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What Is Substance Abuse


What is substance abuse? Substance abuse is the consumption of alcohol or other drugs, usually illegal but sometimes prescription or OTC, willingly or knowingly for a purpose not intended. Those drugs are not marketed or intended to serve such purposes unless otherwise indicated. Substance abuse is an unsafe way to deal with stress or anxiety, especially in managing chronic conditions such as cystic fibrosis or mental health problems. Substance misuse is using alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription drugs in a form which is unsafe for your body. People who have substance use disorder may be unable to stop taking them for long periods of time.

Substance Use Disorder or a Drug Addiction is an underlying condition which affects brain function and causes a mental and physical imbalance. Some substances like nicotine, alcohol, and tobacco also constitute as a substance or a drug. Despite the harmful effects, the addiction can continue to happen to a person who is addicted. Substance related disorders cause clinically significant impairment, legal problems, physical health problems, and even death.

Definition of Substance Abuse


An overview of substance abuse. Substance abuse is essentially characterized by patterns involving dangerous and harmful use of a substance. Substances include drugs and alcohol, as well as substances which do not actually contain drugs. The abuse may happen if you use a substance for another use than is permitted, and by doing so leads to drug addiction, as the user is eventually unable to stop.

Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is classified as a disease by the world health organization and national institute on drug. Drug addiction affects a person's brain and behavior thereby leading to the inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana, steroids and nicotine also are considered drugs. Using illegal drugs or prescription or over-the-counter drugs or alcohol for other purposes than which they are meant to be used, or in overly excessive amounts, is substance abuse. Substance abuse may lead to social, physical, emotional, and job-related problems, including depression and even death from overdose.

Drug Abuse


As previously mentioned substance use disorder or a drug addiction is a condition that causes a mental and physical imbalance in the brain. The addiction can continue to happen to a person who is addicted as they disregard it's harmful effects. Both legal & illegal substances contain "substances" which can influence the brain. It's possible to get pleasure by using these products to ease stress and reduce problems in the life of someone else.

Excessive use of drugs, such as alcohol, pain medications, or illegal drugs, can lead to physical, social, or emotional harm. Addiction is hard on family members as persons with substance use disorder suffer physical and mental health deterioration. The addicted person often loses all regard for their physical and mental wellbeing as they submit to the addiction. A key factor in this is withdrawal symptoms, in which if the user stops or takes a lesser dosage, will feel physically ill. People with substance abuse problems are at a higher risk of premature death after disease progression.

What is an Addict?

Physical dependence occurs when repeated use of drugs change your mind's feeling of pleasure. Substance misuse can damage nerve cells and affect the rest of the body in the nervous system, and the brains neurotransmitters. Those modifications are possible even after stopping using drugs. Tolerance plays a crucial role in addiction. Those with substance use disorders, over time, need to take more and more of a substance to achieve the desired result. This is because their tolerance to the drug builds up and as a result withdrawal effects become more severe upon stopping. This causes a cycle where the user needs to take more of a substance as to not feel physically ill, and in some cases just to function.

Addiction is a risk and symptoms occur when a person consumes alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances excessively. That's why you don't want to take any medication for a condition, unless told to do so by a licensed physician, and then only in the amount prescribed for that specific condition. Substance use is different from addiction:  People with substance abuse problems can stop and change unhealthy behavior as a result. Addictions however, are diseases and people are generally unable to stop without treatment by a health care professional.

The role family members play in substance misuse and treatment are crucial to a loved ones recovery.

You Can Make A Difference

Over 100,000 people died in 2021 from drug overdoses in the United States.

Risks of Substance Misuse

In the case of unauthorized substance use, authorities determined that its use was causing harm and enacted laws to prohibit its use. It is intended to both safeguard people and society in relation to healthcare costs, losses of productivity, disease, criminal activity or an increasing risk of homelessness. However, the effects of criminalizing drug misuse are currently under scrutiny as the failed legal system on drugs has produced few results.

