Substance Use

What is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance dependence may involve illicit drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol. Read more about drug categories and find out what a substance use disorder is in our useful article.

Substance use disorder, what used to be called substance abuse or addiction, is a disease in which an individual is unable to control their use of substances (drugs)—either illicit or legal. These substances can include illicit drugs such as heroin, Cannabis, PCP, methamphetamine, LSD, cocaine, etc., as well as prescription drugs and alcohol. This ongoing misuse of substance abuse leads to changes in the brain and behaviors. The use continues despite the detrimental effects that occur. Often, these negative consequences can include problems with:

  • Work

  • School

  • Family

  • Loved ones

  • Relationships

  • Authority

  • Health

  • Finances

In addition, substance use disorder has negative impacts on the local community, nation, and across the globe. Substance use disorder costs the country billions of dollars in both lost productivity and healthcare each year. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that substance use disorder costs the United States more than 740 billion dollars annually.

There are various terms used when it comes to substance use disorder and addiction. Many of these terms are used interchangeably and this isn’t always accurate. Substance use disorder (SUD) is also often referred to as drug abuse, drug misuse, addiction, drug addiction, substance misuse, drug dependence, substance abuse, drug misuse, etc. However, it’s important to note that there are differences in what these terms mean and how they are defined.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines the terms related to substance use disorder in the following way:

  • Addiction. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behaviors despite detrimental and harmful consequences.

  • Dependence. Dependence is the condition in which an individual who is regularly taking either illegal or prescription drugs experiences withdrawal when they stop taking them.

  • Drug abuse. Drug abuse is an outdated term formerly used to describe drug use that is unsafe and leads to problems with fulfilling responsibilities.


Drug use includes the use of alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs.

Substance use disorder is defined as the unhealthy use of prescription medications or alcohol such as not using medications as prescribed or not drinking alcohol in moderation.

Substance use disorder is a medical illness caused by the disordered use of a substance or substances. This is the term now used to describe any type of substance use issue as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition or DSM-V. Under this classification, disorders are classified as mild, moderate, or severe.

This change is in part to help remove the stigma associated with substance use disorder in hopes that more people who need help for drug-use issues will seek it.

Drug dependency is not something that is planned. Often an individual begins drug use as a simple experiment or in a social setting. However, for many, this leads to increased drug use and dependence. Other people, particularly those with an addiction to opioids or prescription drugs, first use the drug when it has been prescribed for pain or another health issue.

How quickly someone develops substance abuse problems varies. For some individuals, it can happen rather quickly, for others only after years of drug use do they become dependent. This is dependent on the type of drug as well as factors unique to each person. Some of these risk factors include past use of alcohol or drug use, family history of substance abuse, history of trauma, the existence of other mental health disorders, a genetic predisposition to substance dependence, and more.

Many types of substances can be abused in substance use disorder including the use of alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and even common household products used as inhalants. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly misused drugs today.

Types of Substances Commonly Used

Bath salts, also known as Red Sky, Vanilla Sky, Blue Silk, Ivory Wave, or Purple Wave, are an illicit drug most used by teenagers and young adults. Despite the seemingly innocuous name, this drug can be very harmful. This designer street drug’s name was derived from its similar appearance to Epsom salts used in the bath. However, despite the similar appearance, this illegal drug has a different chemical makeup and can be dangerous. Bath salts can be snorted, injected, or used rectally. Side effects may include high blood pressure, hyperthermia, sweating, muscle spasms, seizures, and may also cause other longer-term health issues. The most common complication from the use of bath salts is overdose.

Learn more about bath salts here.

Benzodiazepines or benzos are prescription drugs that slow brain function and decrease central nervous system functions. Examples are Valium, Alprazolam, Klonopin, and Ativan to name a few. Benzos come in a tablet form and are generally prescribed to help with anxiety or panic disorders, sleep issues, alcohol withdrawal, and more. The misuse of this type of prescription drug can result in serious health issues and complications such as reduced heart rate, respiration, coma, and even death. The risk for developing an addiction to benzos is high.

Learn more about benzos here.

