What Are The Different Types Of Drug Abuse? (And How To Get Help)

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated June 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Substance use disorder (formerly called substance “abuse” disorder) is a term that can describe the excessive and chronic use of an addictive or mind-altering substance, such as alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine, among many others. Usage of these substances often leads to impaired judgment, loss of physical and emotional control, and altered thinking and perceptions, as well as drug addiction.  

If an addiction becomes severe, the consequences can be life-threatening and require addiction treatment to safely navigate withdrawal symptoms

Previously, the term “drug abuse” was used in reference to the excessive use of illegal substances. However, the term "drug use" instead of "drug abuse" helps encompass more types of drug-related behaviors, acknowledging that not all drug consumption entails harmful or addictive patterns.

Over the years, psychologists added legal substances, such as cannabis in states where it is legal, prescription medications, alcohol, and tobacco, to the list of substances that can cause problems in people’s lives. 

If you’re living with substance misuse, seeking help can be crucial. Depending on your individual circumstances, you may be able to get the help you deserve through an online therapy platform or an inpatient or outpatient facility. Please consult your doctor to discuss your treatment options.

Statistics on substance misuse

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS):

  • Approximately 50% of people over age 12 have used an illegal substance at least one time.

  • Since 2000, nearly one million people have died from a substance overdose.

  • Opioids are generally responsible for seven out of 10 substance overdose deaths.

  • There were an estimated 42,700 fentanyl deaths in 2020.

  • Over 26% of all arrests in the U.S. are typically for substance-related crimes. 

Based on these statistics, substance misuse can be a significant problem in our society. Let's take a closer look at the different types of substance use disorders and how a person can get help.

Is substance misuse a problem in your life?

Substance use disorder types and their effects

Drug use can have severe repercussions on both physical and mental health over the long term. Moreover, the toll of drug use extends beyond the physical, often exacerbating mental health conditions and impairing cognitive functioning. Almost any kind of substance (legal or illegal) can be misused when used recklessly. These substances can include:


This stimulant can also be referred to as coke. While cocaine may have some medical uses, it is primarily used recreationally, either by snorting, smoking, or injecting it. The effects can last up to an hour and a half and are almost immediate. 

Effects of cocaine can include loss of touch with reality and extreme euphoria. Cocaine tends to be highly addictive and can be even more harmful if mixed with other substances, such as local anesthetics. With prolonged misuse, cocaine can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and even death.


This substance is generally one of the newer ones seen in the U.S. It can be a powerful and highly addictive opioid that is frequently mixed into other street substances without the user knowing. Fentanyl typically depresses the respiratory system, which can quickly lead to death unless the person receives the antidote naloxone. Fentanyl can be used as a legal medication for pain relief, but it has become increasingly popular as an illegal recreational substance. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Anne Milgram has said, “Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered. Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison. We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”


When cocaine is processed, it normally turns into crack, a substance that can be smoked. Because it is usually one of the cheaper substances on the market, crack is often more readily available for purchase and misuse. Crack can be extremely addictive and may lead to various health problems.


Alcohol can be defined as a flammable liquid made from fruits and grains through fermentation. The end result is a drink that can decrease anxiety, potentially making the individual feel more relaxed while also impairing judgment. When misused, it can be detrimental to the individual's health and lead to alcoholism. The suicide rate tends to be higher in people who misuse alcohol, and they are usually more prone to violent and reckless behavior. Alcohol misuse is typically one of the leading global causes of death.


Also known as smack, heroin is an opioid substance that is normally injected. As the body becomes accustomed to shots of heroin, a person may need larger amounts to feel the effects, potentially leading to an overdose. Heroin use may be increasing, and every year, approximately 2.1 million Americans misuse opioids like heroin.


Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, is a substance that can create psychological, physical, and sensory effects, including hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and a sense of disconnect between body and mind. Hallucinations can last from six to 14 hours. While LSD may not be physically addictive, it can be a powerful substance and may lead to panic attacks, psychosis, neurological damage, and physical harm. LSD can be taken orally or injected.


Also known as pot, weed, and cannabis, marijuana tends to be the most frequently used substance in the United States. It is often taken for its euphoric effects and alteration of perception. Marijuana can be smoked or cooked into food. The effects can last up to six hours or more. Marijuana can be psychologically addictive. It is now legal in Canada and in many states in the U.S. However, prolonged use of marijuana can be harmful and may lead to memory problems and loss of motivation.

Prescription medications

This category of substances generally includes any controlled substance prescribed by a doctor for a specific illness. This can include stimulants, painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and sedatives sold on the street for non-medicinal purposes. These medications can be taken orally or ground into powder to snort or inject. Some of their effects may include feelings of euphoria, decreased tension and anxiety, and improved concentration. Because of their addictive properties, these medications usually need to be monitored by a medical doctor. When misused, they can be addictive and dangerous, especially if mixed with other substances.

Prolonged misuse of prescription medications, intended to alleviate medical conditions, may disrupt normal bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate, posing significant health risks. 

