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Drug Addiction

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are clinical diagnoses made for people who struggle with compulsive substance use, and the term is often used somewhat interchangeably with the concept of addiction. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 60.1% of Americans reported using a substance (a figure that includes tobacco, alcohol, as well as illicit drugs) in the past month. Also in 2019, an estimated 7.4% of Americans over the age of 12 had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), an illicit drug use disorder, or both.1

What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse can range from the problematic use of illicit substances to unhealthy misuse of alcohol or prescription medications. Patterns of misuse can turn compulsive as a person becomes increasingly unable to control their substance use.2 Drug addiction can have a significant impact on your physical, psychological, social, financial, and occupational health, and seriously impair your ability to function in society. Addiction can involve several different types of substances and is believed to develop as a result of many different factors, including genetic influences, the co-occurring presence of certain mental health issues, peer pressure, and exposure to certain environmental stressors.3

How do addictions start? Though it may vary somewhat from one person to the next, addiction may develop in stages. For instance, it might begin with isolated experimental or recreational use, which then progresses to increasingly regular use, which eventually escalates to increasingly problematic or risky use, which can quickly develop into addiction.4

Common Types of Drugs

There are several types of commonly abused substances.


People often use alcohol as a way of relaxing, socializing, and celebrating. There are many dangers associated with alcohol use and abuse that can range from mild impairment to serious physical and mental health problems that can include heart and liver disease, cancer, and mood disorders like depression.6,7

Alcohol addiction is one of the most common SUDs, with 17 million American adults aged 18 and older suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD).7,8


Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and certain seizure disorders.10 They are also sometimes prescribed to treat muscle spasms and to manage alcohol withdrawal. In therapeutic doses, benzodiazepines have relaxing and calming effects, but people may abuse these drugs to get high or to experience a feeling of euphoria.

People who misuse benzodiazepines often start by obtaining a legal prescription from their doctor. If they develop an addiction, they may try to obtain multiple prescriptions from different doctors, forge prescriptions, or buy the drugs illegally. In some instances of nonmedical misuse, people may attempt to grind up the tablets intended for oral use and snort the powder.4,11

Illicit Drugs

Illicit drugs are those that people commonly think of when they think of drug abuse. This includes a wide range of drugs in different categories, such as stimulants, hallucinogens, inhalants, dissociative drugs, and psychoactive drugs.4 The dangers of illicit drug use can depend on the specific type of drug and their actions, but all illicit drugs can lead to significant impairment and danger to your overall health and well-being, as well as the well-being of those around you.


Opioids are substances that can be legally prescribed to treat pain but also include illegal drugs like heroin that are used solely to get high. Prescription opioids can cause euphoria and pleasurable sensations but can also present a serious risk of negative and unpleasant effects, like constipation and drowsiness, as well as dangerous slowing of the heart and breathing rate, especially when misused in amounts that exceed recommended dosing guidelines.4

Prescription Sleeping Pills

People may use sleeping pills when they experience insomnia. Sleep medications you get from your doctor are known as hypnotics. While these prescription sleeping pills can be helpful for short-term insomnia, they are not intended for long-term use as they can cause dependence.15

Sleeping pills can be dangerous when misused, and you may develop an addiction if you chronically abuse them. Sleeping pills can cause issues such as drowsiness, confusion, memory issues, balance problems, and, in rare cases, odd behaviors like driving or making phone calls while you’re asleep.15


Stimulants ramp up certain physiological processes, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. They may be misused in an attempt to improve energy and enhance performance, or simply to get high. Abuse can result in ne

gative psychological effects such as aggressive behavior, agitation, hostility, psychosis, and panic. People who abuse stimulants can also suffer from short and long-term health effects, like dangerously high body temperature and blood pressure, seizures, and heart disease.4,17

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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction?

Symptoms of drug addiction may include the following:23,24

  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes.
  • Dilated or constricted pupils.
  • Abrupt weight changes.
  • Changes in hygiene.
  • Dental issues.
  • Skin changes.
  • Problems sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Increased aggression or irritability.
  • Changes in attitude/personality.
  • Lethargy.
  • Depression.
  • Sudden changes in a social network.
  • Dramatic changes in habits and/or priorities.
  • Involvement in criminal activity.

There are additional signs and symptoms of drug addiction based on the substance that is being used and how it is being used (smoking, injection, etc.).

How Do I Get Help for Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction treatment is a beneficial way to stop using drugs and take back control of your life. While addiction can be difficult to overcome, it is definitely treatable. Unfortunately, treatment is underutilized; the NSDUH reports that 22.5 million people (8.5% of the US population) aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem, but only 4.2 million people (roughly a fifth of those who needed treatment) received substance use treatment in the same year.21 This may be in part due to the stigma associated with treatment, such as the belief that people with addiction aren’t suffering from a “real” disease.21