Addiction Dictionary & Terms | Center on Addiction

Glossary of addiction terms

Glossary of addiction terms

A complex disease of the brain and body, often chronic in nature, involving continued, compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.

A type of addiction treatment provider. Counselors may have different titles and required levels of education and training depending on where they practice. For example, in different states these providers may be known as substance abuse counselors (SACs), credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselors (CASACs) or certified alcohol and drug counselors (CADCs). They typically provide group and individual counseling, but are not medical professionals and cannot provide medication needed to treat some forms of addiction and other health conditions.

A physician who is board-certified as a psychiatrist and who has specialized training in addiction diagnosis, treatment and management. Addiction psychiatrists can provide therapy, although most emphasize medications and work in collaboration with social workers, psychologists, or counselors who provide the individual, group, or family therapies.

A physician who is board-certified in some specialty (e.g., family medicine, pediatrics, neurology) and who has specialized training in addiction diagnosis, treatment and management. They typically do not provide addiction-specific therapy or counseling, but may work in collaboration with other health care providers who do.

An evaluation of a person’s medical, psychological and substance use history, current health status, symptoms of addiction, potential withdrawal syndrome and related health conditions. This helps to formulate a treatment plan. It should be performed by a qualified health professional.  

The term “behavioral health” is often used in place of the term “mental health” to distinguish mental health and addiction from other physical health conditions.

Brief interventions are provided by trained health care provider to individuals who screen positive for risky substance use, some forms of substance abuse and nicotine addiction. They help patients reduce use by providing feedback about the extent and effects of substances, enhancing motivation to change behavior, and offering recommendations for how to do so. Brief interventions can be conducted face-to-face, over the phone or through computerized feedback to the individual. An intervention is considered “brief” when it only involves 1-3 sessions or lasts 5-15 minutes.   

Connecting individuals to support services and resources (including mutual support, family and peer support and other needed services such as housing, employment, child care, etc.) to facilitate disease management. 

Certification demonstrates expertise within a specific area of one’s profession (i.e., a specialty). Certification is administered by non-governmental organizations, typically professional associations.

Commonly misused prescription drugs include barbiturates, benzodiazepines and sleep medications, opioid and morphine-based pain relievers, amphetamines and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications. This list provides examples of their commercial and street names, how they are administered, their effects, health risks and other information. View full list.

For a list of commonly used alcohol, nicotine and tobacco products, please click here.

Commonly used illegal drugs include marijuana, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines and club drugs. This list provides examples of their commercial and street names, how they are administered, their effects, health risks and other information. View full list.

A set of actions that an individual engages in repeatedly in an unhealthy way, for example, substance use, gambling, sex, eating and the use of technological devices such as video games, television and the Internet. There is some evidence that the same brain circuits that are involved in addiction involving substances also may be involved in other compulsive behaviors or what are sometime called “behavioral addictions.”

This is a determination made by a trained health professional of the presence, stage and severity of addiction or substance abuse. It is performed using diagnostic tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

A diagnostic tool used by clinicians to determine whether a patient meets clinical criteria for a substance use disorder or other psychiatric disorders (or both). It is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and revised every 10-20 years. The most recent edition is DSM-5.

A process whereby persons with long-term chronic health conditions work with health care providers to maintain their health and functioning. It may include medications and/or therapies to ensure that patients remain symptom free and that other health conditions and the patient’s nutrition and exercise requirements are addressed. Disease management can improve an individual’s ability to function, suppress symptoms, prevent the development of additional health conditions and reduce relapse.

A digital version of a paper chart that contains all of a patient’s medical history from one practice.

A care management and coordination program designed for Medicaid enrollees with chronic conditions, including serious mental illness, substance problems, asthma, diabetes and heart disease. One of primary groups of patients that Health Homes are designed to serve are high cost/high need patients–those with chronic illnesses and co-morbid conditions that account for a disproportionately large amount of health care spending due to poor health outcomes. Health Homes were authorized by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. Providers of Health Homes integrate and coordinate all patient care.

The electronic movement of health-related information among organizations according to nationally recognized standards. The goal of health information exchange is to facilitate access to and retrieval of clinical data to provide safer, timelier, efficient, effective, equitable and patient-centered care.

The application of information processing involving both computer hardware and software that deals with the storage, retrieval, sharing, and use of health care information, data, and knowledge for communication and decision making.

An addiction treatment venue that requires overnight stays usually in a hospital setting.  

Integrating primary medical care with behavioral health (mental health and substance abuse) care. Physical and behavioral health problems often occur at the same time and health care professionals should consider all conditions at once. The integration of substance abuse treatment into the medical care system would increase physician oversight of the complex problems often experienced by people with substance use problems.

Treatment settings offer varying levels of intensity of services. Examples include crisis services, outpatient, inpatient rehabilitation and residential. The placement of patients with substance problems into a specific level of care is usually based on an assessment of symptoms, functioning, risk factors and levels of support. 

A mandatory approval process required by state law through which addiction treatment facilities and individual treatment providers are approved to provide services. For individual providers, licensing standards are designed to ensure minimum competency required to practice one’s profession. For facilities, licensing establishes minimum standards for protecting public health, safety and welfare. Licensing requirements vary by state. Not all addiction treatment facilities and addiction counselors are required to be licensed in every state.In addition, many addiction treatment programs seek formal national accreditation of five organizations that accredit addiction treatment programs and facilities in the U.S.: the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (Joint Commission), the Council on Accreditation (COA), the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC).

The use of medications in combination with psychosocial therapies (see below) to treat substance problems. Research shows that combined treatments often work better than either treatment alone. Although MAT most often refers to an approach for opioid use disorders, it is often recommend for alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs as well. For those addicted to opioids, however, a medication like naltrexone, methadone, or buprenorphine is usually necessary for treatment to be effective.

Methadone is a synthetic opioid that is used as medication to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms of opioid addiction. In maintenance treatment, patients initially come to an outpatient clinic daily to receive their medication. Take home medications may be available for patients who are able to stop use of alcohol and other drugs and demonstrate improved stability in their lives. For most cases of severe or long-term opioid addiction, it is considered the treatment of choice.

An addiction treatment venue where the patient does not have to stay overnight. The services are offered in an office or clinic setting. Intensive outpatient addiction treatment services are offered more frequently—typically, on a daily basis—than traditional outpatient services and are designed for patients who need more regular contact with health care providers.

The use of medications to treat addiction that works in one of these ways:

  1. Reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  2. Help patients function better in day-to-day life
  3. Reducing the rewarding effects
  4. Providing a less dangerous or less addicting version of the substance

Pharmaceutical therapies are prescribed by a physician, or other health professional under the supervision of a physician, as part of a treatment plan established and managed by a person’s physician.

Psychosocial therapy includes specific types of individual, couples, family, and group therapies that have been shown to help individuals enhance their coping skills, navigate high-risk situations, avoid triggers to use substances, control cravings, cope with lapses, enhance their motivation to change behavior, encourage attendance at self-help meetings, or alter  environments to reduce pressures to use. Psychosocial therapies are provided by highly trained clinical professionals.

A term used in reference to changing behaviors of individuals with the disease of addiction to achieve abstinence and encourage other socially acceptable behaviors. There is no standard definition for rehabilitation, and it is important to ensure that evidence-based addiction treatment is offered.

A return to a state of illness after a period of being healthy, “disease-free,” without symptoms, or in a state of remission. With regard to substance use, most experts consider any use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs after several weeks of not using (abstinence) to be a “relapse.” Some experts use the term “slip” to refer to when a person returns to substance use very briefly but then returns to abstinence.

An addiction treatment venue where  patients live away from home, typically for several weeks or months, in a facility that provides treatment but not hospital care. There may be limited physician or psychologist services available at such programs.

A biological, psychological or environmental influence that can increase one’s chance of having a disease such as addiction. Examples include inheriting genes associated with addiction, a family history of addiction, exposure to physical or sexual abuse or other trauma, certain personality traits, and co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.  

The use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs in ways that threaten the health and safety of the user and/or others but do not meet the clinical criteria for a substance disorder. Risky use includes any substance use by minors, drinking in excess of health standards, any use of tobacco/nicotine, misuse of controlled prescription drugs and any illegal drug use.

An evidence-based practice used to identify and intervene with people who use alcohol or drugs in a risky, harmful, or hazardous ways and may be at risk for or already have a substance problem. SBIRT is an integrated, public health approach that provides opportunities for early intervention before more severe consequences occur, or provides referrals to an addiction treatment provider for those identified as having already moved beyond the at-risk threshold.

The process of safely removing addictive substances from the body. Medically-assisted stabilization, also called detoxification, aims to reduce discomfort and potential physical harm for individuals who are experiencing withdrawal. The stabilization process often requires the assistance of medical professionals and may involve the use of pharmaceutical therapies to guide people safely through withdrawal. Stabilization is an important and often necessary prerequisite to effective acute addiction treatment, but it does not itself constitute treatment.

A framework for understanding the behavior change process for people considering changing an unwanted behavior, such as substance use. The model identifies a series of 5 stages through which people progress as they change behavior. It is often used to understand behavior change related to substance use. The 5 stages include:

  • Pre-contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance

Substance abuse refers to a less serious drug or alcohol use disorder in which substance use causes distress and problems. However, the problem has not progressed to addiction, which is a more serious form of the disorder.  

This is the clinical term used to describe substance problems, including substance abuse and addiction. 

While not considered treatment, these services may be helpful in promoting and supporting healthy outcomes when used alongside clinical treatment and disease management. These meetings constitute free worldwide networks offering advice and support. Support services include:

  1. Mutual self-help support programs that help individuals manage their health and avoid the recurrence of disease symptoms (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other types of 12 Step fellowship, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety) as well as wellness programs to support health
  2. Other needed services to address legal, educational, employment, housing, parenting and child-care issues that may impede disease management


A highly structured drug-free environment that most often involves longer-term (6 months or more) residential treatment. Based on mutual support principles, a therapeutic community incorporates behavior modification techniques, education or vocational training and residential job duties. This approach aims to re-socialize the resident to a substance-free, crime-free lifestyle through peer influence, personal responsibility, honest communication, healthy living and skill training. The mutual support aspect of therapeutic communities operates on a hierarchical basis; residents who have been involved in the program longer provide support and serve as role models for newer residents. Although these communities historically have been highly confrontational programs, many have now adapted to treat more vulnerable addicted populations including those with serious mental illness, homeless persons, adolescents, women with trauma and incarcerated persons. 

A general term used to mean psychosocial therapy, excluding pharmaceutical therapy. (See Psychosocial Therapy)

A general term used to mean psychosocial therapy that involves individual, couples, family, or group counseling or psychoeducation involving coping skills training. See Psychosocial Therapy.

These mutual support programs or self-help groups can be a significant part of a comprehensive approach to caring for a patient with alcoholism or drug addiction. These meetings allow individuals with alcoholism or drug addiction to seek and provide social, emotional and informational support within a group of their peers. There are anonymous programs for alcohol (Alcoholics Anonymous), narcotics (Narcotics Anonymous), cocaine (Cocaine Anonymous), gambling (Gambling Anonymous), and other addictive or compulsive behaviors. They are widely available in communities (often held in places of worship) and are incorporated into many formal treatment programs. They are the most frequently-accessed resource worldwide among people with addiction and related problems. They provide participants with 12-steps to follow during the process of recovery.  Other core components include admitting powerless over the disease but taking responsibility for the recovery process, sharing personal experiences, recognizing the existence of a higher power, helping others and a lifetime commitment to the program. Outside of the group meetings, sponsorship plays an important role in most 12-step programs. Each new group member is encouraged to find a sponsor to serve as a role model, program guide and first line of support in the case of a potential or actual relapse.    

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