Drug abuse can be defined as the harmful use of a substance to produce mind altering effects. This can be using illicit substances, or using prescription or over-the-counter drugs for a use or in a quantity for which it was not intended to be used. It is important to distinguish between drug abuse and drug addiction. Some people can abuse drugs or alcohol and not experience any negative side effects or drug addiction.
Some medical professionals contend that use of any illegal substance is drug abuse. Others define drug abuse as the continued misuse of drugs even when faced with drug-related job, legal, health, or family difficulties. Most agree, though, that drug abuse is different from drug dependence. Drug dependence means that a person needs a drug to function normally. Abruptly stopping the drug leads to withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes even people taking prescription medications as prescribed can become physically dependent on them. Drug abuse and addiction is less about the amount of substance consumed or the frequency, and more to do with the consequences of drug use. No matter how often or how little you’re consuming, if your drug use is causing problems in your life—at work, school, home, or in your relationships—you likely have a drug abuse or addiction problem.
People engage in drug abuse for many different reasons. They abuse drugs out of curiosity, because friends are doing it, to have a good time, or to deal with emotional problems like anxiety or depression. Drug use doesn’t automatically lead to drug abuse, and there is no specific level at which drug use moves from casual to problematic. It varies by individual.
The cause of drug abuse and dependence is unknown, although there are a variety of theories. Some believe that those that engage in drug abuse have a genetic predisposition for drug abuse. Others contend that drug abuse is a learned behavior in response to a specific environment.
Virtually any substance whose ingestion can result in a euphoric (“high”) feeling can be abused. Most people are familiar with the drug abuse potential of “street” drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Many people also recognize that certain prescription drugs can be abused like narcotic painkillers, anxiety medications, and sleeping medications. Less well known is the fact that inhalants like household cleaners are some of the most commonly abused substances. Also, there are several “legal drugs” available for sale like “spice” and “bath salts,” which can be purchased at gas stations and smoke shops.
While the specific effects of drug abuse varies by substance, long term drug abuse is always entails physical and psychological risks. With almost any drug, drug abuse can cause overdose. Drugs abuse of certain substances, like inhalants, can cause overdose with the very first time you use it, no matter how little you use. Further, once you become physically dependent on a substance due to drug abuse, withdrawal can be very painful and, in some cases, life-threatening. Also, while each drug produces different physical effects, all abused substances share one thing in common: repeated use can alter the way the brain looks and functions.