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What is substance abuse?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

What is substance abuse?

People who abuse substances — also known as substance abusers — have a compulsive need to use alcohol or drugs. 

In other words, these individuals cannot control their usage and abuse them in ways that are dangerous or harmful to them. There are many types of substances that people can abuse, but the most common include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, opioids (e.g., heroin and fentanyl), amphetamines (e.g., meth and crystal meth), benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax and Valium), hallucinogens (e.g., LSD and magic mushrooms), and tobacco products like cigarettes and chewing tobacco. 

While substance abuse is not uncommon among teens, teenagers who engage in such behavior are at an increased risk of developing an addiction later in life. This article explores what substance abuse is, its warning signs, related risks as well as treatment options for recovery if you or someone you love is struggling with it.

Types of Substance Abuse

There are many different types of substance abuse. Some of the most common types include:

  • Alcohol abuse – Alcohol abuse is the excessive or compulsive use of alcohol. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S.

  • Cannabis abuse – Cannabis abuse is excessive or compulsive cannabis use. Cannabis is a very common substance that people abuse.

  • Cocaine abuse – Cocaine abuse is excessive or compulsive cocaine use. Cocaine is a very dangerous stimulant that people abuse both in powder form and in the form of crack.

  • Opioid abuse – Opioid abuse is the excessive or compulsive use of opioids. Heroin and fentanyl are examples of opioids that people abuse.

  • Stimulant abuse – Stimulant abuse is the excessive or compulsive use of stimulants. Stimulants like meth, cocaine, and crystal meth are commonly abused substances.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There are many risk factors for substance abuse. The most common risk factors include:

  • Having a mental health condition – People who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are more likely to struggle with substance abuse.

  • Having a family history of addiction – People who have a family history of addiction are more likely to develop their own substance abuse issues.

  • Having easy access to substances – People who have easy access to alcohol, cigarettes, etc. are more likely to abuse them.

  • Experiencing trauma – People who have experienced trauma (e.g., sexual assault, abuse, etc.) are more likely to struggle with substance abuse.

  • Having low self-esteem – People who have low self-esteem are more likely to abuse substances.

What Are the Signs of Substance Abuse?

There are several signs that someone you know may be struggling with substance abuse. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Taking substances in increasing quantities or for longer periods of time than intended – This is a sign that the person is struggling to maintain control over their usage.

  • Experiencing cravings and/or withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from substances – Craving, as well as experiencing withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from a substance, are strong signs that someone is dependent on that substance.

  • Experiencing negative consequences related to substance abuse – If the person is experiencing negative consequences related to their substance abuse, such as failing out of school, losing friends, or getting in trouble with the law, it is a sign that the substance abuse has become problematic.

  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from substances – This is another sign that the person is struggling with substance abuse.

Consequences of Substance Abuse

If you’ve ever had a friend, family member, or even colleague that has struggled with substance abuse at some point in their life, you know just how important it is to understand the risks and warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

 In fact, substance abuse is one of the most common causes of failed performance, dismissal and termination from most employers. It can lead to a number of negative consequences for an employee including: increased risk of contracting a disease such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS; an inability to perform optimally; interpersonal conflict; legal troubles; and cost to the employer due to things like lost work time, medical bills, counseling costs, etc. 

However, with the right knowledge about substance abuse and its effects on the body and mind, you can better identify individuals who are at risk so that they can reach out for help before it’s too late.

Some of the more common consequences of drug abuse and alcohol abuse include:

  • Financial problems – People who struggle with substance abuse often find themselves in serious financial debt as a result of their usage.

  • Poor academic performance – Substance abuse can negatively affect academic performance. Many people who abuse substances fail out of school.

  • Increased risk of contracting a disease – People who engage in substance abuse are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or a blood-borne infection such as hepatitis.

  • Relationship problems – Substance abuse can negatively affect relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners.

  • Legal problems – Substance abuse can lead to legal problems such as getting arrested, being convicted of a crime, and/or serving time in prison.

  • Physical symptoms – People who abuse substances are at an increased risk of experiencing physical symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect the Body?

When an individual regularly consumes alcohol or drugs, it causes changes in their brain chemistry and the amount of chemicals in their bloodstream.

These substances alter the way their brain functions and can lead to long-term physical effects. Substance abuse can cause:

  • Changes in appetite: Substance abuse can cause changes in one’s appetite and the amount of food they need to maintain a healthy weight.

