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

By Nadia Khan|Updated May 23, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Fawley , LPC

Drug abuse is the general term used to describe the excessive and habitual use of an addictive substance, such as alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine. Usage of these drugs will often lead to the user experiencing impaired judgment, loss of physical and emotional control, and a general state of intoxication. However, if the addiction becomes too severe, the consequences can be life-threatening. Let's take a closer look at the different types of drug abuse.

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Previously, the term drug abuse was generally used in reference to abusing drugs, which were illegal and hard to obtain. 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 currently using and/or abusing drugs.
  • 140 million Americans over the age of 12 are currently consuming alcohol.
  • 5 million Americans over 12 years of age suffer from a substance abuse problem.
  • Over 200,000 people around the world die each year from drug abuse, 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 United States 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 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 often wrongly used interchangeably even though they are two separate and distinct conditions.

When someone is an addict, the dependence on the drug is both psychological and physical. It is an illness beyond the individual's control. However, when someone is abusing drugs, it's a habit they continue to indulge in 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 eventually evolves and develops into an addiction, especially if the abuse begins at a young age.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse

When someone is abusing drugs, oftentimes the first thing loved ones will notice are certain changes in the person's behavior. Over time, the abuser will begin to display quick changes in mood and temperament. They may display anger or irritation towards family and friends, be vague and secretive about their life, and display paranoia and a careless attitude towards things they previously cared about. Additional signs and symptoms can be spotted by asking yourself some of the questions below.

  • Is the individual straying from their normal routine? Is there a change in pattern in regard to eating, sleeping, or daily activities?
  • Are they not going to work or failing at their job?
  • Is there a change in finances, i.e., asking to borrow money, asking for a raise on an allowance, etc.? Is there an increase in financial needs that cannot be readily explained?
  • Are they stealing? If so, this might be to either fund or hide drug abuse.
  • Are they moving away from old friendships and family ties, maybe hanging out with a different crowd?
  • Are there any physical signs - such as smelling like drugs?
  • Extra and sudden attention to cleanliness or tidiness, i.e., showering more often, cleaning their bedroom, an increase in cleaning their 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.

Causes of Drug Abuse

Drug abuse can affect anyone at any time. If you're abusing drugs, or know someone who is, know that you're not alone in your struggle. Drug abuse does not discriminate 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 be abusers than women. Genetics, psychology, and environment can by themselves or combined have a hand in causing someone to become an abuser of drugs.

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Studies have shown that children who have drug-abusing parents are at a greater risk of becoming abusers themselves. However, this 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 traumatic event, 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 drugs themselves, either as a way of getting noticed or as a coping mechanism. However, children from very stable and affluent families can also abuse drugs and alcohol. 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.

Types of Drug Abuse and Their Effects

Almost any kind of substance, both legal and illegal, 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 illegally used 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. Effects include loss of touch with reality and feeling extreme happiness and joy. Cocaine is very addictive, 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. With prolonged abuse, cocaine can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, high blood pressure, and heart attacks, and even 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 the form of a drink, 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 global causes of death.
  • 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 and is injected into the veins. Heroin can cause hallucinations, seizures, and other health problems such as HIV/AIDS or tetanus due to the sharing of possibly dirty, contaminated needles. Over time, as the body gets accustomed to shots of heroin, larger amounts of the drug need to be injected in order to feel the effects. This can lead to an overdose or death. Unfortunately, the number of people using heroin is on the rise. Every year approximately 2.1 million Americans abuse opioids.
  • LSD: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD, is a 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 effects and alters perception. Marijuana can be smoked or cooked into food. Smoking 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 and can be psychologically addictive. It is now legal in Canada and in many states in the US. However, prolonged use of marijuana can be harmful and can lead to memory problems and loss of motivation.

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  • 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, which are sold on the street for non-medicinal purposes. The drugs can be taken orally or can be ground into powder form to snort or inject. Some of the effects include feelings of euphoria, decreased tension and anxiety, and 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. They are a cheaper alternative to drugs, such as cocaine or MDMA, as they produce a similar effect such as boosts 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 serious health issues such as cancer, higher risk of heart disease, strokes, impotence, etc. Every year approximately 400,000 people die of health problems caused by smoking.
  • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA): Commonly known as Ecstasy, it's typically used at raves and parties. Presently, there are no known medical uses for this drug (although research is being continued) and is used mainly for recreational purposes. Some of the short-term effects of ecstasy are feelings of euphoria and peace, feelings of empathy towards others, hallucination, an 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 that act as stimulants to help the central nervous system. The drug sends a jolt of adrenaline (a natural stimulant) through the body, making the individual feel more alert, confident, and energized. 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 names 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 purpose. Abusing amphetamines can lead to physical and psychological side effects such as hypertension, mood swings, and deterioration of the nasal cavity and teeth. There is also a risk of overdose.

Treatments for Drug Abuse - How to Get Help?

The first step to getting help for any kind of problem is identifying and admitting to the problem. Recovery can be a long and difficult process, but it's not impossible. There needs to be a commitment from the individual, and support from loved ones is an immense positive. One of the most difficult steps is getting through the withdrawal phase. Symptoms like anxiety, depression, seizures, restlessness, etc. can last for several days to several months. The length and severity of the symptoms are based on the type of drug, how it was abused, 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. Once you have made the decision to seek help, 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 connect you with the appropriate resources, and they will be able to prescribe medications, to curb your cravings and manage your drug withdrawal symptoms.

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 behavioral 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. If going to a therapist seems difficult, consider looking at counseling and therapy online. Psychotherapy will help to repair any damaged relationships and help you pick up the pieces of your life again. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

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!"

"Devon is a compassionate person who balances that with a let's get to the issue straightforwardness that I've sorely needed. As a procrastinator, I need a little bit of a push now and again, and Devon does that well without any judgment or guilt. She's supported me to the point where I am now in the AA program and beginning to really grasp the benefits. This has allowed us to deal with the me that needs to grow up and deal with the day to day issues of life, which are very painful. She's a highly effective help to me, now more so, since I gave up drinking. I really need her guidance on the issues at hand, and I totally get the support I need. She's wonderful!"


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.

No matter how long you've been abusing drugs, it is never 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. Remember that millions of people around the world, including high profile celebrities, have been where you are, and many of them have not only managed to kick their habits but have gone on to lead immensely successful and happy lives. With the right tools, you can too. Take the first step today.

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