Cocaine, an illegal substance also known as coke, blow, or crack, is a stimulant drug from the processed leaves of the coca plant. Crack is a processed form of the powder which results in rock crystals. Cocaine is highly addictive and can quickly lead to severe physical and psychological dependence. Serious health issues and negative side effects can occur even during first-time drug use. Cocaine use puts individuals at higher risk for heart attacks, stroke, seizures, and respiratory failure all of which can result in sudden death. Recently, cocaine has been laced with deadly fentanyl causing overdose and death for many unsuspecting users.

Learn more about cocaine here.

Methamphetamines or meth come in three main forms; crystal meth, base, and speed. All forms of this synthetic central nervous system stimulant are highly addictive and dangerous. The effects of the three types of methamphetamines vary because of the different additives used. Serious health issues and side effects of meth use include convulsions, overdose, brain damage, coma, and stroke.

Learn more about meth here.

Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, XTC, X, hugs and bean, and love drug is an illegal drug popular in clubs, consumed for its stimulant effect. This dangerous and addictive club drug is consumed orally. Some individuals immediately experience uncomfortable side effects including chills, nausea, muscle cramps, and blurred vision. Long-term effects of ecstasy can include depression, sleep problems, anxiety, drug cravings, memory problems, and more. In some cases, ecstasy can cause issues with body temperature regulation which can lead to death.

Learn more about ecstasy here.

Heroin, an illegal drug also known as dope, fairy dust, or smack, is a highly addictive opioid derived from the poppy plant. Addiction to heroin can occur quickly and be deadly. In almost all cases, heroin use leads to serious drug abuse. In addition, the deadly use of adding fentanyl to heroin has significantly increased overdose rates and death from overdose as well.

Learn more about heroin here.

LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide) also known as acid, dots, blotter, or mellow yellow is a hallucinogenic drug made from lysergic acid. LSD or acid is taken for its psychotropic effects that occur during a ‘trip’. Long-term effects of LSD use can include HPPD, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder also called flashbacks as well as serotonin syndrome. And while LSD is not physically addictive, users can become psychologically addicted.

Learn more about LSD here.

Marijuana, also known as pot, weed, grass, 420, etc., is an addictive drug derived from Cannabis hemp plants. Marijuana can be smoked or consumed orally through drinks or food. While many who consume this drug and experience relaxation, these effects are by no means universal and some users can experience troublesome effects like anxiety, fear, paranoia, and panic. Marijuana can be both physically and psychologically addictive and result in withdrawal symptoms when the user stops. It can also negatively impact one's mental health including worsening psychosis symptoms in people with schizophrenia. Cannabis, whether it's an illicit drug or legal one (depending on where you reside), is highly addictive, both physically and mentally.

Learn more about marijuana here.

Over-the-counter drugs or OTCs refer to medications that are obtained without a prescription from a physician and sold directly to consumers. These can include cold medicines, allergy medicines, diet medications, pain relief medicines, and more. Contrary to the belief that these medications are all safe, these medications can be abused and misused leading to drug abuse and serious health issues. Abuse of OTC medications is dangerous and can lead to overdose and death.

Learn more about OTC drugs here.

Inhalants are everyday household or industrial products whose vapors are used to get high. Chemicals are inhaled through the nose or mouth using plastic bags or other implements. Inhalants may be referred to as gasoline, poppers, sniff, huff, or chroming. Inhalants, like other drugs, can lead to addiction and result in health issues or even death. Inhalants may result in mental impairment and psychiatric problems including anxiety, panic attacks, and psychosis. Common health issues and physical reactions include increased heart rate, headaches, blood pressure changes, nausea, seizures, delirium, brain damage, asphyxiation (from bags), and social problems. This kind of drug misuse can also result in sudden death.

Learn more about inhalants here.

PCP or phencyclidine also known as angel dust, rocket fuel, or ozone is a synthetic hallucinogen, a stimulant, and is sometimes used as a painkiller. This dangerous drug is known for producing negative psychological effects and can be addictive. The long-term effects of PCP can be very serious with a negative impact on one's mental health and brain functioning. Problems may occur with clear thinking, decision-making issues, impaired memory, speech issues, depression and suicidal ideations, high anxiety and paranoia, and ongoing hallucinations and delusions—even when not on PCP.

