Drug Abuse

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What is drug abuse?

Drug abuse is the use of illegal drugs or the use of prescription or over-the-counter medications in ways other than recommended or intended. It also includes intentional inhalation of household or industrial chemicals for their mind-altering effects. Tobacco use and problem drinking are sometimes included in the definition of drug abuse. Chemical abuse and substance abuse are terms sometimes used interchangeably with the term drug abuse, or they may be used to refer to a combination of drug abuse and tobacco use or problem drinking.

Many drugs that are abused are also addictive; they cause cravings and a continued desire to use them despite negative consequences. Drug abuse can start in childhood and continue in adulthood. Studies of high school students indicate that approximately 42% drink alcohol, 21% use marijuana, and 3% use cocaine. Approximately 12% have used inhalants, and 20% have abused prescription drugs (Source: CDC).

People who abuse drugs may take them initially out of curiosity, to escape, to feel good, due to peer pressure, or for a variety of other reasons. Drugs can affect a number of different organs, and complications can result from damage to the brain or to other parts of the body. Other negative consequences often result from the effects drugs have on a person’s mind, as well as actions an individual may take while under their influence.

Treatment can be on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on the drug being abused, whether addiction is present, and whether there are coexisting health or psychological problems. Supervised withdrawal, also called detoxification (or detox), may be necessary if physical symptoms are common when the drug is stopped. Medications may be used to decrease cravings, cou nteract the effects of the drug, or to cause unpleasant reactions if the drug is used. Behavioral therapy is commonly an important part of treatment, providing skills, helping change attitudes and behaviors, and helping maintain recovery.

Drug abuse can have serious, even life-threatening, complications, such as drug overdose, alcohol poisoning, trauma, and suicidal or violent behavior. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior; serious injury; respiratory or breathing problems; rapid, slow or absent pulse; chest pain or tightness; persistent vomiting; cold, clammy, or hot, dry skin; severe abdominal pain; seizure; or confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment.

Seek prompt medical care if you think you might have a problem with drugs.

What are the symptoms of drug abuse?

Symptoms of drug abuse include those of intoxication and those related to unfulfilled responsibilities and the social consequences of drug use.

Common symptoms of drug abuse

Drug abuse can cause problems in interpersonal relationships, at home, on the job, and with the law. Symptoms of drug abuse related to these problems include:

  • Craving the drug despite difficulties obtaining it or wanting to quit

  • Deterioration of relationships

  • Deterioration of school or work performance

  • Difficulty holding a job

  • Disengagement from non–drug-related activities

  • Financial problems

  • High-risk sexual behavior

  • Increasing time spent thinking about, obtaining, using, and recovering from the drug

  • Leaving responsibilities unfulfilled

  • Legal problems

  • Needing higher doses to get the same effect (tolerance)

  • Using a drug to avoid its withdrawal symptoms

  • Using drugs before or during activities where safety is a concern

Common symptoms of drug intoxication

Drug use can lead to symptoms of intoxication including:

  • Balance problems, difficulty walking, and falls

  • Change in mental status

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Diminished reflexes

  • Drowsiness or excessive energy

  • Impaired balance and coordination

  • Impaired judgment and memory

  • Impaired vision

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Pupil size changes

  • Slurred speech; excessive talking

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, drug abuse can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational, or suicidal behavior

  • Overdose symptoms, such as rapid or slow pulse; respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, choking; abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea; cool and clammy skin or hot skin; sleepiness, chest pain, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment

  • Trauma, such as bone deformity, burns, eye injuries, and other injuries

What causes drug abuse?

The cause of drug abuse is not known, nor is it understood why some people can abuse drugs briefly and stop without difficulty, whereas others continue using drugs despite undesirable consequences. Biological factors, such as genetics and the presence of other psychiatric disorders, may play a role, as may environmental factors, such as peer pressure, history of abuse, and stress, and developmental factors, such as the timing of drug exposure.

What are the risk factors for drug abuse?

A number of factors increase a person’s risk of abusing drugs. Not all people with risk factors will abuse drugs. Risk factors for drug abuse include:

How is drug abuse treated?

The goals of drug abuse treatment are aimed at stopping drug-seeking and use, preventing complications of drug withdrawal, rehabilitation, maintaining abstinence, and preventing relapse. Treatment depends on the drug being abused, whether addiction is present, and whether there are coexisting health or psychological problems.

Common treatment of drug abuse

Treatment of drug abuse is often an extended process involving multiple components including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to work on thought patterns and behavior

  • Family therapy to help the family understand the problem and to avoid enabling drug use

  • Identification and treatment of coexisting conditions

  • Medications to decrease cravings, block withdrawal symptoms, counteract drug effects, or to cause unpleasant side effects if a drug is used

  • Motivational incentives to reinforce abstinence

  • Motivational interviewing to utilize a person’s readiness to change behaviors

  • Rehabilitation to assist those with severe addiction or coexisting mental illness through the initial stages of quitting

  • Supervised withdrawal (detoxification) to prevent, recognize and treat physical symptoms of withdrawal

  • Support groups

What are the potential complications of drug abuse?

Complications of untreated drug abuse can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of drug abuse include:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. The science of drug abuse and addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse. http://www.nida.nih.gov/nidahome.html
  2. Alcohol and other drug use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/alcoholdrug/index.htm
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.