Drug Abuse & Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Formerly known as substance or drug abuse and addiction, drug use disorder is a complex illness marked by a destructive pattern of substance use leading to significant problems or distress. This includes tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and various social or occupational issues. The societal impact of drug use disorders is substantial, with economic costs reaching around $215 billion. From lost wages to legal implications, the repercussions extend to environmental concerns like soil and water pollution from drug cultivation and production.

Teens are increasingly involved in prescription drug abuse, particularly opioids and stimulant medications. Dual diagnosis, indicating the coexistence of a drug use disorder and a serious mental health problem, is common and poses challenges in treatment.

Commonly Abused Drugs

  1. Alcohol: Legal but toxic, alcoholism has severe physical and interpersonal consequences.
  2. Amphetamines: Include prescription medications and illicit drugs like methamphetamine.
  3. Anabolic Steroids: Abused by bodybuilders, leading to emotional and physical issues.
  4. Caffeine: Excessive consumption can result in habit formation and adverse effects.
  5. Cannabis: Often mixed with other substances, posing additional risks to users.
  6. Cathinones (Bath Salts): Chemicals similar to stimulant drugs, with various street names.
  7. Cocaine: Stimulates the nervous system, causing different forms of intake.
  8. Ecstasy: Induces euphoria but can be lethal in overdose.
  9. Hallucinogens: Alter perceptions and may lead to dangerous behaviors.
  10. Inhalants: Commonly abused due to easy accessibility, causing brain damage and death.
  11. Nicotine: Highly addictive substance found in cigarettes.
  12. Opiates: Include heroin, codeine, and prescription painkillers with the risk of respiratory arrest.
  13. Phencyclidine (PCP): Causes suspicion, aggression, and increased physical strength.
  14. Sedative, Hypnotic, or Antianxiety Drugs: Often abused and can lead to respiratory arrest.

Causes and Risk Factors

Biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to the vulnerability of developing a drug use disorder. Genetic predisposition, mood disorders, and social factors like gender, age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status play roles. Negative events in childhood, exposure to substance abuse, and witnessing violence also increase the risk.

Symptoms of Drug Use Disorders

According to the DSM-5, diagnostic criteria include recurrent substance use causing significant life problems, tolerance, withdrawal, and continued use despite negative consequences. Individuals may neglect responsibilities, experience legal issues, and engage in risky behaviors.

Warning Signs

Blackouts, mood swings, repeated arguments, and using drugs to cope are warning signs. Physical symptoms during abstinence, problems fulfilling obligations, and increasing drug use are also indicators.

Effects on the Brain

Drugs affect the executive functioning areas of the brain, impairing inhibitory functions and leading to impulsive behaviors. In adolescents, drug use can have lasting negative effects on brain development.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis involves gathering medical, family, and mental health information. Treatment goals include abstinence, relapse prevention, and rehabilitation. Detoxification addresses withdrawal symptoms, while long-term medications may be used based on the drug of addiction. Psychological addiction often requires inpatient treatment, followed by support groups and ongoing therapy.


Social, occupational, and medical complications include domestic violence, unemployment, and potential life-threatening conditions such as respiratory or heart failure.


With treatment, the prognosis improves, but recovery involves episodes of remission and relapse, particularly in cases of severe substance use disorders.


Preventive measures include lifestyle changes, formal programs like Raising Healthy Children, and research-based interventions tailored to specific age groups and community needs.

Resources for Help

Several organizations provide assistance, including Al-Anon-Alateen, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Understanding substance use disorders is crucial for effective prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Seeking help from professionals and support groups is a crucial step towards recovery.


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