  • Cravings for alcohol or drugs: An individual who is abusing drugs or alcohol may crave the substance they’re abusing.

  • Changes in sleep patterns: Many individuals who abuse substances report sleeping more than normal or experiencing insomnia. They may also experience frequent nightmares.

  • Diseases such as hepatitis: If a person drinks a lot of alcohol or injects drugs, they are more at risk of contracting a disease such as hepatitis.

Psychological Consequences of Alcohol Abuse and the Abuse of Illegal Drugs

Depression: A person who abuses drugs or alcohol may experience depression as a result of their substance use.

Suicidal thoughts or actions: Substance abuse can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. A person may decide to end their life if their substance abuse is out of control and they feel there is no other way out.

Anxiety: A person who abuses prescription drugs or alcohol may experience feelings of anxiety.

Psychosis: Substance abuse can cause a person to experience psychosis, a mental disorder in which they have false but fixed beliefs that they hold as true without any evidence.

The Risks of Drug Abuse in the Workplace

  • Performance issues: Substance abuse can seriously impact an employee’s overall performance and ability to complete their job tasks as expected.

  • Negative interpersonal relationships: Substance abuse can lead to problems with co-workers, peers, or even supervisors.

  • Legal issues: Substance abuse can cause an employee to act impulsively or in a reckless manner. This can lead to legal troubles including DUIs, citations, or even arrest for crimes such as theft or assault.

  • Cost to the employer: Substance abuse can cause a number of issues for an employer including the need for medical attention; increased risk of accidents or workplace injuries; increased sick days; and increased time off due to substance use.

Legal Consequences of Substance Abuse

  • Arrest: If an individual has consumed too much alcohol, they could be charged with driving under the influence.If an individual is using illegal substances, they could be charged with possession or trafficking of a controlled substance such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine.

  • Fines or jail time: If someone is convicted of an alcohol-related driving offense, they could be fined, be required to take a driver’s education course, or even go to jail. If someone is convicted of possession or trafficking of an illegal substance, they could be fined or go to jail.

  • Loss of driving privileges: If an individual receives a DUI, they may lose their driving privileges.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Relationships?

  • Loss of relationships: An individual who abuses drugs or alcohol may distance themselves from family and friends, preferring to spend time with other substance abusers rather than more responsible individuals.

  • Financial problems: A person who regularly consumes alcohol or drugs may have financial problems such as not paying bills or going into debt.

  • Poor parent: An individual who abuses drugs or alcohol may be unable to properly care for their children.

Financial Consequences of Substance Abuse

There is an increased cost of living associated with drug misuse and the abuse of illicit drugs. A person who abuses alcohol or drugs on a regular basis may need to spend more money on alcohol or drugs than someone who does not abuse substances. 

This can lead to financial problems, such as going into debt. Moreover, a person who abuses drugs or alcohol may not be able to pay their bills on time or keep up with other financial responsibilities. 

Wheb thge abuse if an illegal drug, prescriptions drugs, or other drugs takes a toll on physical and mental health, the costs of treating these health problems an also become a burdon.

How to Help a Loved One Who is Struggling With Addiction

If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, the first step is to approach them regarding the issue. 

Many people who struggle with substance abuse don’t realize they have a problem and will appreciate your concern. When approaching the person, try to do so in a non-judgmental way. 

Focus on the fact that you care about them and would like to help them. If the person is receptive to your advice, help them find a treatment program. There are many treatment programs available, including in-person treatment programs and online treatment programs. 

Be patient with the person as they go through treatment. Recovery is a long and difficult process, but it can be done. And once the person completes treatment, you can help them maintain their sobriety by showing them support, encouraging them, and reminding them that you care.

What is a Substance Use Disorder?

People who struggle with substance use disorders have an unhealthy relationship with drugs, alcohol or other substances. They can’t stop using these substances even when they want to, and it causes problems in their lives. 

A person has a substance use disorder if their habits interfere with school, work, or home life; put them at risk for disease or injury; lead to risky situations; or end up hurting themselves or others. 

If you think that you or someone you know might have a substance use disorder, read on to learn more. A qualified treatment specialist can help. So can friends and family members who care about your recovery.

Drug and Alcohol Dependence

A person who is drug- or alcohol-dependent is unable to control their use of those substances. They experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t use their drug of choice. 

These symptoms are a sign that a person’s body has become dependent on the drug. People who are drug- or alcohol-dependent experience cravings for their drug of choice. 

