What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is the misuse of any substance that interferes with daily functioning, and (in some cases) is different from its intended use. Substances can be either illegal or legal, in the case of prescription or over the counter medications. Substance abuse does not necessarily refer to addiction, but can lead to addiction. Not all people who abuse drugs or alcohol will become addicted, though it is possible.

Substance abuse can happen for a variety of reasons, including experimentation, peer pressure, or to cope with stress. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the most commonly abused drugs are:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine/Crack
  • Heroin
  • Hallucinogens, such as PCP, Ecstasy, or LSD
  • Inhalants
  • Prescription Medications
  • Methamphetamines

It is estimated that 23 million people in the U.S. suffer from problems with drugs or alcohol, but only 11 percent of those receive treatment.

What are signs/symptoms of substance abuse?

Every substance has a unique set of symptoms, but there are some common indicators to look out for. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence lists them as:

  • Physical and health warning signs of drug abuse
    • Eyes that are bloodshot or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal.
    • Frequent nosebleeds--could be related to snorted drugs (meth or cocaine).
    • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
    • Seizures without a history of epilepsy.
    • Deterioration in personal grooming or physical appearance.
    • Injuries/accidents and person won’t or can’t tell you how they got hurt.
    • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
    • Shakes, tremors, incoherent or slurred speech, impaired or unstable coordination.
  • Behavioral signs of drug abuse
    • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school; loss of interest in extracurricular activities, hobbies, sports or exercise; decreased motivation.
    • Complaints from co-workers, supervisors, teachers or classmates.
    • Unusual or unexplained need for money or financial problems; borrowing or stealing; missing money or valuables.
    • Silent, withdrawn, engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors.
    • Sudden change in relationships, friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies.
    • Frequently getting into trouble (arguments, fights, accidents, illegal
    • activities).
  • Psychological warning signs of drug abuse
    • Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
    • Sudden mood changes, irritability, angry outbursts or laughing at nothing.
    • Periods of unusual hyperactivity or agitation.
    • Lack of motivation; inability to focus, appearing lethargic or “spaced out.”
    • Appearing fearful, withdrawn, anxious, or paranoid, with no apparent
    • reason.

What are the risk factors for substance abuse?

Substance abuse can affect anyone, but there are risk factors that can contribute.

  • Family issues/conflicts
    • Relatives who abuse drugs or alcohol
    • Lack of parental supervision/involvement, in the case of children or adolescents
  • Other mental or physical illnesses/problems
    • Substance abuse often has high comorbidity rates with other disorders unrelated to the abuse
  • Peer Pressure
  • Availability
  • Economic hardship or distress

What are treatment options for substance abuse?

Treatment for substance abuse varies by substance, person, and whether or not dependency has occurred. Treatment is often long term, and includes counseling and therapy that focus on treating all aspects of the abuse.  are two effective approaches. Other focus areas can include building and/or maintaining support systems, finding effective ways to manage or cope with stress, and lifestyle changes that keep focus on recovery and reduce risk of relapse. To read more about the various types of treatment programs for substance abuse, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse here.

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