Addiction is an insidious disease that can creep in slowly or develop rapidly, depending on tolerance. People may not even be aware that they are developing an addiction, as the signs are progressive and the changes can be subtle.By understanding the role that tolerance plays in the development of addiction, people who use or abuse alcohol or drugs can understand how addiction sets in.

What Is Tolerance?

Tolerance occurs when a person has a diminished response to alcohol or drugs as a result of repeated use. Its mere presence means more of a substance is needed to achieve the desired results.

A person who has developed tolerance to a substance is not necessarily addicted to the substance in question. Their body has simply adapted to the presence of alcohol or drugs and has adjusted to the dose they have been accustomed to taking.

For example, a person who is taking an opioid pain medication may notice after a certain period of time that their regular dose no longer effectively diminishes their pain, or its effects wear off far sooner than before. In such instances, this person is likely to have developed a tolerance to that dose.

How Does Tolerance Develop into an Addiction?

When a person develops a tolerance to alcohol or drugs, they can be vulnerable to addiction if they increase the amount they take or if they take it more frequently. This is especially if they aren’t under a doctor’s supervision.

By increasing their dose of opioid pain medication, they may experience the relief they did with the drug’s first use, but in time, they will again develop a tolerance. Each level of this and each increase in the amount of the substance used can and often does pave the way to addiction.

Tolerance vs. Dependence

man leaning against a skinny tree trunk

Tolerance is one stage of the body’s development of a physical dependence on a substance. Dependence will result in withdrawal symptoms if a person stops using a substance or decreases the amount or frequency of use.

Some people who are dependent on pain medications, for example, will experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches or nausea if they don’t take that medication for a period of time or abruptly stop taking it.

Once someone develops a tolerance that progresses into a dependence on a substance, they are moving ever close to the development of addiction. Note that this and dependence are not the same things as addiction. Addiction involves mental and behavioral aspects as well as a physical dependence, and it’s characterized by compulsive substance use despite negative consequences.

If you suspect you have developed a tolerance and dependency on prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol, it’s important to seek immediate professional help. A high-quality addiction treatment facility can assess your situation, and once you are evaluated by an addiction specialist, a personalized treatment plan can be designed that can put you on the road to recovery.