If a person goes too long without their drug of choice, they start experiencing withdrawal symptoms. These can be severe and can make it difficult for them to function.

What Are the Signs of a Substance Use Disorder?

There are signs that you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse. The signs of a substance use disorder include:

  • Craving or needing to use a drug – You might find yourself craving or needing to use a drug. You might think about using a drug when you’re not actually taking it. You might use a drug more often than you’d like to.

  • Using drugs in a dangerous way – You might use drugs in a way that’s dangerous to your health. You might use a drug more often than you’d like to. You might use a drug more often than you can afford to.

  • Experiencing cravings when not using a drug – You might experience cravings when not taking a drug. You might feel irritable or angry when not taking a drug. You might feel restless or anxious when not taking a drug.

  • Trying to quit using drugs but failing – You might try to quit using drugs but find yourself failing. You might try to quit using drugs more than once but fail each time.

  • Having problems at work, school, or home – You might have problems at work, school, or home as a result of your drug use. You might have less time to spend with friends or family members.

  • Neglecting important responsibilities – You might neglect important responsibilities like work, bills, or exercise as a result of your drug use.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Some people who struggle with substance use disorders also struggle with mental health disorders. This is common.

Sometimes people with mental health disorders use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. They may not realize they have a mental health disorder that requires treatment. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia.

People with mental health disorders and substance use disorders may need treatment for both conditions. But they may not be able to access treatment for their mental health disorder if they are using drugs or alcohol. This is why it’s important to get help as soon as possible.

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

An alcohol use disorder is a substance use disorder related to alcohol. Alcohol is a legal, but addictive drug that many people drink in moderation. But some people drink alcohol to the point of excess. 

They drink more than they intended to or more often than they intended to. This is referred to as an “alcohol use disorder.” People with an alcohol use disorder crave and desperately want to drink alcohol. 

They think about it, plan their day around it, and make excuses to drink. An alcohol use disorder can cause many issues in a person’s life. It can damage their overall health and even shorten their lifespan. It can also cause relationship issues and problems at work.

What is an Cannabis Use Disorder?

A cannabis use disorder is a substance use disorder related to cannabis, or marijuana. Cannabis is a plant that people can use for both medical and recreational purposes. 

While many people don’t experience any negative effects from using cannabis, some people become addicted to it. They crave and desperately want to use cannabis. 

They may experience cravings when they don’t have access to cannabis. If a person goes too long without cannabis, they may experience withdrawal symptoms.

What Is a Cocaine Use Disorder?

A cocaine use disorder is a substance use disorder related to cocaine. Cocaine is an addictive stimulant drug that can cause serious health issues. 

People with a cocaine use disorder crave and desperately want to use the drug. They think about it and plan their day around it. They may also experience cravings when they don’t have access to cocaine. 

If a person goes too long without cocaine, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. A cocaine use disorder can affect many areas of a person’s life. It can damage their overall health and even shorten their lifespan. It can also cause relationship issues and problems at work.

What is an opioid use disorder?

An opioid use disorder is a substance use disorder related to opioid drugs. These include prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl; heroin; or other opioids that people can abuse. 

The most dangerous prescription opioids are synthetic drugs, many of which are many times more potent than the more famous recreational drug heroin. People with an opioid use disorder crave and desperately want to use opioids. 

They become obsessed with the next time they can get their hands on opioids. They may also experience cravings when they don’t have access to opioids. If drug abusers go too long without opioids, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These can be severe and may cause the person to seek out another dose of opioids as a way to relieve the symptoms.

 

What Is a Meth use disorder?

A methamphetamine use disorder is a substance use disorder related to methamphetamine. Meth, sometimes known as crystal meth, is a highly addictive stimulant drug that affects the central nervous system. 

People who use meth may become addicted after just a few uses. They may develop a tolerance for the drug, meaning that they need more of it to get the same high. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking meth. 

Symptoms of a meth use disorder include intense cravings for the drug, restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, weight loss, and other physical health problems. These symptoms can persist even when a person has stopped using meth.

Recovery from Addiction for People Struggling with Substance Misuse

Substance abuse is a serious problem that can have devastating effects on the lives of people who abuse substances, as well as their loved ones. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, it is important to get help right away. There are many treatment options available and most people who seek treatment experience a positive outcome. By approaching the person with compassion and helping them find treatment, you can play a significant role in their recovery journey.

 

 

 

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

RADT
David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen
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LMFT
Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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