Regardless of age, race, history, or why they began using drugs and alcohol in the first place, people from all walks of life can have issues with substance abuse. Some people take recreational drugs out of curiosity to have a good time, while others use it as a form of self-medication to relieve tension, anxiety, or depression. Whether it involves drugs, alcohol, or both, substance abuse is linked to a slew of negative social and personal outcomes.
Despite considerable progress being made in reducing rates of drug abuse in the United States, the use of mind-and-behavior-altering drugs continues to have a significant effect on the health of individuals, families, and communities around the country. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) reported that around 22 million Americans struggled with issues related to drug and alcohol abuse in 2005. The cumulative annual costs of drug abuse in the United States, including lost income, health-care costs, and crime-related costs, are estimated to be in excess of $600 billion annually.
It can be difficult at times to differentiate between use and abuse, especially when it comes to alcohol consumption or prescription medications. While not all abuse progress to addiction, it does, however, significantly increase its likelihood. So how does one know if use, is in fact, considered abuse?
Defining Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is defined by patterns of harmful use of mind and behavior-altering substances in a manner that could cause negative consequences in a person’s life. These substances can range from illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin to legal substances such as nicotine, alcohol, or prescription medication. Drug and alcohol abuse remains one of the most complex public health crises in the U.S and around the world due to social attitudes and political and legal responses to its use.
Drug and alcohol abuse has a cascading impact that affects every aspect of a person’s life. It can lead to a slew of extensive social, physical, emotional, and public health issues. And can result in criminal or antisocial activity, as well as long-term personality and behavioral changes. Physical signs of substance abuse may include:
- Abrupt weight changes
- Changes in hygiene
- Bloodshot or glazed eyes
- Dilated or constricted pupils
- Problems sleeping or sleeping too much
- Dental issues
- Skin conditions
When Does Substance Use Turn to Abuse?
There remains a fine line between substance use and substance abuse. Regardless of the reason for using the substance in the first place, substance use can rapidly progress into abuse when an individual starts to experience negative consequences as a result of repeated use. Medical experts classify use as abuse when an individual experience consequences such as:
- Physical and psychological health complications
- Impaired self-control
- Failure to meet personal and professional responsibilities and obligations
- Unexplained behavioral and emotional changes
- Personal and social complications
- Participating in dangerous or illegal acts
Keeping a close eye on these signs can greatly benefit individuals in identifying substance abuse and taking necessary measures to overcome them before they progress to a lifelong health complication.
Most Commonly Abused Drugs
Alcohol is considered the most widely consumed addictive drug in the United States. Excessive drinking can cause severe health issues, chronic diseases, and even death. Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have serious and far-reaching consequences.
It’s not just the abuse of illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin that lead to violence and addiction. Painkillers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers are examples of prescription medications that can cause similar issues. Prescription painkillers are among the most abused medications in the United States. More people die each day from overdosing on powerful opioid painkillers than from road accidents and firearm deaths combined.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), other commonly abused drugs in the U.S include:
Marijuana – Marijuana (cannabis) is currently the most widely used drug in the U.S. This refers to the dried leaves, buds, stems, and seeds of the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. In certain states, cannabis is now legal for medicinal and recreational use. Marijuana can provide a pleasurable high while also impairing short-term memory and learning, as well as the ability to concentrate and coordinate. It also raises the heart rate, harms the lungs, and increases the risk of psychosis in people who are already vulnerable.
Synthetic Cannabinoids – Synthetic cannabinoids are mind-altering chemicals that are sprayed on dried, shredded plant material to be smoked (herbal incense) or sold as liquids (liquid incense) to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices. Since their chemical structure is similar to marijuana, these chemicals are known as cannabinoids.
Stimulants – Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy are typically treated with stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, and Dexedrine. Stimulants improve alertness, concentration, and energy by boosting the effects of neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine and dopamine, throughout the brain. Prescription stimulants can cause dangerously high body temperatures, erratic heartbeats, heart failure, and seizures when taken in high doses. Misuse of prescription stimulants on a regular basis, even for a short time, can result in psychosis, anger, or anxiety.
Adverse Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Drugs are chemical compounds that influence both the mind and the body. The exact effects may vary from one person to another based on the substance being used, dose, intake method, and duration of use. The short-term effects of drug and alcohol abuse include:
- Increased heart rate
- Slurred speech
- Changes in appetite
- Sleeplessness or insomnia
- Changes in cognitive ability
- A temporary sense of euphoria or rush
- Loss of coordination
Drug and alcohol abuse, especially during a prolonged period, can lead to a variety of long-term health implications. Chronic substance misuse may change the structure and function of a person’s brain, resulting in long-term psychological consequences such as:
- Panic disorders
- Increased aggression
Long-term health complications of drug and alcohol abuse may include:
- Respiratory problems
- Kidney damage
- Liver disease
- Dependence and addiction
Who Is Most at Risk?