In some legal substances there are no distinctions between usage and abuse. Do you drink alcohol after work to help relieve the stress and anxiety? Do you drink coffee every morning? Anyone of all ages can be addicted to drugs, and various circumstances can be factors that impact how often a person becomes addicted. A person may be at increased risk if he/she has certain factors such as: genetic, biological, environmental, mental illness, use drugs to self medicate or as coping skills .


Substance use disorders as in most mental disorders, have a number of factors that can contribute to drug addictions and a person's risk. High risk is mainly because of: family history, peer pressure, mental illness, and environmental factors. But one factor has stood out more than others to researchers, that is changes in the brain itself.

Changes in the Brain

Physical dependence occurs when repeated use of drugs change your mind's feeling of pleasure. It can damage nerve cells and affect the rest of the body. In the nervous system, the brain neurotransmitters are damaged causing psychological harm. Those modifications are possible even after stopping using drugs. Continued substance use changes how the brain functions. Many commonly abused drugs including caffeine and nicotine can cause: psychological problems, other health problems, problems with concentration, mood swings, anxiety and effect overall mental health.

Prescription Drugs and Over The Counter Drugs


In recent years, pharmacological use has dramatically improved. However, according to a new survey released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 8% to 12% of Americans using opioid medications have substance-use problems. The number of opioid-related deaths increased from 2018 through 2019 then again from 2019 through 2020 and yet again from 2020 through 2021. An average of 273 people died daily of opioid abuse during 2021 as the Opioid Crisis rages on. In the United States the misuse of opioids is very common among patients. Opioids have the highest relapse rate of any other drug.

National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that there are also three types of sedatives meds that are commonly abused. It includes the following: Benzodiazepines such as (Valium®, Xanax®) Sedadative Hypnotics such as (Ambien®, Lunesta®) and Barbiturates such as (Mebaral®, Luminal®). Although prescription medications prescribed by a doctor, medications such as these are often abused, especially by those with substance abuse problems. This can be done by: taking someone else's prescription medications, taking more than recommened to get high and taking the medication in an unintended way - such as crushing and snorting pills.

Sometimes people misuse substances by inhaling alcohol or misusing prescription drugs which can cause harmful side effects in the body as well as a sluggish mood. Many children begin experimenting by taking drugs or alcohol at home when they misuse substances. Often by inhaling it, simply because of their use in household items they are therefore, readily available.

Over the counter medicines, although legal substances can be equally deadly and as addictive as illegal medications. Over the counter medications can be just as addictive as street drugs for the same reasons. The most common drug misuse with OTC medicines are cough medicine with (Dextromethorphan), cold medicines with (Pseudoephedrine), and motion sickness medication containing (Dimenhydrinate) which makes it's users feel drunk or intoxicated.

Illegal Drugs

Generally, when many people discuss substance abuse, they refer to use of illicit drug products. Taking an illegal drug does not just change mood, but affects people around you. Illegal drug use can cloud your judgements, disrupt perception and change reaction time; all this could be harmful and potentially deadly for the person Unfortunately, high school students often try illegal drugs for the first time due to peer pressure.

There are some cases in which a drug have become illegal, after previously being legal, because it may be addictive, cause mental health issues and/or cause severe health consequences. Cocaine is such a drug. Yes! That's right, believe it or not, Cocaine actually used to be legal and used in cough syrups and a famous soft drink, Coca Cola. In fact the "Coca" in the name refers to the Coca plant found in South America in which cocaine is produced from. The "Cola" part of the name comes from the Kola nut, another stimulant. Good job Coca Cola!.. and you guys just keep slurping it down. Don't worry, there's no Cocaine in any soda today, just another legal highly addictive product, sugar.


Those were always those who believed that legal products such as Cocaine and Morphine, always had the potential for substance misuse. The DEA, overseeing illegal drugs, believes in the dangerous effects, and gave them a Scheduling System. Schedule I being for narcotics with the most addiction potential and Schedule V for the least addictive. Many drugs meet criteria for the Scheduling System, some of which we will look at below. Another danger of illegal drugs is they often contain unknown substances making them far worse for the user. The most frequently abused illicit drugs in the USA are:



Cocaine as well as other stimulants speed up your metabolism. When a person takes cocaine, they often can speak very quickly and easily. Your emotions are likely to be positive, although your mood can also suddenly change to anger. Cocaine also causes severe paranoia and you may get a feeling that people are watching you. Sometimes simple tasks may become difficult for you. Taking cocaine for prolonged periods can cause substance abuse because of it's severe cravings.



