Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependence

Imagine discovering your child inhaling glue, markers or spray cans for a thrill. It happens. While drug addiction and alcoholism are two common types of substance abuse, almost any substance can be abused. In fact, inhalants, solvents, caffeine and cigarettes are often abused for mood altering purposes. Here, we delve into the ins and outs of substance abuse.

Definition of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse, also called substance dependence or chemical dependence, is the harmful or hazardous intake of any substance for the intention of altering one’s mood. The use of the substance leads to frequent and serious problems, such as a need for the substance, trouble controlling its use, increased tolerance, and physical withdrawal.[1,2]

Types of Substances Abused

Some of the substances frequently abused include alcohol and chewing or smoking tobacco. The following are drugs that are commonly abused:[3,4,5,6,7,8]

Prescription Drug Abuse

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 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 Abuse: 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 ABuse: 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. In fact, national surveys report that nearly 20 percent of young people have experimented with inhalants at least once by the time they are in eighth grade.[9]

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 and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

While each individual will react differently to the abuse of a substance or chemical, the following are the most commonly displayed behaviors:[3]

  • Getting high or intoxicated on a regular basis
  • Lying about how much they use the substance
  • Avoiding friends and family members
  • No longer participating in activities they used to enjoy
  • Constantly talking about using drugs or alcohol
  • Believing they need the substance in order to have fun
  • Pressuring others to use the substance
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Taking risks, such as driving under the influence of a substance
  • Difficulty performing or at work or going to work due to substance abuse
  • Feeling depressed, hopeless, or suicidal

Causes of Substance Abuse

When drugs or chemicals enter the brain, they can change how the brain works by causing physical changes to some nerve cells (neurons) in your brain. These changes are what lead to compulsive use. Physical addiction appears to occur when repeated use of a substance alters the way your brain feels pleasure. Substance addiction and dependence depends on several things, but below are two main factors:

Environment. Family beliefs and attitudes, as well as exposure to a peer group that encourages drug use, seem to play a role in initial drug use.

Genes. Once you’ve started using a drug, the development into addiction may be influenced by inherited traits.[8]

Effects of Substance Abuse

On top of family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, child abuse, and death, drug abuse and addiction have destructive public health and safety implications. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health and crime-related costs exceed $600 billion annually.[10]

Treatments for Substance Abuse

Scientific research since the mid-1970s shows that treatment can help drug addicts stop using, avoid relapse, and successfully recover their lives.[11] Drug addiction treatments include the following:[12]

  • Treatment programs: Include individual or group educational and therapy sessions focused on getting sober and preventing relapse.
  • Counseling: Involve individual or family sessions with a psychologist, psychiatrist or addiction counselor that focus on behavior therapies to develop ways to cope with drug cravings, avoid drugs and prevent and deal with relapse.
  • Self-help groups: Teach that addiction is a chronic disorder with a danger of relapse and that ongoing maintenance treatment is necessary to prevent a relapse.
  • Withdrawal therapy or detoxification: Helps the addicted stop taking the drug by gradually reducing the dose of the drug or temporarily substituting other substances that have less severe side effects.


  1. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Consumer Fact Sheet Substance Abuse. Retrieved September 25, 2013, from
  2. World Health Organization. Substance abuse. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from
  3. The Ohio State University. Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependency. Retrieved September 24, 2013, from
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Commonly Abused Drugs Chart. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from
  5. Medline Plus. Drug Abuse. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs of Abuse. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Chart. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from
  8. Mayo Clinic. Drug addiction causes. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HHS News. 2001 Monitoring the future survey release. Smoking among teenagers decreases sharply and increase in ecstasy use slows.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Understanding Drub Abuse and Addiction. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from
  11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. DrugFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from
  12. Mayo Clinic. Drug addiction treatments and drugs. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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