What Causes Drug Abuse?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on February 22, 2016 Written by Cindie Slightham

Drug abuse occurs when you’re unable to control your use of prescribed drugs or you're using another legal or illegal substance to the point that it interferes with your ability to function. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more... Read More

Drug abuse occurs when you’re unable to control your use of prescribed drugs or you're using another legal or illegal substance to the point that it interferes with your ability to function. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 40,000 people died from accidental drug overdose in the United States in 2011. Each year, more than 22,000 people die from prescription drug abuse alone.

Drug abuse also leads to other public health problems, such as:

  • drunk and drugged driving
  • violence
  • familial stress
  • child abuse

Intravenous drug users, who inject drugs, are also at risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases, such as HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis.

Addiction involves many social and biological factors, but treatment is available. The most successful way to stop drug abuse is through prevention and education.

Commonly Abused Drugs


Alcohol is found in beer, wine, and liquor. It’s legal for adults over the age of 21 to purchase and drink in the United States. Your body rapidly absorbs alcohol from your stomach and small intestine into your bloodstream.

One standard drink equals:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirit or liquor

When you drink alcohol, your brain function and motor skills become impaired. Alcohol damages every organ in your body. It can also damage your developing fetus if you’re pregnant.

Alcohol use increases your risk of:

  • liver disease
  • stroke
  • cancer

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, occurs when your use of alcohol affects your ability to work or maintain relationships. Alcohol abuse can threaten your long-term health.

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over a 30-day period:

  • 52.7 percent of adults, age 12 and older, used alcohol at least once
  • 11.5 percent of young adults, between the ages of 12 and 17, used alcohol at least once
  • 16.3 million Americans reported heavy alcohol use

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are also commonly known as:

  • juice
  • gym candy
  • pumpers
  • stackers

Steroids are man-made substances. They mimic the male sex hormone, testosterone. They’re taken orally or injected. They’re illegal in the United States, but some athletes abuse them to enhance performance and build strength.

Steroids can cause serious and permanent health problems, including:

  • aggressive behavior
  • liver damage
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • infertility

Women who use steroids face additional symptoms, such as:

  • facial hair growth
  • menstrual cycle changes
  • baldness
  • deepened voice

Teen users may:

  • stunt their growth
  • have accelerated puberty
  • experience severe acne

Club Drugs

This category of drugs refers to a wide variety of illegal drugs that young adults often use at dance parties, clubs, and bars.

They include the following:

  • Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is also known as grievous bodily harm, G, and liquid ecstasy.
  • Ketamine is also known as special K, K, cat valium, and vitamin K
  • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is also known as ecstasy, XTC, adam, clarity, and X.
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is also known as acid.
  • Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) is also known as roofies, rophies, roche, and forget-me pills.

Club drugs can lead to feelings of euphoria, detachment, or sedation. Roofies, in particular, have been used to commit sexual assaults on unsuspecting victims.

They can cause:

  • serious short-term mental health problems, such as delirium
  • physical health issues, such as rapid heart rate, seizures, and dehydration
  • death

They’re especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol.


Cocaine is also known as:

  • coke
  • C
  • crack
  • snow
  • flake
  • blow

Cocaine is a powerful drug that leads to a strong addiction. It’s sold as a fine, white powder. It’s injected into the veins, snorted through the nose, or smoked. It can also be processed into crack cocaine, a cheaper product that’s also highly addictive. In both forms, cocaine causes the user to feel energetic and euphoric.

Cocaine use increases:

  • body temperature
  • blood pressure
  • heart rate

Cocaine users risk:

  • heart attacks
  • respiratory failure
  • strokes
  • seizures
  • death

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 1.5 million Americans age 12 and older were current cocaine users.


Heroin is also known as:

  • smack
  • H
  • ska
  • junk

Heroin is an illegal opiate. Like morphine, a legal prescription drug, heroin is made from the seed of the poppy plant, or opium. It’s a white or brown powder. It’s injected into a vein, smoked, or snorted through the nose. Users feel euphoria and experience clouded thinking followed by a drowsy state.

Heroin use leads to:

  • heart problems
  • miscarriages
  • overdose
  • death

Regular heroin use leads to higher tolerance. Over time, users may need to take more of the drug to experience its effects. This causes addiction and severe withdrawal symptoms if the user stops taking the drug.


These drugs are also known as:

  • huffing
  • whip-its
  • popping
  • snappers

Inhalants are chemical vapors that users breathe to experience mind-altering effects. They include common products, such as:

  • glue
  • hair spray
  • paint
  • lighter fluid

The short-term effects of these drugs cause a feeling similar to alcohol use.

Inhalants are extremely dangerous. They can lead to:

  • a loss of sensation
  • a loss of consciousness
  • a loss of hearing
  • spasms
  • brain damage
  • heart failure

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 546,000 people age 12 and older used inhalants.


