Drug Abuse

Whether it’s the fix your body desperately craves due to withdrawal or the euphoric altered state your mind can’t wait to achieve, drug abuse plays havoc with both mind and body and can destroy a person’s life. Read on to find out the different types of abused drugs, what causes drug abuse in some people and not others, how to treat the addiction and more.

What is Drug Abuse

Drug abuse, also called substance abuse, is the dependence on a medication or an illegal drug. Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing physician in order to alleviate pain or get high. Illegal drug abuse is the over use of a drug that is forbidden by law or statute, such as cocaine or heroin, in order to get high and/or feed an addiction.[1,2,3]

Types of Drugs Abused

There are many types of drugs abused, both prescriptive and illegal. Below is a brief description of each of the most commonly abused drugs within each category.[4,5,6,7,8]

Prescription Drugs

Most people take medicines only for the reasons that their doctors prescribe, but an estimated 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. Abusing some prescription drugs, such as narcotic painkillers, sedatives and tranquilizers, and stimulants can lead to addiction.

Narcotic Painkillers: Commonly known pain relievers that fall into this group include OxyContin and Vicodin.

Sedatives and Tranquilizers: Commonly known sedatives and tranquilizers include Lunesta, Ambien and Codeine.

Stimulants: Commonly known prescription stimulants include Adderall and Ritalin.

Illegal Drugs

Amphetamines: Methamphetamine is a very addictive stimulant drug that affects the brain and can create feelings of pleasure, increased energy and elevated mood. It can be smoked, injected, inhaled or taken by mouth and has many street names, such as speed, meth, and chalk. Methamphetamine hydrochloride, the crystal form inhaled by smoking, is referred to as ice, crystal, glass and tina. Abusers may become addicted quickly, needing higher doses more often. Adverse health effects include irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure and a variety of psychological problems. Long-term effects may include severe mental disorders, memory loss and severe dental problems.

Anabolic Steroids: Anabolic steroids is the familiar name for synthetic variants of the male sex hormone testosterone. The proper term for these compounds is anabolic-androgenic steroids (abbreviated AAS)—”anabolic” referring to muscle-building and “androgenic” referring to increased male sexual characteristics.

Club Drugs: Club drugs tend to be used by teenagers and young adults at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties. Club drugs include GHB, ketamine, Ecstasy, Acid, and others. Club drugs are also sometimes used as date rape drugs by making someone unable to say no or fight back against sexual assault. Club drugs can cause serious health problems and sometimes death. They are even more dangerous if you use them with alcohol.

Cocaine: Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. It produces short-term euphoria, energy, and talkativeness in addition to potentially dangerous physical effects like raising heart rate and blood pressure.

Heroin: Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.” Heroin can be injected, smoked or snorted. Major health problems from heroin include miscarriages, heart infections and death from overdose. People who inject the drug also risk infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Inhalants: Many products readily found in the home or workplace, such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids, contain volatile substances that have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties when inhaled. People do not typically think of these products as drugs because they were never intended for that purpose. However, these products are sometimes abused in that way. They are especially (but not exclusively) abused by young children and adolescents, and are the only class of substance abused more by younger than by older teens.

LSD: LSD, otherwise known as Acid, can distort perceptions of reality and produce hallucinations from which the effects can be frightening and cause panic. LSD is sold as tablets, capsules, liquid or on absorbent paper.

Marijuana: Marijuana is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of leaves, flowers, stems and seeds from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. In a more concentrated, resinous form, it is called hashish, and as a sticky black liquid, hash oil. The main psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. People usually smoke it as a cigarette or in a pipe. It is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the United States. Abusing marijuana can result in problems with memory, learning and social behavior. It can interfere with family, school, work and other activities.

Signs & Symptoms of Drug Abuse

Most drug addictions start with casual or social use of a drug. For some people, using the drug becomes a habit, and its use becomes more and more frequent. As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug to get high. Soon you may need the drug just to feel good. As your drug use increases, you may find that it becomes increasingly difficult to go without the drug and stopping may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill (withdrawal symptoms). Symptoms or behaviors of drug abuse include:[9]

  • Feeling the need to use the drug regularly — this can be daily or even several times a day
  • Making certain that to maintain a supply of the drug
  • Spending money on the drug, even though one can’t afford it
  • Failing in attempts to stop using the drug
  • Doing things to obtain the drug that a person wouldn’t normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
  • Feeling that the drug is needed to deal with your problems
  • Focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug
  • Driving or doing other risky activities when under the influence of the drug

Causes of Drug Abuse

No single factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. Risk for addiction is influenced by a combination of three main factors that include individual biology, social environment and age or stage of development. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. The three main factors are:[10,11]


The genes that people are born with—in combination with environmental influences—account for about half of their addiction vulnerability. Additionally, gender, ethnicity and the presence of other mental disorders may influence risk for drug abuse and addiction.

Social Environment

A person’s social environment includes many different influences from family and friends to socioeconomic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, stress and quality of parenting can greatly influence the occurrence of drug abuse and the escalation to addiction in a person’s life.

