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Turning the science of addiction into stories that stick.

Episode III: Understanding Severity

Like other chronic illnesses, addiction tends to gets worse over time.1 As a substance use disorder (SUD) progresses, mental and physical health problems tend to get worse and overall quality of life goes down.2 Most importantly, the risk of death increases as the disorder progresses, which is why starting treatment as soon as possible is key.3 4

There are 3 levels of severity: mild, moderate, and severe—also known as an addiction.5

Severity level is determined based on 3 categories of symptoms:

1 - symptoms related to how much control you have over your substance use, such as:

  • - using more of a substance or more often than you intend to;
  • - wanting to cut down or stop using but not being able to.

2 - symptoms related to how your substance use affects your life, such as:  

  • - neglecting responsibilities and relationships;
  • - giving up activities you used to care about because of your substance use.

3 - symptoms related to your level of physical dependence on the substance, such as:

  • - needing more of the substance to get the same effect (also known as tolerance);
  • - having withdrawal symptoms when you don’t use.

Knowing the severity level of your SUD helps your doctor understand the status of your illness and your risk for serious events (like overdose) in order to plan the best course of treatment.6 The more severe the disorder, the more intense the level of treatment is needed.

As you move through treatment, you should step down to less intensive levels of care. Your doctor should monitor your progress and adjust your plan as needed.7 Remember, more treatment isn’t necessarily better if it’s the wrong kind. This is why understanding severity is so important.

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