Learn more about PCP here.

Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid also known as K2, Yucatan Fire, Moon Rocks, fake marijuana, Spice Silver, Spice Gold, Smoke, Fire, etc. This designer street drug is used by individuals who are looking for a similar experience as found with Cannabis. Spice is a mix of herbs or shredded plant materials with chemical additives which promote hallucinogenic or psychotropic effects. Spice is sold legally but is dangerous and addictive. Regular users of spice can experience withdrawal symptoms increasing the likelihood of addiction.

Learn more about spice here.

Steroids or anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) (prescription drugs) are synthetic variations of testosterone, the male hormone. While these drugs can be prescribed to help with medical conditions they can also be abused and lead to health problems and also negatively impact mental health. People who use drugs from this family may develop high anxiety or develop social problems such as uncontrolled aggression. The effects of taking steroids can be very dangerous and lead to substance dependence. The long-term effects of steroid use can be very serious and in some cases irreversible.

Learn more about steroids here.

Stimulants or uppers refer to the class of psychoactive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, amphetamines, ecstasy, and nicotine. These drugs provide temporary improvements in mental and physical functioning, however, they are highly addictive and dangerous. Tolerance can build quickly with stimulants leading users to consume more and more of the drug. These dangerous drugs can lead to health problems and even result in overdose and death.

Learn more about stimulants here.

Opiates are narcotic drugs derived from opium (poppy seeds and plants) and are used to treat pain. Opioids are similar, synthetically-produced drugs, and while their molecular structure is slightly different from opiates, are used as a catchall term for both narcotic groups. Opioids include heroin, synthetically made fentanyl, and other prescription pain medications like codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Methadone is an opioid sometimes used in treatment programs. Opioids are highly addictive and dangerous drugs. Addiction to them can occur quickly, even after the initial drug use.

Learn more about opioids here.

There are many different types of substances—including illicit drugs and legal ones—that individuals can become dependent on and eventually addicted to as well. Substance dependence can happen very quickly in some cases or over longer periods of time in other instances. However, no matter how an individual becomes addicted, the result is the same. Drug addiction and abuse rob individuals of their lives, freedom, and joy, and also negatively impact the drug user's loved ones.

Substance dependence is a serious disease and its impact on not only the user but on their family members, loved ones, communities, and our nation as a whole, is detrimental. The rate of drug and alcohol abuse continues to grow in the United States. Statistics for substance-related abuse can be found at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Let’s take a look at some of these drug use statistics.

Substance use disorder is a serious problem that is on the rise and killing thousands of people each year. It’s a life or death issue. However, with the help from the right health professional and addiction treatment center, recovery is possible. Caron helps you beat the odds and offers Comprehensive Addiction Treatment for individuals with substance-related issues. We have inpatient and outpatient programs that may include psychiatry, behavioral therapy, support groups, medical services, and more. Caron treats mental illness along with addiction because mental health issues and substance dependence are sometimes co-occurring disorders. If you or a loved one are ready to break free from the bonds of a substance use disorder, Caron is here for you. Call 1-800-854-6023 today or contact us online.

Changing the National Conversation Around Addiction.

Why do people use alcohol and drugs?

Because many drugs act on the brain’s pleasure pathways, the user experiences intense euphoria followed by related emotional highs. Cocaine, for example, induces feelings of empowerment, confidence, high self-esteem and increased energy. People might chase these perceived emotional benefits for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Social: People use alcohol and drugs often as a way to fit in with a particular group or to feel more at ease in a social setting,
  • Stress: Substance abuse may be a means to escape problems or a way to reduce stress. The role of stress in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or relapse in recovering patients should be addressed and approached holistically.
  • Psychological triggers: People suffering from anxiety disorders, trauma, depression or other psychological illnesses may begin using alcohol and drugs to reduce or numb personal distress. Individuals with alcohol or drug dependence are nearly twice as likely to have a co-occurring psychological disorder.
  • Peer pressure: Some people, especially teenagers and adolescents, are vulnerable to group pressure or the rationale that “everyone is doing it.”

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