Age or Stage of Development

Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction vulnerability. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse, which poses a special challenge to adolescents. Since areas in adolescent brains that govern decision making, judgment and self-control are still developing, young people may be especially prone to risk-taking behaviors, including trying drugs of abuse.

Effects of Drug Abuse

Drug abuse can affect a person both physically and emotionally, and have acute and longer term effects on his or her health. Depending on the drug used, acute effects may include a person having lowered inhibitions, emotional volatility, drowsiness, loss of coordination, paranoia, psychosis, muscle cramping and disorientation. Longer term health risks include hypertension, liver and heart disease, hepatitis, weight loss, seizures, memory loss, hostility and aggression, blood clotting and cholesterol changes, and HIV contraction.[4]

From a societal standpoint, drug abuse is a serious public health problem that affects almost every community and family. Drug abuse can lead to homelessness, crime and missed work or problems with keeping a job. Drugged driving, violence, stress and child abuse stem from or are a direct result of drug abuse. Each year, approximately 40 million serious illnesses or injuries in the United States occur due to drug abuse.[5]

Treatments for Drug Abuse

The best way to avoid drug abuse is through prevention. However, once a person becomes addicted to drugs and is willing to face it head on, drug addiction treatments include organized inpatient or outpatient treatment programs, counseling, and self-help groups to help a person resist using the addictive drug again. In addition, medications can be used to help with different aspects of the treatment process; that is withdrawal and treatment.[12]


Drug addiction is a preventable disease. Results from research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective in reducing drug abuse. Although many events and cultural factors affect drug abuse trends, when youths perceive drug abuse as harmful, they reduce their drug taking. Thus, education and outreach are key in helping youth and the general public understand the risks of drug abuse.[10]

Treatment Programs

Treatment programs generally include educational and therapy sessions focused on getting sober and preventing relapse. This may be accomplished in individual, group or family sessions. These programs are available in various settings from outpatient to residential and inpatient programs.[12]


Individual or family counseling with a psychologist, psychiatrist or addiction counselor may help a person resist the temptation to resume using addicting drugs. Behavior therapies can help develop ways to cope with drug cravings, suggest strategies to avoid drugs and prevent relapse, and offer suggestions on how to deal with a relapse if it occurs. Counseling can also involve talking about one’s job, legal problems, and relationships with family and friends. Counseling with family members can help an addicted person’s family and friends develop better communication skills and be more supportive.[12]

Self-help Groups

Many, though not all, of these groups tend to use the 12-step model first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Self-help groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, exist for people addicted to drugs, such as cocaine, sedatives and narcotics. The message is that addiction is a chronic disorder with a danger of relapse and that ongoing maintenance treatment — which may include medications, counseling and self-help group meetings — is necessary to prevent a relapse. A doctor or counselor can help locate a self-help group. Listings for self-help groups are also available in the phone book, at the library and on the Internet.[12,13]

Withdrawal Therapy and Medications

Withdrawal Therapy: The goal of withdrawal therapy (detoxification) is for you to stop taking the addicting drug as quickly and safely as possible. Detoxification may involve gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances, such as methadone, that have less severe side effects. For some people, it may be safe to undergo withdrawal therapy on an outpatient basis; others may require admission to a hospital or a residential treatment center.[12,13]

Medications: Medications offer help in suppressing withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. However, medically assisted detoxification is not in itself “treatment”—it is only the first step in the treatment process. Patients who go through medically assisted withdrawal but do not receive any further treatment show drug abuse patterns similar to those who were never treated.[14]

Medications can be used to help reestablish normal brain function and to prevent relapse and diminish cravings. Currently, there are medications for opioids (heroin, morphine), tobacco (nicotine), and alcohol addiction and are developing others for treating stimulant (cocaine, methamphetamine) and cannabis (marijuana) addiction. Most people with severe addiction problems, however, are polydrug users (users of more than one drug) and will require treatment for all of the substances that they abuse.[14]


  1. Mayo Clinic. Drug Addiction. Definition. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-addiction/DS00183.
  2. Mayo Clinic. Prescription drug abuse. Definition. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/prescription-drug-abuse/DS01079.
  3. Scripps. Drug Abuse. Definition. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from http://www.scripps.org/articles/3559-drug-abuse.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Commonly Abused Drugs Chart. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs/commonly-abused-drugs-chart.
  5. Medline Plus. Drug Abuse. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/drugabuse.html.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs of Abuse. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Chart. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs/commonly-abused-prescription-drugs-chart.
  8. Cleveland Clinic. Diseases & Conditions. Addictions: An Overview. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Alcoholism/hic_Addictions_An_Overview.aspx.
  9. Mayo Clinic. Drug addiction. Symptoms. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-addiction/DS00183/DSECTION=symptoms.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction.
  11. Mayo Clinic. Drug addiction. Causes. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-addiction/DS00183/DSECTION=causes.
  12. Mayo Clinic. Drug Addiction. Treatments and drugs. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/drug-addiction/DS00183/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs.
  13. Scripps. Drug dependence. Retrieved May 18, 2013, from http://www.scripps.org/articles/2339-drug-dependence.
  14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction.

By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor

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