What is the Difference Between Tolerance and Dependence?
Medically Verified: 2/1/24
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 20.4 million people suffered from addiction in the past year and only 10.3% of them received professional treatment.
If you are familiar with drug addiction, you have probably heard the terms “tolerance” and “dependence.” While addiction, tolerance, and dependence may be used interchangeably, they are actually very different from one another.
What is Tolerance?
Tolerance is a term that describes how much a drug affects you or how sensitive you are to the drug’s effects. When you use a certain substance for a long period, your tolerance will increase, so your body will require larger doses to experience the desired effect.
Tolerance can occur among individuals who are taking medication in an intended manner. In other words, developing a tolerance to a medication does not necessarily mean you are addicted to it.
For example, if you take sleeping medication every night, your body might adjust to the presence of that substance. Once your body has adjusted to it, you may require more to experience the desired effects.
While tolerance does not equate to addiction, it can lead to it, especially if you have developed tolerance to an addictive substance. As a result, you should always consult with your doctor when you believe you are developing a tolerance to a drug. Depending on whether your doctor is concerned or not, they might increase your dosage or switch you to another medication to ensure that addiction does not develop.
What is Dependence?
Physical dependence is different from tolerance, as it is characterized by your body relying on a substance to function properly. Instead of needing more of a substance to feel an effect, your brain and body feel like it needs the drug to survive. While dependence does not always mean addiction, it can lead to it without professional intervention.
If you have a physical dependence on a substance, you will experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking it. You can develop a dependence on any type of substance, even non-habit-forming medications like antidepressants. This is why doctors always warn you not to stop taking your medication without consulting with them beforehand.
For example, you can become dependent on caffeine. If you drink coffee every morning, you might experience headaches or drowsiness if you decide to skip your morning cup. These are withdrawal symptoms that are occurring because you are not consuming a substance your body depends on.
Does Having a Tolerance and Dependency Mean You Are Addicted?
Having both a tolerance and a dependence on a substance does not necessarily mean you are addicted. However, if you are experiencing cravings and an inability to control how much of a substance you take, you are likely dealing with a substance use disorder. In other words, tolerance and physical dependency must be present alongside psychological dependence to diagnose addiction.
Addiction is considered a long-term disease of the brain. This condition is characterized by an inability to stop or control your use of a specific substance despite facing negative consequences when abusing it. While tolerance and dependence are signs of addiction, you must also experience psychological cravings and an inability to control your consumption of the drug.
The risk factors for developing an addiction include:
- Family history of substance abuse
- Peer pressure
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Early exposure to drugs when the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control is underdeveloped
- High levels of unmanaged stress
- Lack of parental guidance
- Unmanaged mental health conditions
Spotting the Signs of Drug Addiction
If you have developed a tolerance and a dependence on a medication or an illicit substance, you might be wondering how to tell if you have an addiction. The easiest way to determine whether you are struggling with a substance use disorder is to ask yourself whether you can stop using the drug. If you cannot control using the substance and have experienced consequences as a result of your substance use, you are most likely struggling with addiction.
Other signs of drug addiction include:
- Consuming the substance in larger amounts or more frequently than intended
- Desiring to cut down or stop the use of a substance and being unsuccessful
- Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of a substance
- Experiencing a craving or uncontrollable urge to use a substance
- Being unable to complete responsibilities at home, work, or school due to the use of a substance
- Continuing to use the substance despite facing social or interpersonal issues
- Becoming less interested in previously enjoyed activities because you would rather abuse the substance
- Frequently using substances in risky situations, such as while driving or at work
- Continuing to use a substance despite facing medical or health complications
- Developing a tolerance to a substance
- Experiencing withdrawal when you cannot use a substance
If you experience 3 or more of the above-mentioned symptoms, you could be struggling with an addiction. Addiction should always be treated by a professional drug rehab where you can receive the necessary tools and support to achieve long-term recovery.
Find Help for Drug Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction
If you or a loved one are concerned that you are suffering from an addiction, it’s time to seek professional help. At Carolina Center for Recovery, we can provide you with evidence-based behavioral therapy, group counseling, holistic therapies, and relapse prevention planning to ensure that you achieve long-term recovery from addiction.
To learn more about our drug and alcohol rehab programs, contact Carolina Center for Recovery today.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA IC Fact Sheet 2022, Retrieved July 2023 From https://nida.nih.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/budget-information/fiscal-year-2022-budget-information-congressional-justification-national-institute-drug-abuse/ic-fact-sheet-2022
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Understanding Drug Use and Addiction, Retrieved July 2023 From https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction
- The National Library of Medicine: Substance Use Screening and Risk Assessment in Adults, Retrieved July 2023 From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK565474/table/nycgsubuse.tab9/