Heroin is an illicit form of man-made narcotics, that first makes you feel euphoric. Many people with depression or anxiety use it for this reason. When the euphoria wears off, people report a feeling of warmth and safety, which can be comforting for those who feel alienated by those around them. Your thinking may slow down and you may feel more calm and less anxiety.

Heroin also causes nausea, slows your respiration and cough reflex, making the main cause for overdose deaths, choking on your vomit. Recently, the risk of dying from an overdose of heroin has risen greatly because heroin is often cut with fentanyl. It is possible you need to use heroin to feel better. Many people need to use it to avoid heroin withdrawals. Because of this this, is the most frequently used drug in people with substance use disorders, since the Opioid Crisis began.

Always call 911 or other emergency services if overdose is suspected!

Synthetic Drugs


Synthetic drugs are also known as designer drugs. We now have synthetic drugs like bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids that have not yet become illegal, but can still be abused and have the same effect as other substances and even potentially more deadly in our society. Another commonly used designer drug is Fentanyl that gives the user the same feeling as heroin. What is Fentanyl?


A synthetic narcotic 50–100 times more potent than morphine is called fentanyl. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was created with the goal of treating cancer patients' pain through pharmaceutical means. It was intended to be applied to the skin as a patch, but today's illegal uses are typically in the shape of powders made in Mexico with Chinese ingredients. Fentanyl is also diverted for drug abuse due to its potent opioid properties. Most recent overdose deaths all involve Fentanyl, as only a few grains can kill an adult.

Recreational drug use

Several believe that recreational and non-medical consumption of certain types of substances are harmless, because they are simply used rather than misused. Most people support the idea of having marijuana in a recreational setting, but some are opposed to it. Despite its high addictiveness, it has beneficial properties unlike a harder drug. Recently, research has also revealed that marijuana may have far greater psychological effects on the human brain than previously thought. Increasing evidence shows long-term use of marijuana can be dangerous. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Psychiatric Association, marijuana users are more likely to develop psychological dependence.

Often people develop drug dependence during experimental drug use during social situations – as some people find that their use becomes frequent. In other instances drug addiction begins when one receives prescription drugs or a prescription medication from a friend. The risks of addiction vary depending on the drug. Some medications are more likely to cause addiction than other drugs. With time, your dosage will increase to a higher level and lead to substance misuse.



In recent years, many states legalized medical use of cannabis. Many states permit recreational pot use, but it has also been banned in a few states. Marijuana makes you laugh without any reason and often you can't sleep or remember what's going on. Driving under the influence of Marijuana is as dangerous as drinking, as the high level of marijuana consumption leaves many people "burnt out", as they can't even think that much. This leads to many car accidents every year that could have been avoided.

Alcohol Abuse


Alcohol has a different effect on everybody, but alcohol abuse leads to alcohol dependence. Many people misuse alcohol as it is the most abused substance in people with substance use disorder. However consuming alcohol too often increases the risk for accidents, when you drink and drive. Heavy alcohol use can lead to liver problems as well as liver disease, other health problems or even worse, death.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking is considered by gender differences. Moderate or low-risk range for women is no more than 3 drinks per day and no more than 7 drinks per week. For men it is different, at no more than 4 drinks per day and no more than 14 drinks per week. If you have more than 4 drinks per day or have 14 drinks per week this is alcohol abuse.

Other Commonly Used Substances

Regardless of whether or not substance use has a lasting impact on your life, it is dangerous. Theoretically, most substances are susceptible to misuse. Some substances that we use everyday and do not even think of as drugs, still have the potential for substance misuse. Below we will take a look at a few commonly used substances.

Anabolic steroids

Some substances which may be abused have no mood-altering properties such as anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroid treatment is a dangerous treatment as it has negative adverse effects that can range from irritating or life-threatening for certain users. Most users experience what is know as "Roid Rage" and cannot control their emotions leading them to lash out in anger unprovoked. This behavior is dangerous and has resulted in numerous cases of domestic violence.


