What Are The Different Types Of Drug Abuse & How To Get Help?

By Sarah Fader

Updated August 14, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Fawley

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Defined simply, drug abuse is the general term used to describe the excessive and habitual use of some kind of substance, such as alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. These drugs typically lead to impaired judgement, loss of physical and emotional control and renders the person into a state of intoxication. Drug abuse is also known as Substance Abuse and is considered to be a medical problem that develops over time after prolonged use of drugs because they are harmful to the body.

Previously, drug abuse generally referred to the abuse of illegal or hard to obtain drugs. But over the years, legal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco have become the leading causes of drug abuse.

According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2014:

  • Approximately 7 million Americans, over the age of 12 are using / abusing drugs;
  • 140 million Americans, over the age of 12 are currently using alcohol;
  • 5 million Americans, over 12 years of age suffer from substance abuse;
  • Over 200,000 people around the world die each year from drug abuse, this is not including car accidents or HIV.

The war on drugs has been an ongoing fight lasting for decades. In an attempt to provide "a legal foundation of the government's fight against the abuse of drugs, the US passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. The Act is a federal law in the United States, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of the pharmaceutical industry, explains and categorizes the different types of controlled substances, and sets out laws on how drugs can be manufactured, distributed and used.

The full version of the 1970 Act is available online for further information.

It is important to note that the term Drug Abuse should not be confused with the term Drug Addiction (Substance Abuse). They are two separate and distinct conditions, yet they are wrongly used interchangeably.

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When someone is an addict, the dependence on the drug is psychological and physical. It is an illness than is not within the control of the individual. Whereas when someone is abusing drugs, it's a habit that they continue even though their actions begin to negatively impact their lives and their ability to function normally. Drug addiction or dependency often begins with drug abuse. It is possible and likely that continued drug abuse will eventually evolve and develop into an addiction, especially if the abuse begins at a young age.


When someone is abusing drugs, oftentimes the first thing loved ones will notice is changes in the person's behavior. Over time, the drug abuser will begin to display quick changes in mood and temperament. They might display anger or irritation towards family and friends, be vague and secretive about things going on in their lives or display paranoia and a careless attitude towards things they previously cared about. Additional signs and symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Is the individual straying from their normal routine? Is there a change in pattern in regards to eating, sleeping or daily activities?
  • Not going to work or failing at job?
  • Is there a change in finances i.e. asking to borrow money, asking for a raise on allowance etc.? Is there an increase in financial needs that cannot be readily explained?
  • Stealing - to fund or hide drug abuse;
  • Are they moving away from old friendships and family ties, maybe hanging out with a different crowd?
  • Physical signs - such as smelling like drugs (clothing or the person);
  • Extra and sudden attention to cleanliness or tidiness i.e. showering more often, cleaning bedroom, an increase in laundry;
  • Are they doing poorly in school or getting into trouble at school, leading to detentions, suspensions etc.?
  • Are they lying about where they were, whom they were with, what they were doing?

If the answer was yes to several of these questions, it might be time for family and friends to confront the individual with their concerns. Drug abuse is a serious medical condition, which can have devastating repercussions for the individual and their loved ones if left unaddressed.


Drug abuse is a condition which can affect anyone at any time. There is no differentiation in terms of class, race, age or gender. Anyone can fall victim to drug abuse. However, according to research, 18-25 years old is an at-risk age for drug abuse and men are more likely to abuse drugs than women. Genetics, psychology, and environment can by themselves or combined have a hand in causing someone to become an abuser of drugs.

Studies have shown that genetics - children who have drug abuser parents - are at a greater risk to become abusers themselves. However, it is not the only cause. Not all abusers come from an environment of drug abuse. There are other factors that have been shown to lead to drug abuse.

For example, in an attempt to cope with a mental illness or condition, such as depression, an individual may turn to drugs in order to numb their feelings or escape from the pain. Over time, this may turn into drug abuse.

The environment a child grows up in can play a significant role in how they turn out later in life. A child who does not grow up in a nurturing, loving environment and is continuously exposed to an environment of abuse, neglect, alcohol or drugs may over time turn to drug usage themselves; either as a way of getting noticed or as a coping mechanism. However, children from very stable, affluent family lives can also abuse drugs and alcohol.