This drug is also known as:

  • ganja
  • pot
  • weed
  • grass
  • 420
  • trees

Marijuana is a dried mix of the cannabis plant’s:

  • flowers
  • stems
  • seeds
  • leaves

It’s usually smoked, but it can also be ingested in a variety of edible products. It produces feelings of euphoria, distorted perceptions, and trouble solving problems. It’s the most commonly abused illegal drug in the United States. In 2014, an estimated 22.2 million Americans were users of marijuana, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Research has proven and continues to explore the effectiveness of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions, such as glaucoma and the negative side effects of chemotherapy. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the District of Columbia and 23 states have approved marijuana for medical use, including:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington


Other names for this drug include:

  • chalk
  • meth
  • ice
  • crystal
  • glad
  • speed
  • crank

Methamphetamine is a very addictive drug. It’s closely related to amphetamine. It’s a white or yellowish powder that’s snorted, injected, or heated and smoked.

The user can experience long-term wakefulness. They may also increase their physical activity, which can lead to physical symptoms like increased:

  • heart rate
  • body temperature
  • blood pressure

If used for a long time, it can lead to:

  • mood problems
  • violent behavior
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • insomnia
  • severe dental problems

Prescription Drugs

Many people are prescribed medication for pain and other conditions. Prescription drug abuse occurs when you take a medication that’s not prescribed for you or you take it for reasons other than those prescribed by your doctor. Some people can become addicted, even when they’re using the drug as prescribed.

These drugs may include:

  • opioids for pain management, such as fentanyl, oxycodone, or hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • anxiety or sleep medicine, such as alprazolam (Xanax) or diazepam (Valium)
  • stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall)

Their effects differ depending on the medication, but abusing prescription drugs can lead to:

  • drowsiness
  • depressed breathing
  • slowed brain function
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • seizures

It may lead to long-term physical dependence and addiction. The illegal use of prescription drugs has grown over the past few decades. This is partially because they have become more widely available. The focus of law enforcement has also been on illicit drugs.

Stages of Drug Abuse

Public health experts usually break up drug abuse into stages:

  1. In the experimental use stage, you use the drug with peers or for recreation.
  2. In the regular use stage, you change your behavior and use the drug to fix negative feelings.
  3. In the daily preoccupation, or risky use, stage, you’re preoccupied with the drug and don’t care about your life outside of your drug use.
  4. In the dependent stage, you’re unable to face your life without using the drug. Your financial and personal problems increase, and you may also take risks to obtain the drug that result in legal problems.

Treating Drug Abuse

What to Look for in a Treatment Program

It’s important to find a program that follows these principles of addiction treatment:

  • Addiction is complex but treatable.
  • There’s no single treatment that works for everyone.
  • Treatment is readily available.
  • Treatment focuses on your multiple needs.
  • Treatment addresses your mental health. Your treatment needs are regularly evaluated to ensure your treatment is meeting them.
  • It’s critical to remain in treatment for an adequate amount of time. Voluntary and involuntary treatment can be effective.
  • Drug use is monitored during your treatment because relapses can and do happen.

Treatment programs should check for and monitor infectious diseases while providing risk-education counseling. This encourages you to act responsibly so you don’t contract or spread infectious diseases.


Depending on the drug you’re addicted to, the first stage of treatment is often medically assisted detoxificationThis process is one in which supportive care is provided as the drug is cleared from your bloodstream.

Detoxification is followed by other treatments to encourage long-term abstinence. Many treatments involve both individual and group counseling. These are given in outpatient facilities or inpatient residential recovery programs.

Medications are also helpful to reduce your withdrawal symptoms and encourage recovery. In heroin addiction, for example, your doctor may prescribe a drug called methadone. It can ease your recovery and help you cope with the intense withdrawal stage.

Preventing Drug Abuse

The best way to avoid drug abuse is to prevent initial use and addiction. Efforts usually focus on encouraging youth to avoid peer pressure. Community prevention programs work in schools, with teachers, and with community members to educate and provide information and support.

Parents play an important role in preventing their children from using drugs. You should:

  • talk openly with your children about drug-related issues
  • find and share fact-based information about drugs and drug abuse
  • build a strong family bond that provides a supportive environment for your children

Resources, Phone Numbers, and Support Groups

The following are resources you can use to get help:

  • Above the Influence provides information targeted at youth and young adults regarding drug use, peer pressure, and treatment options. Visit http://www.abovetheinfluence.com.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers free resources or referrals to treatment. If you have questions or need help, call the 24-hour helpline at 800-662-HELP.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teenagers provides information and research for teenagers and young adults about drug abuse. Visit http://teens.drugabuse.gov.
  • The National Association for Children of Alcoholics provides information and resources for children of alcoholics. Call 888-55-4COAS (888-554-2627) or visit http://www.nacoa.org.
  • Al-Anon provides confidential groups and meetings across the United States for adult friends and family members of people who have drinking problems. Call 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday-Friday, or visit http://www.al-anon.org/home.
  • Al-Ateenprovides confidential groups and meetings across the United States to help teenagers and young adults cope with a friend or family member’s alcohol use. Call 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday-Friday, or visit http://www.al-anon.alateen.org.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offers meetings and support groups for people interested in recovering from alcohol addiction or abuse. Visit www.aa.org.
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA) offers meetings and support groups for people interested in recovering from narcotic addiction or abuse. Visit www.na.org.
Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on February 22, 2016 Written by Cindie Slightham

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on February 22, 2016 Written by Cindie Slightham