both serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that can cause physical, emotional, and social harm to individuals. However, these two terms aren’t interchangeable. 

Before you can begin any form of treatment for substance abuse or addiction, it’s important to know the difference between them so you can get an accurate diagnosis of your condition and start working toward recovery. 

In this article, we will explain the similarities and differences between substance abuse vs dependence by highlighting the main differences between them (and their respective treatments).


Table of Contents

What Is Dependence?

To put it simply, dependence is the body adapting to a drug and needing it to function normally. 

When you take drugs that affect your central nervous system (like opioids or barbiturates), you can become physically dependent on them within days or weeks.

Long-term use of some drugs can change the way your brain works—you may need more of the drug just to feel normal. 

This process is called tolerance, and it happens when your body gets used to having certain amounts of these substances floating around inside it. 

Your brain sends signals telling you that you need more and more of whatever’s making you high just so that those signals won’t be sent anymore.


What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a brain disease, and it can’t be cured by willpower alone. Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder in which you lose control over substance use

—whether that’s alcohol, drugs (including prescription medications), or even behaviors like gambling and sex—and are unable to stop using despite the negative consequences you experience. 

When you’re addicted to something, your body changes in fundamental ways: 

You become physically dependent on the drug or behavior; your body craves it; your brain gets accustomed to having the substance on board; and you build up a tolerance so that you need more of it just to feel normal again. 

As a result of these changes, stopping suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms that range from mild (like trouble sleeping) to severe (like seizures).


Addiction vs. Dependence: Similarities and Differences

If you’ve been wondering whether your substance abuse is a problem, or if it’s just normal behavior for someone in your situation, here’s what we know: Substance dependence and addiction are closely related. 

Both involve taking a substance to the point of excess, and both involve physical and/or psychological dependence on that substance. 

What separates them is the severity of their symptoms.

The terms “substance abuse” and “dependence” are often used interchangeably by doctors who treat people with addictions. 

However, these two conditions have very different implications for how your life has been affected so far by your use of drugs or alcohol

—and how it will be affected if you continue to use them regularly now or in the future.


How Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment Can Help

Treatment for substance abuse and dependence is available in many forms. If you want to get sober, it can be helpful to know what treatments are available and how they can help.

Many treatment methods may be used by your doctor or therapist. 

These include:

  • Inpatient treatment: You stay at a facility while undergoing treatment. Inpatient treatment might be necessary if you have been abusing substances daily or have already had detoxification symptoms such as vomiting, sweating, and diarrhea. You will live with other patients who are also going through withdrawal from their addictions; this can help make you feel supported when you’re having difficulty adjusting to life without your drug of choice.

Inpatient facilities also offer structure so that everyone has similar schedules every day; 

these schedules will often take into consideration the times when people need rest after being awake all night due to cravings for drugs or alcohol (known as “triggers”). 

Other common features include medical staff monitoring physical well-being related to substance use during detoxification.


Takeaway: There are several similarities between substance addiction and dependence, but treatment can help you move on from both

While substance dependence is a form of addiction, it’s not the only kind. Many people with substance use disorders can control their drug use independently, so they don’t have to go through rehab. 

For example, someone who occasionally drinks too much alcohol but has otherwise healthy habits might be considered only dependent on alcohol rather than addicted to it.

The good news is that there are treatment options available for both dependence and addiction; 

if you feel like your own relationship with drugs or alcohol isn’t quite healthy yet but you’re not ready for rehab just yet, talk to your doctor about other ways you can get help today.

Treatment may involve medication-assisted therapy (MAT), which combines behavioral therapies with medications such as methadone or buprenorphine (Suboxone) that prevent cravings for opiates without causing intense highs or requiring an opioid tolerance build-up over time as pain pills do. 

These medications can help reduce withdrawal symptoms during detoxification from other drugs too!



It’s important to understand the difference between substance addiction and dependence. 

It can help you get the right treatment for yourself or someone else who is struggling with addiction.

In conclusion, it’s important to know that there are many different types of addiction, but they all have one thing in common with dependence: They affect your brain and body in negative ways. 

If you think you might have an addiction, talk to someone about it right away! You can find help from an experienced professional who can give you a diagnosis and recommend treatment options based on your needs.


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