Think of the first time you drank a cup of coffee. Did you feel more wired than you do when you drink a cup now? Maybe you have to drink two, three, or more cups of coffee before even feeling the caffeine take effect. This happens because you have a drug tolerance to caffeine, and occurs with all forms of drugs.
What is Drug Tolerance?
Drug tolerance simply means that a person’s reaction to a drug decreases as they continue to use it. A person with a drug tolerance has to take larger doses in order to achieve the same effect as they did earlier in their drug use. Drug tolerance is not addiction. It is simply the body becoming desensitized to the drug’s effects (addiction is a body chemically dependent on that drug). Many people with addictions also have drug tolerance, which drives them to seek out more potent drugs.
How does Drug Tolerance Develop?
There are two types of drug tolerance: physiological and behavioral. Physical tolerance occurs in at the cellular level. The body increases the rate at which the drug is broken down (metabolized). For example, when someone drinks regularly, the liver will boost the production of enzymes that break down alcohol, allowing the body to get rid of it quicker. The body can also adapt to regular presence of a drug, by reducing the number of receptors for certain drugs, such as opiates. The body simply stops “listening” to what the drugs are telling them.
Behavioral tolerance is psychological or learned. Think about the coffee again- do you feel more caffeinated when you drink coffee at work or at a cafe? A person can become used to a setting they use a drug at, and not “feel” the effects of the drug. Similarly, a person can compensate for how the drug affects him or her, and act as if he or she is not using the drug. Lastly, if a person is told or believes a drug is more or less potent, he or she will tend to feel and act accordingly.
What’s Dangerous about Drug Tolerance?
Drug tolerance can become an issue for several reasons. When a person becomes tolerant of prescribed medications, a doctor will often order a higher dosage. With a higher dosage comes a higher chance of becoming addicted. Not all drugs are addictive, but many common drugs, such as amphetamines (Adderall) and opiates (Oxycodone), are. Once addicted, a person will adamantly and irrationally seek out their preferred high. Many turn to illicit drugs such as methamphetamine or heroin when their doctors refuse to give them a higher dosage.
Drug tolerance doesn’t always reduce the risks of side effects. For example, even though a person may not “feel” drunk, alcohol will still damage the brain as more is consumed. Bodily damage worsens as a person increases the amount of a drug they use.
Lastly, a person who is aware of the drug tolerance may be overconfident. Drinking too much, too fast may lead a person to becoming more drunk than they intended. Seeking out a higher or longer high may lead to a person who is no longer in control. Someone mixing different types of drugs to achieve a new high can end up in an unknown situation. Testing out a more potent variation of a drug can leave someone well out of their depth. All these can lead to a variety of dangerous situations, including an overdose.
Honesty is the best way to combat the dangers of drug tolerance. Talk to your doctor about your drug use and drinking habits before they become a problem.