Resources & Education

November 28th, 2015

Ask PKK: What is Tolerance?

Man and woman holding hands at a tableThink about tragic celebrity deaths by overdose, like Cory Monteith and Philip Seymour Hoffman. What did they have in common? They both died after taking too strong a dose of their preferred drug after a period of sobriety. Why?

When you use a drug over a period of time, your body needs more and more of that drug to give you the feeling of being high. In other words, you are developing a tolerance to it. Drug tolerance isn’t the same as addiction (although it is a sign of addiction); tolerance is a body becoming desensitized to a drug’s effects. But someone who has developed tolerance to a given substance is more likely to overdose on that substance, and with many drugs, an overdose can be deadly.

Mixing alcohol and other depressants cause slowed respiration, meaning your breathing slows down or may stop, so too much of these substances can lead to coma or death. Grammy-award winning singer Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning after a period of sobriety. Stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamines, can cause a heart attack or stroke when too much is taken.

Types of Drug Tolerance
There are two types of drug tolerance: physiological and behavioral. Physical tolerance develops at the cellular level, when the body increases the rate at which it breaks down the drug. 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 mental—psychological or learned. People who say they need coffee in the morning to function are addicted to it, even if they don’t have a violent physical reaction to giving it up.

What’s So Dangerous about Drug Tolerance?
Whether a person becomes tolerant of an illegal drug, a prescribed medication, or alcohol, along with a higher dosage comes a higher chance of becoming addicted. Once addicted, a person will seek out their preferred high, often putting their health, careers, and families in danger.

Being tolerant of a drug doesn’t make you immune to side effects. Even if you don’t feel as drunk or high, you’re still damaging your brain – and the more drugs or alcohol you consume, the more damage you’re doing.

Finally, a person who knows he or she has a high threshold for drugs or alcohol may become overconfident and feel they can ingest more than their bodies can handle. They may lose control or end up in an unknown situation—or die.

Do you find yourself needing more drugs or alcohol than you used to, to feel the high? If so, you may be developing a dangerous tolerance level. Talk to your doctor or call our anonymous hotline at 855-969-HOPE. We can help.

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