Synthetic cathinones

Also called “bath salts” and “spice,” synthetic cathinones can be defined as synthetic substances with stimulant properties made from the khat plant. Bath salts can be smoked, injected, swallowed in pill form, or snorted. They tend to be a cheaper alternative to substances like cocaine or MDMA and produce similar effects, such as energy boosts, increased sexual drive, and hallucinations. Their negative effects can include paranoia, panic attacks, and even death. Bath salts can also lead to addiction, and the withdrawal symptoms tend to be very severe.


Like alcohol, cigarettes can be a common part of society. Because they are legal, many people do not consider them to be a substance that can be misused. However, cigarettes typically contain nicotine, the substance that makes them addictive. The effects of nicotine on the brain can be similar to other substances, like cocaine and heroin. Smoking frequently leaves physical effects on the body, such as stained teeth, bad breath, graying hair, and wrinkles. Smoking can lead to serious diseases, such as lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Every year, approximately 400,000 people die of health problems caused by smoking tobacco.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

Commonly known as ecstasy, this substance is typically used at raves and parties. Some of the short-term effects of ecstasy can include euphoria, increased feelings of empathy, hallucinations, and an increase in self-confidence. Prolonged use of ecstasy can lead to numerous issues, such as addiction, paranoia, and sleep and vision problems.


This is a category of stimulant substances affecting the central nervous system. The substance usually sends a jolt of adrenaline through the body, often making the individual feel more alert, confident, and energized. However, amphetamines can also have negative effects and make a person feel nervous and hostile. The various amphetamines are more commonly referred to by their street names, such as crystal, crank, speed, uppers, or bennies. Amphetamines can be smoked or injected.

Several disorders, such as ADHD and obesity, can be treated using amphetamines. As a result, they are often easily available. Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine that can be illegally produced and distributed with no medicinal purpose. Misusing amphetamines can lead to physical and psychological side effects, such as hypertension, mood swings, deterioration of the nasal cavity and teeth, and overdose.

Signs and symptoms of substance misuse

When someone is using substances, the first things loved ones may notice are changes in the person's behavior, such as an altered mood or temperament. People who use substances may display anger or irritation toward family and friends, be vague and secretive about their lives, or display paranoia and a careless attitude toward things they previously valued. 

Additional signs and symptoms can be spotted by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is the individual straying from their normal routine? Is there a change in eating, sleeping, or daily activities?

  • Are they not going to work or school?

  • Is there a change in finances, such as asking to borrow money or asking for a raise on an allowance?

  • Are they stealing?

  • Are they moving away from old friendships and family ties or hanging out with a different group?

  • Are there any physical signs, such as smelling like substances?

  • Is there sudden attention to cleanliness, such as showering more often, cleaning their bedroom, or an increase in doing laundry?

  • Are they doing poorly in school or getting into trouble at school or work?

  • Are they lying about where they go, who they were with, or what they are doing?

If the answer to several of these questions is yes, it might be time for family and friends to talk to the individual about their concerns. Substance use disorder can be a serious medical condition that can have devastating repercussions for the individual and their loved ones if left unaddressed.

Is substance misuse a problem in your life?

Treatments for substance use disorder

The first step to getting help can be identifying and admitting to the problem. Recovery can be a long and difficult process, but it can be possible. To be successful, the individual must usually make a commitment to recovery. Support from loved ones can also be crucial.

One of the most difficult steps is usually getting through the withdrawal phase. Symptoms like anxiety, depression, seizures, and restlessness can last for days to weeks. The length and severity of the symptoms depend on the type of substance, how it was misused, and the individual’s personal medical history. Some substances can be dangerous to withdraw from without medical supervision.

Most substance misuse treatments are done in a detox or rehabilitation facility with programs designed specifically for the individual, depending on the kind of substance dependence. A doctor can determine whether outpatient, residential, or hospital treatment may be the best approach. People with substance use disorder sometimes believe they can kick their substance habit without help or support. Often, this is a misguided belief. Individual determination, support from loved ones, and working closely with a doctor or substance use disorder specialist can all be essential to a successful recovery for most people.

Doctors often strongly recommend behavioral therapy in addition to rehab, as this can help individuals learn different methods of coping with cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Therapy can also help with any underlying mental health conditions and can be a crucial resource for the family and loved ones of a person with substance use disorder. If seeing a therapist in person seems difficult, consider an online therapy platform.

Benefits of online therapy

When a person is recovering from addiction, it can be empowering for them to have some form of control over their treatment. Online therapy can allow for a personalized experience in which individuals can schedule sessions at a time that works for them and attend from the location of their choice. They can choose between video call, phone call, and online chat, and switch therapists as needed until they find a good match. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

Although more research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online therapy for substance use disorder, studies generally suggest that online therapy is as effective as its in-person counterpart. Please don’t hesitate to seek the professional help you deserve to overcome substance use disorder.

Counselor reviews

 "Julissa is my lifeline to sobriety. I always know that she is there to assist me. She's honest and to the point. She helps me to see other aspects of my behavior that I either could not see or refuse to see. Thank you, Julissa!"

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Millions of people may struggle with substance use disorder, and there are often numerous legal and illegal substances a person can become dependent on. These substances may cause various symptoms, from euphoria to paranoia to life-threatening respiratory distress. Getting off substances can be challenging, but it may be possible with the support of a doctor or trained substance use disorder specialist. Depending on your individual situation, therapies can be done at home through online platforms, in a residential center, or at a hospital.
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