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Additional external risk factors, which can influence or contribute to drug abuse, are:

  • Peer Pressure - this can especially be a problem in the adolescent, teen years when there is pressure to fit in;
  • To have a good time or feel good mentally or physically;
  • An unstable home life;
  • Absent or abusive parents;
  • A way of rebelling against parents or authority;
  • Emotional or behavioral problems;
  • Readily available drugs in the home or community;
  • Curiosity about drugs or illegal substances which eventually leads to abuse;

It is generally believed that a combination of these factors together causes someone to become a drug abuser.


Almost any kind of substance (both legal and illegal) used by someone can be abused when used recklessly. Some of these drugs include but are not limited to:

  • Cocaine: This stimulant drug, also known as Coke is one of the most used (illegal) drugs on the market. While cocaine does have some medical uses (it is sometimes used for nasal surgery), it is mostly used recreationally either by snorting it up through the nose, smoking it or by injecting it into the veins. The effects can last up to an hour and a half and are almost immediate. These effects include a loss of touch of reality and feeling extreme happiness and joy. Cocaine can be very addictive, very fast and when bought from the streets, it is even more harmful as the drug is mixed with other things such as quinine or local anesthetics. When abused over a period of time, cocaine can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, high blood pressure and heart attacks which can lead to death.
  • Crack: When cocaine is processed further, it turns into crack, a drug that can be smoked. Because it is one of the cheaper drugs on the market, it's more readily available for purchase and abuse. Crack is extremely addictive and can lead to various health problems.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol is a flammable liquid made with fruits and grains through a process of fermentation. The end result is a drug in drink form, which helps to decrease anxiety, makes the individual feel more relaxed and impairs judgment. When used excessively and abused, it can be detrimental to the individual's health and lead to alcoholism. The rate of suicide is higher in people who abuse alcohol and they are more prone to violent and abusive behavior. Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of death globally.
  • Heroin: Also known as smack, heroin falls under the category of opioid drugs, or drugs that come from opiates. It is one of the most harmful drugs on the market. It is injected into a vein. It can cause hallucinations, seizures and other health problems such as HIV/AIDS or tetanus (due to the sharing of often dirty needles). Over time, as the body gets accustomed to shots of heroin, larger amounts of the drug need to be injected in order to get high or feel the effects. This can lead to an overdose, at worst, to death. Unfortunately, the number of people using heroine is on the rise. Every year there are approximately 2.1 million Americans who abuse opioids.
  • LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD, is drug that has psychological, physical and sensory effects. They include hallucinations, losing touch with reality, a sense of disconnect between your body and mind, nausea and wakefulness. The sensory experience (seeing objects 'breathe' or 'ripple') can last from six to fourteen hours. While LSD is not an addictive drug physically, it is a powerful drug and can lead to panic attacks i.e. a 'bad' trip, violent psychosis, neurological damage, and physical harm. The drug can be taken orally or injected.
  • Marijuana: Better known as pot or weed, this is the most common and frequently used drug in the United States. The drug is taken for its euphoric affects and alters perception. Marijuana can be smoked or cooked into food. Smoking the drug is the quickest way of feeling the effects. The effects of one 'trip' can last up to six hours. Marijuana is used recreationally, spiritually and medicinally. Marijuana can be psychologically addictive. It is now legal in many states in the US. It is legal for medicinal uses in some other states. However, prolonged use of marijuana can be harmful and can lead to memory problems and loss of motivation.
  • Prescription Drugs: This category of drugs includes any controlled substance prescribed by a doctor for a specific illness. These include stimulants, painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and sedatives. The drugs are then sold on the street to be used for non-medicinal purposes. The drugs can be taken orally or the pill can be grinded into powder form to snort or inject. Some of the effects experienced from these drugs are euphoria, decrease in tension and anxiety, improved concentration and focus (usually on academics). Because of their addictive properties, these drugs need to be monitored by a medical doctor. When abused they can be addictive and very dangerous, especially if mixed with other drugs or alcohol.
  • Synthetic Cathinones: Otherwise known as 'bath salts'. This is a synthetic drug made out of a stimulant from a khat plant (a type of shrub), which can easily be purchased at a number of places (including online). Synthetic drug productions are on the rise according to the 2012 Word Drug Report. Bath salts can be smoked, injected, swallowed in pill form or snorted. Bath salts provide a cheaper alternative to other drugs, such as cocaine or MDMA, as they produce a similar effect. Some of the effects are a boost of energy, high sexual drive, hallucinations, more confidence etc. The negative effects include paranoia, panic attacks, and even death. Bath salts can also lead to addiction and the withdrawal symptoms are very severe.
  • Tobacco: Like alcohol, cigarettes are a very common part of society. Because they are both legal, many people do not consider them drugs. However, cigarettes contain nicotine, the drug that makes cigarettes addictive and harmful. The effects of nicotine on the brain are very similar to other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Smoking leaves physical effects on the body, such as yellow, stained teeth, bad breath, greying hair, and wrinkles. Internally, smoking long-term causes many serious health issues such as cancer, higher risk of heart disease, strokes, impotency etc. Every year approximately 400,000 people die of health problems caused by smoking.
  • Methylenedloxymethamphetamine (MDMA): Commonly known as Ecstasy, it's an extremely used drug at raves and parties. As of today, there are no known medical uses for this drug (although research is being continued) and it is used mainly for recreational purposes. Some of the short-term effects of ecstasy are a feeling of euphoria and peace, feelings of empathy towards others, hallucination, increase in self-confidence, lowered anxiety etc. Prolonged use and abuse of ecstasy can lead to numerous issues such as addiction, paranoid behavior, and problems with sleeping or vision.
  • Amphetamines: A category of drugs which act as stimulants to help the central nervous system. The drug sends a jolt of adrenaline (a natural stimulant) through the body and can make the individual feel more alert, confident, energized etc. These are the positive effects of amphetamines. However, amphetamines can also have a negative effect and make the person feel nervous and hostile. The reaction varies from person to person. The different types of amphetamines are more commonly referred to by their street name such as: crystal, crank, speed, uppers or bennies. Amphetamines can be smoked or injected. This causes an immediate, euphoric reaction because the drug hits the brain much quicker.

