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What Is Drug Tolerance?

Drug tolerance and addiction can negatively affect someone’s life in many ways. Learn more about drug tolerance here.

Understanding Drug Tolerance

Drug tolerance occurs when the body adapts to taking a substance and requires a higher dose to continue receiving the same effects. Those who struggle with addiction or frequently use addictive substances will likely develop a tolerance which leads to taking increasingly higher doses of a substance.

Tolerance to a drug can lead to many adverse risks and side effects, including the risk of overdose and other health consequences.

Does Tolerance Mean Addiction?

While tolerance can be a sign and symptom of drug addiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone struggles with drug addiction. Medication tolerance can occur when someone takes a prescription medication for a long period. This is due to how the body adapts to regularly intaking a medication. 

While abuse of prescription drugs can lead to a higher chance of tolerance, taking medications at recommended doses may also cause the body to develop a tolerance depending on the type of medication. Someone can also have a low tolerance for medicine which means regular doses of a drug may have more side effects or may be too harsh on someone’s body, which would mean they must take a lower dose. Therefore, working with your doctor to manage your doses and how long you take a substance is crucial. Some medications may require a tolerance adjustment to keep them working effectively for treating health conditions.

What Is the Difference Between Drug Tolerance and Drug Dependence?

Two commonly used terms in addiction treatment are drug tolerance and drug dependence. While both can be signs and side effects of addiction, both terms have different meanings. Understanding the difference between tolerance and dependence is vital to getting someone the best possible care during addiction treatment.

Drug Tolerance vs. Dependence

The main difference between tolerance and dependence is that tolerance has to do with the required dose of a substance that must be taken to feel its effects. In contrast, dependence relates to someone feeling like they can’t function normally without taking a substance.

Tolerance to a drug and drug dependence can go hand in hand when someone struggles with addiction. Effects of tolerance and dependence can often worsen an addiction causing someone to frequently take drugs at high doses.1 

Types of Drug Tolerance

There are several types of drug tolerance that may occur. Tolerance can be metabolic, physical, or behavioral.

Metabolic Tolerance

Metabolic tolerance occurs when the body metabolizes or gets rid of a drug at an accelerated rate. The body will adapt over time if you frequently consume a substance and figure out how to process it more quickly. This leads the substance to have diminishing effects as you take it longer.2 

Physical Tolerance

Physical tolerance occurs when the body adapts to taking a substance frequently. Over time the substance will have diminishing effects as the body becomes used to having the substance in its system.3 

Behavioral Tolerance

Behavioral tolerance is a form of functional tolerance where someone experiences diminishing effects of taking drugs while doing daily tasks. Behavioral or functional tolerance can be dangerous as it can lead to frequent substance abuse while someone is at work, driving, or doing other activities that may be dangerous while under the influence of drugs.4 

Acute Tolerance

Acute tolerance refers to a decreased response to a substance within a single exposure to the drug. Building a tolerance to alcohol is known as an acute tolerance because someone can become more tolerant to alcohol after a single use.

Alcoholism and tolerance commonly go hand in hand and can lead to many adverse effects. Cocaine tolerance can also have acute effects. Someone can begin developing cocaine tolerance, dependence, and addiction after a single use of the drug due to its high potency. 

Drug Tolerance & the Drug Abuse Cycle

Tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal can affect someone’s well-being during the drug abuse cycle. The combination of addiction and tolerance can lead to a harmful cycle of drug abuse that affects someone’s well-being in many ways.

Physical Dependence

Addiction and tolerance can lead to someone developing a physical dependence on a substance. Physical dependence will lead to physical withdrawal symptoms if someone stops taking a substance.

Withdrawal Effects

Tolerance and withdrawal can also have many negative effects. When someone has a tolerance for drug addiction, they will often experience more severe withdrawal effects with a higher tolerance to the substance.

Psychological Dependence

Tolerance to drug addiction can also lead to and worsen a psychological dependence on a drug. Psychological dependence is the thoughts and psychological effects someone has when they stop taking a drug. This can often make someone feel like they can’t function normally without taking a drug.

Warning Signs of Drug Tolerance Behavior

Drug Tolerance

Common warning signs may show that someone has or is developing a tolerance to a drug. The most common behavioral tolerance symptoms to look out for include:

  • Increased drug use
  • Frequently refilling prescriptions 
  • Hiding pills  
  • Mood swings These
  • Excessive worry and anxiety
  • Regularly talking about the chosen drug (obsession)
  •  Complaining about a drug being less effective

Drug Tolerance Risks and Dangers

There are many risks and dangers associated with drug tolerance. The most common tolerance risks to look out for include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Immune-related conditions 
  • Seizure disorders
  • Some mental health conditions
  • Addiction
  • Need for higher doses


Tolerance can cause an overdose, which is one of the most significant risks of tolerance in drug addiction. When someone who struggles with addiction develops a tolerance to a substance, they will begin taking increasingly higher doses. Taking high doses of drugs is dangerous and increases the likelihood of an overdose.

Get Help with Drug Tolerance at Anew Treatment Center

If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction or drug tolerance, you don’t have to go through it alone. Anew Treatment Center can help you start a recovery plan for drug tolerance and addiction. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you.

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