top of page

The Difference Between Tolerance, Dependence & Addiction

drug tolerance, dependence, addiction

It can be hard to understand another person’s decision to continue using substances, even when we see how it is negatively impacting their life. Why can’t someone just stop?

In everyday life, the consequences of actions usually do not occur until the somewhat distant future. This can make the decision to stop easy to ignore and result in a loss of control.

That loss of control is commonly referred to as addiction, and can actually be split into three different conditions: tolerance, dependence and addiction.

What’s the difference between tolerance, dependence and addiction?


In the brain, serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps boost your mood. Serotonin is also the reaction from using a substance - by using a substance an individual is tricking the brain to release that feel good chemical.

After repeated use, the pleasure received will not remain the same. Eventually a small amount no longer has the same effect, and more is needed.

What is meant by tolerance? According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), tolerance is a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect.

Just because tolerance is developed does not mean an individual is addicted to a substance. It means that the current level of the drug is no longer producing the same effects for that person. Tolerance can happen with any medication, even prescription medication, not just illicit substances.


Drug dependence and drug addiction can go hand in hand, but are slightly different. NIDA characterizes dependence as a physical dependence in which the body adapts to the drug, requiring more of it to achieve a certain effect. It can also mean withdrawal symptoms - for example, this could mean drinking more to alleviate shakes or withdrawals.


The definition of addiction is the continued use of a substance or engagement in a behavior regardless of negative impacts such as problems in relationships, health problems, harm and negative consequences.

Substance use becomes an addiction when an individual has attempted to stop and has not been successful, or there are major impairments in life with work, family, or financial situations that are related to substance use.

Oftentimes the simplest way to define addiction is when these factors unique to addiction - known as the four Cs - are present.

  1. Compulsion: an overwhelming urge or desire to use substances.

  2. Craving: an urge or powerful desire viewed as an absolute need in everyday life.

  3. Consequences: when consequences become apparent, but the behavior continues.

  4. Control: unable to set limits and stick to them (loss of control).

Understanding the subtle differences between tolerance, dependence and addiction can help an individual and their loved ones find the best path to recovery and healing.

Getting Help For Addiction

If you or somebody in your life seems to have an issue with alcohol or drugs, or is suffering from addiction, professional help may be the best option for recovery.

At Care Addiction Center, we offer treatment plans that address every facet of your addiction, serving individuals in Geneva, Batavia, Sycamore, St. Charles, and Kane County, with online addiction treatment available anywhere in Illinois. 

To get started on the road to recovery, or if you have questions about helping yourself or a loved one, call us today or schedule a confidential assessment online and begin treatment.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page