A number of disorders such as ADD, obesity and sleep disorders are treated using amphetamines. As a result, they are easily available. Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine that is illegally produced and distributed with no medicinal purposes. Abusing amphetamines can lead to physical and psychological side effects such as hypertension, mood swings, deterioration of the nasal cavity and teeth. There is a risk of overdose.

Further, detailed information on drugs can be found on the Drugs of Abuse Reference Guide.


The first step to getting help for any kind of problem is identifying and admitting to a problem.

Recovery is a long and difficult process and requires commitment from the individual and support from their families and loved ones. However, it is possible to recover. One of the most difficult steps is getting through the withdrawal phase.Symptoms such as feelings of anxiety, depression, seizures, restlessness etc. can last for several days to several months. The length and severity of the symptoms is based on the type drug, how it was abuse, how much was abused, as well as medical history. Some drugs are dangerous to detox from without medical supervision.

Most drug abuse treatments are done in a detox or rehabilitation facility with programs that are geared specifically for the individual depending on the kind of abuse. With the help of a doctor, you can determine whether you need outpatient, residential or hospital treatment.

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Help and support for drug abuse is available everywhere. Once you've have the decision to quit, the best thing to do is speak to your family doctor or another health professional at a clinic or hospital. They will be able to refer you to the right places, connect you to the appropriate resources and they will also be able to prescribe medications, which will curb your cravings and manage your drug withdrawal symptoms. In addition to speaking to a doctor, dozens of local and community resources can also be found online.

If you think you need immediate assistance either from a drug overdose or from severe withdrawal symptoms such as chest pains, high fever hallucinations or seizures call 911 right away or go to emergency.

Abusers commonly believe they can kick their drug habit without any help or support. More often than not, this is a misguided belief. Individual determination, support from loved ones and working closely with your doctor are all key to a successful recovery. When drugs are used for a long period of time, brain functionality is altered and it craves drugs. Thus, relapse is a very common problem.

Doctors often strongly recommend behavioural therapy in addition to rehab as this helps patients learn different methods of coping with cravings. Therapy can also help with any underlying mental issue that is at play.

No matter how long you've been abusing drugs for, it is not too late to get help. Make a conscious decision that you will quit and take the first step. Reach out to someone and ask for help.

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