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Drug Abuse & Addiction – Commonly Used Drugs

Substance abuse is a widespread problem in the U.S., with potentially debilitating consequences if such use becomes compulsive. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (N SDUH), 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 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. This article will provide additional information about several abused substances and the potential consequences of their problematic use, including addiction development.


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 instances, 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. These include:3,5

  • Alcohol, which is one of the most commonly abused substances.
  • Benzodiazepines (benzos), including several sedative and anti-anxiety medications. Benzos are central nervous system depressants that slow certain types of brain activity.
  • Illicit drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, hallucinogens, and dissociatives).
  • Opioids, which includes both illicit substances like heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl as well as prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
  • Sleeping pills are non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotic medications, such as eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien).
  • Prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, used legally to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Alcohol

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

Alcohol Addiction

Also known as AUD, alcohol addiction involves a person’s continued drinking despite negative consequences to their social, occupational, mental, and physical health. Though there are several additional diagnostic features of AUD, compulsive drinking commonly leads to physiological dependence (in which a person comes to need alcohol to feel and function normally) as well as tolerance (in which they need to drink increasingly large amounts or consume alcohol more frequently to achieve the desired intoxicating effect).7

Many people who drink do not have an AUD. In fact, the CDC says that 90% of people who drink excessively (e.g.,, episodic heavy or binge drinking) do not meet criteria for a severe AUD. Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption in which you drink enough to raise your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. This typically happens if a man has more than 5 drinks within two hours or a woman has 4 drinks or more in the same time frame. Not everyone who binge drinks has an AUD, but it can increase your risk of developing it.9

How can you tell if you or someone you care about has an AUD? Though such a diagnosis is best left to health care professionals, the CDC says that drinking may have reached problematic levels when you notice it interfering with your relationships, school or work performance, and negatively affecting the way you think and feel.8


Benzodiazepines

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 abuse 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

Adverse side effects of benzodiazepines can range from drowsiness and impaired memory to more dangerous health issues like slowed breathing and lowered blood pressure. Benzodiazepines are particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol because they can significantly slow your heart and breathing rate, leading to respiratory depression and death. Combining such drugs with opioids creates a significant risk for overdose and can even result in coma and death. 4,11

Dependence and addiction to benzodiazepines can develop relatively quickly; people who have used the drugs for longer than 3–4 weeks are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms that can be very unpleasant and, if left unmanaged, lead to relapse to make the symptoms stop.4,12

Types of Benzodiazepines

Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include:4,11

  • Ativan, or lorazepam, a long-acting benzo that is used to treat insomnia in people who suffer from daytime anxiety.
  • Halcion, or triazolam, a short-acting benzo used to treat insomnia.
  • Klonopin, or clonazepam, a long-acting benzo used to treat anxiety and insomnia that is also used as an anticonvulsant, which helps to control seizures.
  • Librium, or chlordiazepoxide, a long-acting benzo used for anxiety and insomnia, as well as for managing acute alcohol withdrawal.
  • Xanax, or alprazolam, one of the most widely used benzos for anxiety and one of the most commonly abused drugs found on the illicit market.
  • Valium, or diazepam, another widely used and commonly abused benzo that treats anxiety and insomnia.

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.

Types of Illicit Drugs

  • This powerfully addictive stimulant is processed from the leaves of the coca plant. Not only can cocaine abuse lead to addiction, but it can increase your risk of serious health problems like heart rhythm disturbances, lung damage, stroke, heart attack, coma, seizures, and psychotic symptoms.4
  • Crack cocaine. This is a free-base form of cocaine that is processed into rocks that are smoked. It is one of the most highly addictive drugs because it results in an almost immediate high. It has historically been cheaper than cocaine, potentially making it relatively more accessible.13
  • Also known as MDMA, short for the chemical name 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Ecstasy is a synthetic drug that has both hallucinogenic and stimulant properties. People abuse ecstasy to get high, experience euphoria, increase sociability, and increase energy. Ecstasy abuse may be associated with certain long-term effects such as persistent confusion, problems with attention and memory, anxiety, and depression.4
  • This category includes drugs like LSD, mushrooms, and mescaline. Hallucinogens change your perception of reality.4
  • A type of opioid, heroin is an illegal drug that is derived from morphine. People abuse it to get high. It can cause a wide range of mild to severe health problems and even cause coma and death if you overdose.4
  • People use inhalants to get high. This category includes different types of inhalable solvents and household products. Long-term use can cause many health issues, such as kidney, liver, and brain damage.4
  • This is a dissociative drug that gives people a sense of detachment from reality. It is sometimes used as a date rape drug. Ketamine use can cause short- and long-term health issues, such as attention problems, respiratory depression, kidney problems, and depression.4
  • This psychoactive drug helps people feel relaxed and euphoric but can cause short-term problems like slowed reaction time, anxiety, and increased heart rate, and long-term issues like mental health problems and respiratory infections.4
  • People abuse this highly addictive stimulant to get high and increase energy and wakefulness. However, abuse can result in many health issues, such as heart problems, mental health issues, severe dental problems, and paranoia.4

