What Is Drug Tolerance?

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Developing a tolerance to drugs poses significant dangers. Read on to learn more about tolerance, its relationship to dependence, and its role in addiction (substance use disorder).

Drug Tolerance and Addiction

When someone uses a drug or medication on an ongoing basis, tolerance can form. When this occurs, it means that the body has become accustomed to the current dosage, leading to diminished effects. Tolerance can occur over time even if those who use prescribed drugs exactly as directed.

The rate of tolerance development differs according to the drug in question. Tolerance to cocaine or meth, for instance, can form rapidly, sometimes after just a few uses. When someone takes prescription opioids for pain management, by contrast, tolerance can develop gradually, with increased doses required to deliver the initial analgesic effects.

Unfortunately, many people attempt to counter tolerance by increasing consumption or using the drug more frequently. Abusive patterns of consumption like this will accelerate the development of physical dependence – more on this below – and may lead to addiction. Increasing dosage also raises the risk of drug overdose, which can often be life-threatening.

Drug addiction is clinically described as substance use disorder and it’s recognized as a chronic and relapsing disorder. Although there is no cure for drug addiction, it’s highly treatable with evidence-based interventions.

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Are Drug Tolerance and Dependence the Same Thing?

Someone who uses drugs long-term may develop both tolerance and dependence on the drug. While these concepts are interrelated, they are not the same thing.

The main distinction between tolerance and dependence lies in the way the body reacts to the substance. Tolerance manifests when the body adapts to the drug, requiring higher doses to achieve the original rewarding effects. Dependence, by contrast, means that the body requires the substance to function normally. Drug dependence is characterized by the presentation of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.

Dangers of Drug Tolerance

The development of tolerance to medications or drugs carries an array of risks and potential dangers. These include:

  • Dependence: Increasing the dose or frequency of dosages can lead to the development of physical dependence. The relationship between tolerance and dependence can be damaging because tolerance often leads to patterns of binge use which in turn accelerate the formation of dependence.
  • Addiction: Although drug addiction is not the same as dependence, those who become dependent on drugs frequently go on to develop substance use disorder.
  • Complications related to chronic pain: Those experiencing chronic pain are frequently prescribed opioids long-term. Sustained use of opioid painkillers will cause tolerance to form over time, as well as dependence and potentially addiction. At the same time, people find that as tolerance builds, so the effects of opioids diminish, and pain becomes more challenging to manage.
  • Compromised immune system: Increased tolerance to drugs, when followed by increased consumption in an attempt to counteract tolerance, can weaken immune function. This impairs the body’s ability to combat illnesses or infections, impacting overall health and well-being.
  • Deterioration of mental health: If someone with a co-occurring mental health disorder develops tolerance to drugs or alcohol, increasing consumption to self-medicate symptoms could lead to addiction while at the same time inflaming the mental health condition and doing nothing to address the underlying issue.
  • Risk of overdose: Perhaps the most pressing danger of increased tolerance to drugs is the heightened risk of overdose. Overdosing on many different drugs can be fatal. This increased risk is observed in those who develop tolerance and then increase consumption.

How to Get Treatment for Drug Tolerance

Addressing drug tolerance involves medical intervention, ongoing treatment, and lifestyle adjustments, all aimed at reducing dependence and restoring overall health.

Consult a healthcare professional

The first step in seeking treatment is to consult with a healthcare professional or addiction specialist. They can provide an accurate diagnosis and tailor a treatment plan accordingly. This may include recommendations for medical detox and ongoing inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Engage with medically supervised detoxification

Medically supervised detox streamlines the drug withdrawal process with the use of medications to reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Continuous clinical and emotional care mitigates complications and relapse. Detox helps people move beyond tolerance and dependence and is usually followed by ongoing treatment to unpack the psychological component of drug addiction.

MAT (medication-assisted treatment)

MAT is proven effective for treating opioid and alcohol addictions. Medication-assisted treatment is best used in combination with psychotherapies.

Counseling and psychotherapy

Ongoing treatment for drug addiction involves counseling (one-to-one and group), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), motivational therapies, and holistic treatments. These interventions help people address the psychological side of drug addiction in a trigger-free environment.

Lifestyle changes and support systems

Recovery from drug tolerance also involves making positive lifestyle changes and building a strong support system. Engaging in healthy activities, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress-reduction techniques, can enhance physical and mental well-being. Additionally, joining support groups like NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or seeking support from friends and family can provide encouragement and accountability throughout the recovery process.

Continuous monitoring and aftercare

Recovery from drug addiction is an ongoing journey that requires continuous monitoring and aftercare to prevent relapse. Regular follow-up appointments with healthcare providers and continued participation in therapy or support groups can help people maintain abstinence and address any challenges that arise.

ohio community center building representing Drug tolerance definition

Get Treatment for Drug Dependence & Addiction at Ohio Recovery

If you have developed dependence or addiction, we can help you address all types of substance use issues at Ohio Recovery Centers.

We treat addictions in an outpatient setting, enabling individuals to fulfill their everyday commitments while pursuing evidence-based drug addiction treatment.

When you choose to tackle drug addiction at our rehab center in Cincinnati, OH, you can engage with a personalized blend of treatments, from MAT (medication-assisted treatment) and psychotherapy to counseling and holistic treatments.

For whole-body recovery from drug addiction, call 877-679-2132.

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn