What is Physical Dependence: Signs, Symptoms, Prevention & Treatment

Physical dependence is a condition that can occur when someone engages with a particular addictive substance repeatedly.

The more they do this, the more tolerant they become on the substance, which eventually causes them to experience physical symptoms of dependence.

When an individual with physical dependence stops engaging with their addictive substance, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.

For drug and alcohol addiction, common withdrawal symptoms include:

However, each addictive substance will have its own unique withdrawals.

Every patient will also respond differently to withdrawing from a drug, as their body will handle it differently, and they will have unique factors affecting the withdrawal such their age, eating habits, the severity of their addiction and any physical health conditions.

Which Substances Can Cause Physical Dependence?

Two glasses of whisky being poured

With most addictive substances, there is a danger of becoming physically dependent. However, the risk is not the same for each drug, as certain drugs are not commonly associated with physical symptoms.

Physical dependence is common when the following substances are used to excess:

  • Opioids (morphine, tramadol, heroin, fentanyl, cocodamol)
  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan)

Drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy are much less likely to lead to physical dependence.

If this does occur, it usually takes a much longer time for the drug user to begin to feel the physical symptoms of their substance use.

How Does Physical Dependence Compare to Psychological Dependence?

Two men talking at a table

While physical dependence causes the body to depend on the addictive behaviour, psychological dependence is defined by the mind becoming reliant on the behaviour.

It is possible to be physically dependent without being psychologically dependent, and vice versa.

However, people with a process addiction will only experience psychological dependence, as there is no chemical reliance on the behaviour.

If you have had any experience with addiction, you will be aware that it is very common to deal with both physical and psychological symptoms. Most addictive substances lead users down this path.

That being said, plenty of people who struggle with drug dependence are only physically dependent on the substance – they experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop using, but few psychological symptoms are present.

Certain substances do not often cause physical dependence, so users can be psychologically reliant on the drug without experiencing physical reliance.

When they withdraw from the substance, they may suffer from mood swings, depression, paranoia, irritability, and various other issues affecting one’s mind.

Both types of drug dependence can cause serious issues in users, particularly if they refrain from getting professional help.

How Does Physical Dependence Compare to Addiction?

Individual therapy

If you are already experiencing physical dependence, it is very likely that this will morph into addiction. However, the two terms are distinct for a reason; physical dependence does not necessarily have to lead to an addiction.

Generally, we only describe someone as having an addiction when they are experiencing psychological changes due to their drug or alcohol use.

For most people, the physical symptoms will have been present for a while before this, but others are able to avoid the physical effects altogether.

When someone has an addiction, it is evident in many areas of their life. They may begin to act differently – becoming more defensive, anxious, aggressive, or depressed.

This change in behaviour almost always affects the drug user’s personal and professional relationships.

We must be wary of discounting addiction in someone who appears to be doing well. Many people become experts at hiding their issues, so it takes more than a brief glance at their mood and relationships to discover that they are battling a serious addiction.

What are the Symptoms Of Physical Dependence?

Man exhausted

The symptoms of physical dependence are different for everyone, so we recommend learning about a variety of symptoms to ensure the dependence of yourself or a loved one does not go unidentified.

Some common symptoms are:

1. Memory issues

Using a drug to excess is bound to impact one’s memory for various reasons. For example, it is proven that alcoholism can cause brain shrinkage, which affects many cognitive functions, including memory.

As well as causing long-term memory issues, drug use can cause short-term lapses in memory. If someone is frequently forgetting events when they are under the influence, this can be a sign of physical dependence.

2. Immune system dysfunction

Many people with a physical dependence issue will find that they are developing illnesses much more often than usual.

Even if they don’t develop a serious health condition, they may be more prone to catching viral infections, such as the flu.

As a result, many people with a substance use disorder often have a sore throat, a runny nose, clammy skin and headaches.

The cause of the immune system dysfunction varies depending on the substance that is used. Nicotine and cocaine can weaken the immune system due to causing upper respiratory problems, whereas cannabis can suppress the activation of different immune cell types.

3. Physical cravings

One of the most obvious signs of physical dependence are cravings.

You may use a drug for many months or years before experiencing cravings, but when this symptom kicks in, it is a clear indicator that you have become reliant on the substance.

Many people do not realise they are dependent on a drug, as they use it so frequently that there is no chance for cravings to develop.

For example, someone may drink alcohol on a daily basis without taking a break, and it is not until they spend an evening sober that they realise they crave the drug.

Woman exhausted

4. Tolerance

Tolerance is often noticeable when someone increases their dose of a drug, as their ordinary dose doesn’t affect them in the same way that it once did.

They could also show signs of tolerance by using the drug more regularly, or by mixing it with other substances.

5. Weight loss

It is very common for people with a physical dependence issue to lose a lot of weight over a short period of time. This can be linked to experiencing illness more often, feeling nauseous, having a loss of appetite, and experiencing stomach cramps.

How Can You Prevent Physical Dependence?

Women talking 1-1

If you are using an addictive substance, there is always the risk that you’re going to develop a physical dependence.

The process is gradual, so you cannot be sure that you won’t become dependent on a drug simply because it hasn’t happened yet.

Abstinence is the only way to ensure you will not suffer from physical dependence.

We know this can be hard to hear, as it is extremely difficult to abstain from drugs when you struggle with addiction. However, you do not have to do it alone.

By going to a residential rehab to detox from drugs or alcohol, and go to therapy, you may be able to reverse the effects of physical dependence.

If you’ve never dealt with addiction, abstaining from drugs will ensure that substance addiction does not occur.

However, we know that it is unrealistic to expect all readers to stay away from all drugs in their lifetime.

The next best thing is to be extremely cautious around addictive substances.

Educate yourself on the dangerous effects, learn about how different doses can affect you in different ways, surround yourself with people who take care of their mind and body, and keep an eye on your mental health to ensure you are able to pull yourself out of dark places when necessary.

Can Physical Dependence Be Treated?


Yes, physical dependence can be treated. The first step is to help the drug user to get sober, as this reduces the symptoms of dependence, including cravings.

It isn’t possible to recover from physical dependence if you are still consuming drugs, as your body will only know how to function with the presence of the drug.

Getting sober is a process – although you could withdraw from a drug in one day, it is often not safe to do so.

This is why many people choose to get a medical detox at a private rehab clinic, where the withdrawal is carefully planned out and monitored, and appropriate medications can be prescribed.

Some patients choose to leave it there, as they can cope with sobriety as long as they are not experiencing intense cravings.

However, the rate of relapse is much lower if patients opt to have therapy – especially if this is done over a long period of time.

Again, private rehab is a great choice for this, as they offer 28-day treatment plans with extended aftercare, which means patients can work on avoiding relapse over a long period of time.

Is Rehab the Only Option For Physical Dependence Treatment?


Rehab 4 Alcoholism will often promote private rehab as the best option for people suffering from addiction. Based on relapse statistics, it is the treatment option that is the most likely to lead to long-term recovery.

Having said that, professional help is always better than no professional help, whether that’s at inpatient rehab an outpatient group, or through a home detox.

All of these methods have the potential to treat physical dependence successfully.

To find out more about the referral process for each of these treatment types, get in touch with us on 0800 111 4108. We have a list of wonderful providers that we work with, and many of them have spaces available at all times for new patients.

If there is a waiting list, you will be informed of this by our staff. Fortunately, waiting lists for private addiction treatment tend to be very short, so you may only have to wait a few weeks.

As you will see on our home page, we primarily help clients with addictions to:

However, we are just as equipped to support someone with a different substance addiction, or a process addiction.

Contact us as soon as possible to find your place in treatment, and to leave the symptoms of addiction in your past.

FAQs About Physical Dependence

A group of men in therapy

Below, we offer several answers to common questions about physical dependency:

Can you be physically dependent on sex?

No, it is a myth that you can be physically dependent on sex.

Many people assume that if someone is in the mood for sex very frequently, or they are using sex to feel better in themselves physically, they must be dealing with a physical dependence.

However, physical dependence is defined by pronounced physical symptoms when the individual stops the addictive behaviour

If someone who was addicted to sex suddenly stopped having sex, they would not experience any physical symptoms.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to be dependent on sex – this is certainly an established problem, but it is a psychological one rather than a physical one. Just like any other process addiction, sex addiction can be treated through therapy.

Is physical dependence genetic?

Genetics can affect physical dependence, including whether an individual is going to become reliant on a drug at all, and how long it will take them to become reliant.

This explains why we see some people using drugs for many years without any physical symptoms, and others suffering physically after just a few weeks.

There are many factors that influence the likelihood of physical dependency, so we can’t predict whether someone is going to suffer with this simply by looking at their genes.

People who started using drugs from a young age are more susceptible to the condition, as well as individuals with co-occurring mental health conditions, and people who use multiple drugs.

Two people holding hands across a table

Can I treat physical dependence myself?

It isn’t impossible to treat physical dependence yourself, but it wouldn’t be safe.

We advise all of our clients to opt for a medically-assisted detox.

That way, if anything goes wrong in the detox phase, medical staff can step in immediately to treat you.

Certain symptoms that are not worrisome in a medical environment would be life-threatening outside of the context of rehab. For example, you may experience shortness of breath when detoxing.

The doctors at rehab would be prepared for this, and they would be on-hand to provide you with oxygen if the problem escalated.

However, if you were on your own when this symptom occurred, and there was no possibility to treat it with additional oxygen or with medication, you would have to wait for help to arrive.

In this waiting period, you would be risking serious illness or even death. This is never a risk worth taking.

When we hear of drug users detoxing on their own, the withdrawal is usually carried out all at once, which is known as the ‘cold turkey method’.

This is another potential risk, as it is much more likely to lead to death than a controlled detox that is extended over 3-10 days.

If you detoxed without professional help, you would also miss out on the psychological support that is given at rehab.

You may be surprised to know that the hardest part of getting sober isn’t always the detox, but the effort it takes to maintain sobriety. This is where therapy comes in, and without intensive therapy, there is a much greater risk that you would relapse.

Group Therapy

Why is therapy used to treat physical dependence when it is a psychological treatment?

Given that physical dependence is an issue that affects the body, it may seem confusing that therapy would be used to treat this.

Let’s be clear – the first treatment for physical dependence is almost always detoxing, which directly targets physical symptoms.

However, it’s very common for patients to get therapy after the initial detox.

The reason for this is that although they dealt with physical symptoms, addiction is ultimately a mental health condition that will either affect the patient’s psychology directly (through emotional symptoms) or indirectly.

It is unusual for someone to become physically dependent on a substance if they are not also experiencing other difficulties, such as trauma, mental illness, stress or dysfunctional relationships.

Therapy is used to target these issues, which reduces the chances that the patient will consume drugs in the future.

How long does physical dependence last?

There is no limit to how long physical dependence could last.

The day you finish your detox could very well be the day you no longer experience physical dependence, provided that the detox removes all physical symptoms (which does not always happen).

On the other hand,  many patients still experience some physical symptoms after the detox, which can last from weeks to years.

They are usually much milder post-withdrawal, so they may not be classed as full-blown physical dependence.

What’s more, if the patient ends up relapsing into addiction, they could redevelop a physical dependence. The more times someone relapses, the more difficult it is to get sober in the future.

Some drug users do not seek help at all, and in this case, the physical dependence could last forever. Without detoxing from the addictive substance, the individual cannot recover from their dependence, as it is a chemical issue.

Get Help Today

A woman holding a mobile phone

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism we know that addiction is not a choice and that everyone struggling with substances deserves to recover.

We are here to help you facilitate that recovery.

We are a confidential service, and all our contact with you is designed to help give you practical support and peace of mind.

You can contact our team to seek advice, find answers to any further questions you have, and begin your recovery journey.

Whatever help you need in your fight against addiction, we are here for you.