Opioids

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

Addiction is an unfortunate consequence that may arise from people misusing drugs for purposes other than their original intention. People may be unaware of these dangers because they assume a prescription medicine they get from a doctor is safe. However, while there are numerous risks involved with abusing opioids, one of the main dangers of opioid addiction is overdose, which if survived, can result in lifelong brain damage due to slowed or stopped breathing, and the resulting hypoxia, or lack of oxygen.14

Types of Opioids

Prescription opioids include:4

  • Codeine, a relatively mild opioid painkiller, also used as a cough suppressant. It is available by prescription under several brand names.
  • Dilaudid, the brand name for the potent painkiller hydromorphone.
  • Fentanyl, a very potent opioid used to treat severe pain that can present a serious risk of overdose when abused. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
  • Hydrocodone, available as Norco, among other names, and is widely prescribed to treat moderately severe pain.
  • Methadone, an opioid that is frequently used to treat heroin and other opioid addictions.
  • Morphine is the prototypical opioid used in a variety of pain management scenarios.

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

Types of Sleeping Pills

The common types of prescription sleeping pills have properties that are similar to benzodiazepines in that they can produce relaxation and promote sleep, but they can also cause dependence even after just a few weeks of use. All of these medications can cause negative health effects such as slowed breathing, confusion, and memory issues.

Commonly used sleeping pills include:4,15,16

  • Ambien, the brand name for zolpidem.
  • Lunesta, the brand name for eszopiclone.
  • Sonata, the brand name for zaleplon.

Stimulants

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 negative 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

Stimulant addiction can develop when people take prescription medications that are not prescribed for them or when they take medications in higher or more frequent doses than originally intended. Most commonly, stimulant medications are used legally to treat ADHD.18

Types of Stimulants

Commonly abused stimulants include:4,17,19,20

  • Adderall, the brand name for the combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which is used to treat ADHD.
  • Other amphetamine stimulants such as Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine). These are also sometimes prescribed for ADHD, though Dexedrine is also indicated for narcolepsy treatment, while Vyvanse is approved for binge eating disorder treatment.
  • Concerta and Ritalin, brand names for methylphenidate, also used to treat ADHD.

Drug Addiction Treatment

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

Addiction is a chronic disease and, like any other disease, it requires treatment. Avoiding treatment may allow an addiction to become progressively worse. Some of the treatment options you might consider include:21

  • Inpatient or residential treatment. You live at a facility for the duration of treatment and receive different therapies, support, and monitoring.
  • Outpatient treatment. You live at home but travel to a rehab center for treatment.
  • Behavioral therapies, which can be provided in individual settings where you work one on one with a counselor, or in group settings, where you work together with others in treatment under the guidance of a therapist.
  • Depending on your specific type of addiction, you may receive medication to help prevent relapse or treat withdrawal symptoms.
  • Integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders. You may receive evaluation and treatment to simultaneously address any co-occurring mental health issues in addition to substance use disorders.
  • Individualized plans. Treatment should be personalized to your specific needs and be adjusted as necessary throughout the course of your program.

Find Out If Your Insurance Plan Covers Drug Rehab

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Sources

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics
  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). MedlinePlus: substance use disorder
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Commonly used drugs charts.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Commonly used terms.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.) Alcohol’s effects on the body.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for alcohol problems: finding and getting help.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Alcohol and public health: frequently asked questions. (was 7)
  9. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). MedlinePlus: alcohol use disorder (AUD).
  10. Griffin, C. E., Kaye, A. M., Bueno, F. R., & Kaye, A. D. (2013). Benzodiazepine pharmacology and central nervous system-mediated effects. The Ochsner Journal, 13(2), 214–223. 
  11. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug Fact Sheet: Benzodiazepines
  12. Brett, J., & Murnion, B. (2015). Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence. Australian prescriber, 38(5), 152–155.
  13. National Drug Intelligence Center. (n.d.). Crack cocaine fast facts
  14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Prescription opioids DrugFacts.
  15. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). MedlinePlus: medicines for sleep.
  16. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). (2017). Using medication: What can help when trying to stop taking sleeping pills and sedatives?
  17. Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug fact sheet: stimulants
  18. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Misuse of prescription drugs research report: overview.
  19. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). MedlinePlus: dextroamphetamine.
  20. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Drugfacts: treatment approaches for drug addiction drugfacts.
  21. Volkow, N.D. (2020). Stigma and the toll of addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 382: 1289-2190.

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