There’s an increasing body of research of exactly what is substance abuse. Some research has told us that excess sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs. It may be hard to believe that a "harmless" everyday substance such as sugar can be dangerous. Besides not only having a role in the obesity crisis in America, it turns out that sugar has similar effects on the brain as other drugs. Sugar affects our brain pathways the same as addictive drugs, and many Americans don't even realize how much we're consuming. Sugar releases Dopamine in the brain. As you repeat that behavior more and more (in this case consuming sugar), your brain adjusts to release less dopamine over time. The only way to feel the same “sugar high” as before is to repeat the behavior in increasing amounts and/or frequency. As we already know this is the definition of what is known as substance misuse. Maybe it's time to realize that sugar is dangerous and addictive after all.


Nicotine is the most addictive drug on the planet today after sugar, according to some. Even though smoking has declined in the past few years, 40 million Americans still use nicotine despite its widely acknowledged negative effect. Even if the law allows for it's use, the fact that nicotine is harmful for health should not be overlooked. The new method of "vaping" is likely the main factor causing widespread tobacco use. The health effects of smoking are well documented and include: asthma, emphysema, COPD, heart disease, lower oxygen levels, pregnancy complications and the most obvious - cancer. If it is so dangerous, why is it legal? Well for those answers you need to realize how the United States was founded on sugar and tobacco. That will have to be another article for another day.


Unlike nicotine and other stimulant drugs, caffeine is not as addictive but it can also harm our health too as it is prone to substance misuse. Studies have shown that caffeine is linked with numerous mental problems such as anxiety disorder. People with generalized anxiety disorders, panic attacks, primary insomnia, and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) should avoid caffeine consumption. If you are a nervous person already, maybe skip the coffee.

Tips for Preventing Substance Abuse

According to the diagnostic and statistical manual diagnosing drug abuse is very important. Their criteria on what constitutes as substance use disorders is a little more technical than we covered here. However, one thing that's certain is the need for awareness in preventing substance abuse.

One of the best and most effective ways to prevent addiction and substance misuse is to educate the youth about the risks of drug and alcohol abuse. Healthy Coping Skills such as exercise are helpful. Start a hobby or get involved with something you care about. Check in on friends and family members often. Practice Self-Care and take time for yourself. Do not let life overwhelm you. We also all know someone in our lives with depression. It is important to speak to those individuals about seeking treatment before they begin to self medicate.

Signs of a Substance Use Problem

Learn to recognize the signs of drug abuse. When you start taking any drug you think you can control the amount you take. You might need more medication to get that effect as drug use becomes more frequent. For some, this may go beyond a person's addiction. Signs of an addiction may be:

  • A person craves drugs or talks about them often

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Other health problems

  • Depression

  • Lack of concern for personal hygiene

  • Changes in personality and behavior like a lack of motivation

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Shakes, tremors, or slurred or slowed speech

  • Change in their daily routines

  • Unusual need for money; unexplained financial problems, stealing money

  • Changes in friends

If you suspect someone you know has a drug abuse problem, speak to a substance abuse counselor right away!

Don't wait for treatment. Get help now!

Substance misuse affects everyone. It's going to hurt you and your family and loved ones. This is bad for relationships and your finances. Drug addiction can be dangerous and the effects may be fatal. You may use local resources such as the mental health services administration or medical professional for treatment options.

Behavioral problems can affect people and the entire society as a whole. In certain cases the situation may result in health complications, mental issues, unsafe behavior and legal issues. Behavioral therapies are available in treatment facilities and support groups. In society, substance abuse can cause more harm to health and decrease productivity. Moreover, it may contribute towards social problem like crimes.

Local resources that are available to help treat substance abuse include: drug and alcohol counseling, a substance abuse counselor, addiction medicine support group, alcohol support group, inpatient treatment, and detox at addiction treatment facilities. It may also be helpful for addiction treatment, to speak to your family and get them involved in therapy.

Remember you are not alone and recovery is possible!


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse

National Institute on Drug Abuse