A variety of factors can influence a person’s risk of substance abuse. Drug misuse can be exacerbated by risk factors and mitigated by protective factors. People may be affected by risk and protective factors at various stages of their lives.
Research indicates individuals who are most at risk of drug and alcohol abuse have a higher risk factor and minimum protective factors. Gender, race, and geographical location can all influence when and how people start abusing drugs.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are a number of theories that suggest why certain people misuse drugs and alcohol. One such theory is the biological origin, such as a family history of drug or alcohol abuse. Others who are most at risk of substance abuse include:
- Vulnerable individuals (individuals who are homeless or unemployed)
- Victims of abuse
- Individuals exposed to trauma
- Individuals struggling with undiagnosed mental health disorders
- Individuals who are exposed to addictive substances at an early age
The Dangers of Poly Drug Abuse
Polydrug abuse refers to the simultaneous use of multiple psychoactive substances in an attempt to elevate certain effects. While the abuse of one substance can lead to adverse complications, polydrug use can lead to highly unpredictable consequences. One of the most commonly abused substances during polydrug abuse is alcohol. Since alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, combining it with another substance may be detrimental to your wellbeing. Provided below are the most common drug and alcohol combinations, as well as the specific risks they pose:
Heroin and Alcohol: Both heroin and alcohol are CNS depressants that can cause adverse side effects such as respiratory difficulties when combined. Since both substances are CNS depressants, they can also significantly increase the risk of an overdose.
Marijuana and Alcohol: The combination of marijuana and alcohol can raise the risk of overdose as both are CNS depressants.
Cocaine and Alcohol: Cocaine and alcohol are among the most popular combinations due to the effects of both substances. While alcohol acts as a depressant in lower doses, high doses produce a stimulant effect similar to cocaine. The combination of both substances can lead to heart attack, drug overdose, and death.
Sleeping Pills and Alcohol: Combining sleeping pills along with alcohol can have life-threatening consequences. Even a small amount of alcohol consumed with sleeping medications can intensify their sedative effects.
Opioids and Alcohol: The combination of alcohol and opioids can be fatal. This mixture can cause drowsiness, impaired memory, breathing difficulties, or an accidental overdose.
Antidepressants and Alcohol: Alcohol, when coupled with antidepressants, may heighten feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation, especially in adolescents. Combining the two can result in drowsiness and dizziness, as well as cause an accidental overdose.
Substance Abuse and Substance Use Disorder
The next stage of alcohol and drug abuse is the development of dependence and addiction, also known as substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use disorder is a chronic brain disorder that has no known cure. While not all who abuse drugs and alcohol form an addiction, the risks are substantially increased from prolonged abuse.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), repeated substance use can gradually cause changes in the brain’s function and structure that generate intense cravings and the buildup of tolerance to the substance. Dependence is formed when an individual is no longer able to function on a day-to-day basis without the effects of the abused substance as their body grows accustomed to its use. Tolerance is when you require higher and higher doses to feel the desired effects.
What sets substance abuse apart from substance use disorder is dependence. Individuals who develop a dependence will experience intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms if they cease using the substance.
Signs of substance dependence and addiction include:
- Experiencing intense cravings.
- Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the abused substances.
- Inability to cut down or stop using despite several attempts.
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed.
- Uncharacteristic behaviors and mood swings.
- Spending money on drugs and alcohol, even when you cannot afford it.
- Requiring higher and higher doses to feel its effects.
- Failing to meet professional, educational, or family responsibilities and obligations.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop.
- Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.
Since SUD is the abuse progression, you’re likely to spot certain similarities in both warning signs. But what is vital to remember is that once it progresses to a disorder, it can no longer be cured. Substance use disorder requires medical detox programs, behavioral therapies, counseling, and continued aftercare support to help manage this chronic illness.
Academic and professional failures, health complications, fractured relationships, and involvement with the criminal justice system are all common problems faced by individuals who misuse drugs on a regular basis. The ramifications of substance abuse don’t just affect a person at an individual level, but it also negatively affects friends, family, and society alike. The ongoing stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have also led to the rise of substance abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of June 2020, 13 percent of Americans started or increased their substance use as a way to cope with emotions related to COVID-19.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or substance use disorder, seek immediate assistance at Futures Recovery Healthcare. Futures provides compassionate evidence-based treatment programs that help patients maintain a prolonged recovery.