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Drug Abuse
Drug abuse occurs when you're unable to control your use of prescribed drugs or you're using another legal or illegal substance to the point th...

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What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuses occurs when you are not able to control your use of prescribed drugs or are using an illegal substance to the point that it interferes with your ability to function. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 40 million illnesses and serious injuries are the result of drug abuse in the United States (NIH). Drug abuse leads to other public health problems, such as:

  • drunk and drugged driving
  • violence
  • familial stress
  • child abuse

Intravenous drug users (who inject drugs) also risk contracting and spreading infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Addiction involves many social and biological factors, but treatment is available. The most successful way to stop drug abuse is through prevention and education.

Commonly Abused Drugs


Alcohol is present in beer, wine, or liquor and is legal for adults over the age of 21 to purchase and drink. The body rapidly absorbs alcohol through the stomach and small intestine and into the bloodstream.

One drink equals:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirit or liquor

When you use alcohol, you experience impaired brain function and motor skills. Alcohol damages every organ in your body and can damage a developing fetus when consumed by a pregnant mother.

Alcohol use increases your risk of:

  • liver disease
  • stroke
  • cancer

Alcoholism, or alcohol abuse, occurs when your use of alcohol affects your ability to work or maintain relationships. Alcohol abuse can threaten your long-term health. The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over a 30-day period:

  • 51.9 percent of adults age 12 and older used alcohol at least once
  • 14.7 percent of young adults between the ages of 12 and 17 used alcohol at least once (DHHS, 2009)

Anabolic Steroids

Also known as: juice, gym candy, pumpers, stackers

Steroids are man-made substances that mimic the male sex hormone testosterone. They are taken orally or injected and are illegal in the United States. Athletes often abuse them to enhance performance and build strength.

Steroids can cause serious and permanent health problems including:

  • aggressive behavior
  • liver damage
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • infertility

Women who use steroids face additional symptoms such as:

  • facial hair growth
  • menstrual cycle changes
  • baldness
  • deeper voice

Teen users may:

  • stunt their growth
  • have accelerated puberty
  • experience severe acne

Club Drugs

This refers to a wide variety of illegal drugs that young adults often use at dance parties, clubs, and bars.

They include:

  • gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), also known as Grievous Bodily Harm, G, and Liquid Ecstasy
  • ketamine, also known as Special K, K, Cat Valium, and Vitamin K
  • methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as Ecstasy, XTC, Adam, Clarity, and X.
  • lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), also known as acid
  • rohypnol, also known as Roofies, Rophies, Roche, and Forget-me Pills

Club drugs can lead to feelings of euphoria, detachment, or sedation. Roofies, in particular, have been used to commit sexual assaults on unsuspecting victims. They can cause serious short-term mental health problems like delirium; physical health issues such as rapid heart rate, seizures, and dehydration; and sometimes death. They are especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol.


Also known as: coke, C, crack, snow, flake, and blow

Cocaine is a powerful drug that leads to a strong addiction. It is sold as a fine white powder that is injected into the veins, snorted through the nose, or smoked. It can also be processed into crack-cocaine, a cheaper product that is also highly addictive. In both forms, cocaine causes the user to feel energetic and euphoric. Cocaine use increases:

  • body temperature
  • blood pressure
  • heart rate

Cocaine users risk:

  • heart attacks
  • respiratory failure
  • strokes
  • seizures
  • death

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 4.8 million Americans age 12 and older abused cocaine in 2009 (DHHS, 2009).


Also known as: smack, H, ska, and junk

Heroin is an illegal opiate. Like morphine (a legal prescription drug), heroin is made from the seed of the poppy plant (opium). It is a white or brown powder and is injected into a vein, smoked, or snorted through the nose. Users feel euphoria and experience clouded thinking followed by a drowsy state.

Heroin use leads to:

  • heart problems
  • miscarriages
  • overdose
  • death

Regular heroin use leads to higher tolerance, and users may need to take more of the drug to experience the effects. This causes addiction and severe withdrawal symptoms if the user stops taking the drug.


Also known as: huffing, whip-its, popping, and snappers

Inhalants are chemical vapors that the user breathes to experience mind-altering effects. The materials include common products, such as glue, hair spray, paint, or lighter fluid. The short-term effects of these drugs cause a feeling similar to alcohol use.

Inhalants are extremely dangerous and can lead to:

  • loss of sensation or consciousness
  • hearing loss
  • spasms
  • brain damage
  • heart failure

In 2009, 1.2 million Americans ages 12 and older abused inhalants, according to the NationalSurvey on Drug Use and Health (DHHS, 2009)


Also known as: ganja, pot, weed, grass, 420, and trees

Marijuana is a dried mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves from the hemp plant. It is usually smoked, but can also be ingested. It produces feelings of euphoria, distorted perceptions, and trouble solving problems. It is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 28.5 million Americans illegally used marijuana in 2009 (DHHS, 2009). Research has proven and continues to explore the effectiveness of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions like glaucoma and the negative side effects of chemotherapy. Seventeen states currently have approved marijuana for medical use:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • the District of Columbia
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington


Other names: chalk, meth, ice, crystal, glad, speed, and crank

Methamphetamine is a very addictive drug closely related to amphetamine. It is a white or yellowish powder that is snorted, injected, or heated and smoked.

