Understanding Drug Tolerance

While trying to understand what happens when you start and continue taking drugs and alcohol - or any other intoxicating substances - you might be confused about the terms that you come across - such as addiction, dependence, and tolerance. This is because most of the literature you will find out there will use these terms interchangeably. However, they all have different definitions and meanings, as you will learn below.

About Tolerance

Tolerance will develop once you expose your body to a particular intoxicating substance on a regular basis. Once you have developed tolerance and you stop taking the drugs that you were accustomed to at the dose that you were used to or as frequently as you used to, there is a high probability that it will not work quite as effectively as it used to.

When this happens, it means that your body would have become accustomed to the drug. As a result, you will not be able to feel the same effects and benefits that you used to derive from it. If you develop tolerance to prescription medications, your doctor might increase your regular dose, prescribe different drugs, or change your regimen.

That said, there are behavioral and genetic elements involved with the development of tolerance. At times, this condition can develop quickly - even after taking a drug just a couple of times. However, you still need to keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between dependence and tolerance.

Unfortunately, not many people understand what tolerance involves. This is because researchers are still conducting studies to understand how, when, and why it develops - as well as why it affects some people while others remain untouched by it.

The important thing to keep in mind is that you can develop tolerance to all types of intoxicating substances - including both prescription medications as well as other unregulated drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Further, your condition is highly likely to continue getting worse since the medications that you were taking to manage it are not working as well as they used to in the past. In the same way, there is a risk that you might develop cross-tolerance. When this happens, it means that you will be tolerant to all the drugs in one particular class of substances - such as opioids.

In the case of certain drug classes - such as opioids - tolerance could increase your risk of developing dependence, a substance use disorder (or an addiction), as well as a drug overdose.

Once you become tolerant to any drug, you may find yourself using it in higher doses than you used to take before. This could inadvertently increase your risk of suffering a drug overdose.

The only benefit of tolerance is that it could cause you to suffer fewer side effects over the course of time that it takes for your body to get accustomed to the drugs that you have been taking. This could be potentially useful if you are taking medications to manage a particular health related condition.

Tolerance and Dependence

The main difference between dependence and tolerance revolves around the reaction of the body to the absence or presence of certain drugs. With regards to tolerance, there are certain cell receptors within the body that will be activated with the presence of a drug. These receptors will stop responding to the drug once you become tolerant to its effects. This could also cause your body to clear the medication much faster than it used to in the past.

In the case of dependence, you will experience withdrawal if you do not take a drug that you are dependent on or if you suddenly reduce the dose of the drug that you take. As a result, your body will only be able to function normally with the presence of the substance. This is a condition that applies to many types of addictive substances and it often leads to addiction - or a substance use disorder.

The withdrawal symptoms that occur will largely depend on the drugs that you have been taking. They could be as mild as vomiting and nausea or more serious like seizures, delirium tremens, and psychosis.

In case you have developed dependence to a substance, you should not stop taking it abruptly. Instead, you should enroll in a treatment program or talk to your doctor so that they can put you on a tapering schedule whether they will ease off the substance gradually so that you do not suffer too much from the withdrawal symptoms that are associated with the substance. They could also provide you with other resources that could support you during this transition.

Tolerance and Addiction

Addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, is much more than both tolerance and dependence - although these situations will often precede the condition. It is a health related illness just like any other chronic or acute condition. This is in the sense that it occurs with changes in the activity of the brain. It occurs because ongoing drug use would have repeatedly triggered neurotransmitters in the brain - such as serotonin and dopamine - and increased your cravings for drugs.

Addiction is one of the driving factors for drug use. This means that once you have passed the tolerance and dependence stages, you will continue abusing your favorite substances of abuse even when you know that it could lead and has been leading to harmful consequences. Additionally, your substance use disorder could also cause you to experience a cycle of anxiety and stress when you think about getting your favorite drugs.

Risks of Tolerance

In case you are tolerant to drugs, it is highly likely that it could prove to be a challenge to the treatment of such conditions as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Immune-related conditions
  • Seizure disorders
  • Some mental health disorders

After tolerance has developed, your doctor will have to look for other ways to manage and deal with the symptoms of the conditions that you were trying to manage using the drugs that they prescribed. However, if you are tolerant to intoxicating substances that cause addiction, you may be better off in an addiction recovery program.

Getting Help

In case you have been taking drugs or alcohol for some time and you notice that they no longer influence the same effects that they used to in the past, you need to seek addiction treatment services - or talk to your doctor in the case of prescription medications - because it might mean that you have developed tolerance.

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