The user experiences:

  • long-term wakefulness
  • increase in physical activity, including
    • heart rate
    • body temperature
    • blood pressure

If used for a long time, it can lead to:

  • mood problems
  • violent behavior
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • insomnia
  • severe dental problems

Prescription Drugs

Many people are prescribed medication for pain and other conditions. Prescription drug abuse occurs when you take a medication that is not prescribed for you or take it for reasons other than those prescribed by your doctor.

These drugs may include:

  • opioids for pain management (fentanyl patch, vicodin, oxycodone, or hydrocodone)
  • anxiety or sleep medicine (Xanax, valium)
  • stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall)

The effects differ depending on the medication, but can lead to:

  • drowsiness
  • depressed breathing
  • slowed brain function
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • seizures

They may lead to long-term physical dependence and addiction. In 2009, an estimated 20 percent of Americans used a prescription medication for a non-medical reason (DHHS, 2009). The illegal use of prescription drugs has grown over the past few decades. This is partially because they have become more widely available and the focus of law enforcement has been on illicit drugs.

Stages of Drug Abuse

Public health experts usually break up drug abuse into four stages:

Experimental Use

In this stage, the person uses the drug with peers or for recreation.

Regular Use

At this stage, the user changes his or her behavior and uses the drug to fix negative feelings.

Daily Preoccupation/Risky Use

At this point, the user is preoccupied with the drug and does not care about his or her life outside the drug use.


In the dependent stage, the user is not able to face his or her life without using the drug. Financial and personal problems increase. Legal problems occur because the user takes risks to obtain the drug.

Treating Drug Abuse

What to Look For in a Program

It is important to find a program that follows these principles of addiction treatment:

  • Addiction is complex but treatable.
  • There is no single treatment that works for everyone.
  • Treatment is readily available.
  • Treatment focuses on multiple needs for the individual.
  • It is critical to remain in treatment for an adequate amount of time.
  • Treatment needs are evaluated regularly to ensure treatment is meeting the patient’s needs.
  • Treatment addresses an individual’s mental health.
  • Voluntary and involuntary treatment can be effective.
  • Drug use is monitored during treatment because relapses can and do happen.

Treatment programs should check for and monitor infectious diseases, while providing risk-education counseling. This encourages individuals to act responsibly so they don’t contract or spread the disease.


Depending on the drug you are addicted to, the first stage of treatment is often medically assisted detoxification. This is to remove the drug from the bloodstream. It is followed by other treatments to encourage long-term abstinence. Many treatments involve both individual and group counseling. These are given in outpatient facilities or in-patient residential recovery programs. Medications are also helpful to reduce withdrawal symptoms and encourage recovery. In heroin addiction, for example, your treatment provider may prescribe a drug called methadone to ease recovery and help cope with the intense withdrawal stage.

Preventing Drug Abuse

The best way to avoid drug abuse is to prevent initial use and addiction. Efforts usually focus on encouraging youth to avoid peer pressure. Community prevention programs work in schools, with teachers, and with community members to educate and provide information and support.

Parents play an important role in preventing their children from using drugs. They can:

  • talk openly with their children about drug-related issues
  • receive education about drugs and drug abuse
  • build a strong family bond that provides a supportive environment for children

Resources, Phone Numbers, and Support Groups

Above the Influence Provides information targeted at youth and young adults regarding drug use, peer pressure, and treatment options. 1-800-448-3000 (24 hours a day / 7 days a week)

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Offers free resources or referrals to treatment. If you have questions or need help, you can call the 24-hour helpline Call 1-800-662-HELP, 24 hours a day / 7 days a week

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teenagers Provides information and research for teenagers and young adults about drug abuse.

National Association for Children of Alcoholics

Provides information and resources for children of alcoholics.

10920 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 100

Kensington, MD 20895

Phone: 888-55-4COAS

Phone: 301-468-0985

Fax: 301-468-0987


Al-Anon Provides confidential groups and meetings across the United States for adult friends and family members of problem drinkers. Phone: 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday–Friday Al-Ateen Provides confidential groups and meetings across the United States to help teenagers and young adults cope with a friend or family member’s alcohol use. Phone: 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday–Friday Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) AA offers meetings and support groups for people interested in recovering from alcohol addiction or abuse. Support groups are also offered online.

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) Offer meetings and support groups for people interested in recovering from narcotic addiction or abuse.

Written by: Cindie Slightham
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: [Ljava.lang.Object;@e308aef
Published: Jul 2, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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