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Updated on July 28, 2021

Definition of Drug Misuse, Abuse & Addiction

What is Drug Misuse?

Drug misuse is a broad term used to describe different types of substance use. Specifically, it describes someone who uses a legal or prescribed medication in a way that was not directed. 

Using illegal substances or medications refers to illegal drug use. This also includes minors who drink alcohol. 

Likewise, if you use a drug more often or in larger amounts than recommended, even if it is your prescription, it is misuse.

You are misusing a drug any time you use a drug for purposes for which it was not intended or if it is not legally intended for use. This is true even if you do not intend to or cannot get high from the drug.

Doctors can prescribe a drug for off-label purposes. As a patient, you’d be using a drug for a purpose for which it is not FDA-approved. However, you are doing so under your doctor’s directions, so it is not misuse.

Signs of drug misuse include:

  • Taking a dose at the wrong time
  • Missing a dose
  • Stopping medication sooner than recommended (and without doctor approval)
  • Using medication not prescribed to you
  • Using a drug for a reason other than its intended purpose

Commonly Misused Substances

Some of the most commonly misused substances include:

  • Illegal/illicit drugs
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Painkillers
  • Sleeping pills
  • Cold remedies
  • Solvents, aerosols, gases, and glue

Why Do People Misuse Drugs?

There are many different reasons why someone would misuse a drug. For example, they do it to:

  • Feel good. Many drugs trigger feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and exuberance. People use drugs to feel better about themselves, have increased energy, or feel more powerful.
  • Perform better. Some drugs improve focus, make you faster or stronger, or give you increased energy. All of these benefits can improve performance at school, at work, while playing sports, and in other scenarios.
  • Give in to peer pressure. Some people use drugs for no other reason than their friends are using them.
  • Satisfy curiosity. Some people try drugs because they want to know how they feel when taking them.

Dangers of Misusing Drugs 

It should come as no surprise that misusing drugs is dangerous. The risks associated with misusing drugs include:

  • Health problems
  • Addiction
  • Accidents
  • Poor academic or work performance
  • Legal trouble
  • Death

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What is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse occurs when someone uses a drug to get ‘high.’ They misuse a drug to achieve a feeling of relaxation, euphoria, bliss, or to simply feel better. Abuse puts people at risk for developing an addiction to a substance.

Signs of drug abuse include:

  • Using a drug, legal or illegal, to get high
  • Using a drug without a prescription
  • Exceeding the recommended dosage of a drug
  • Developing a tolerance to the drug
  • Chronic or repeated abuse of the drug

What is the Difference Between Drug Misuse & Abuse?

The primary difference between misusing a drug and abusing it is the intention behind it. 

Both misuse and abuse are dangerous practices. Both can be deadly. But misuse is defined as the use of a substance for a purpose not consistent with legal or medical guidelines. Abuse occurs when someone intentionally misuses the drug to achieve an outcome.

These terms are often used interchangeably. This misleads people about the risk of addiction. Missing a dose of a medication you have a prescription for, and taking it an hour later than intended (which isn’t always safe), is misuse. However, this action is unlikely to lead to addiction.

Continuing to take the drug for longer than the prescription window or taking more than recommended is misuse and puts you at risk of developing an addiction.

What is Drug Addiction? 

Drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing medical disorder. Addiction occurs when someone continues to take a drug despite the negative consequences it causes.

Addiction is a brain disorder. Brain function changes when a person is addicted to a drug. Their brain no longer behaves as it should in response to stress, rewards, and self-control. 

These changes might continue long after the person stops using the drug and can be permanent.

Drug addiction disrupts the normal, healthy functioning of the body, just like any other disease. And like other diseases, it poses harmful effects. But it is treatable

Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs? 

The reason why people become addicted to drugs varies from person to person. Two people can be exposed to the same circumstance without both developing an addiction. Likewise, two people with genetic risks can lead very different lives, and still both develop addictions.

In general, the more risk factors someone has, the greater his or her chances of trying and becoming addicted to a drug. And the more protective factors someone has, the lower the likelihood.

Environmental, biological, and protective factors all work together to form a person’s risk of developing an addiction.

What Factors Increase Addiction Risk?

Several factors increase someone’s risk of developing an addiction. For example:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Peer pressure and low peer refusal skills
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Willingness to experiment with or having a curiosity about drugs
  • Availability of drugs
  • Poverty
  • Aggressive childhood behavior or exposure to violence
  • Early use
  • How a drug is ingested

Conversely, some factors reduce a person’s risk of developing an addiction. For example:

  • Strong sense of self-control/self-efficacy
  • Positive relationships
  • Parental monitoring and support
  • Anti-drug policies in schools
  • Community resources

Can Drug Misuse/Abuse Lead to Addiction?

Yes, but it depends on how the person is misusing a drug. Not all misuse will lead to addiction. 

Drug abuse puts someone at a greater risk of developing an addiction than misuse alone, but not everyone who abuses a drug will develop an addiction.

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What are the Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?

Symptoms of substance use disorder (SUD) include:

  • Needing to use the drug regularly, daily, or several times a day
  • Experiencing intense urges or cravings for the drug that overrides other thoughts
  • Eventually needing more of the drug to achieve the same effects
  • Using more of the drug over a longer period than intended
  • Prioritizing access to a supply of the drug
  • Spending money on the drug, even if it means stealing or mismanaging money
  • Neglecting obligations, including work and school responsibilities
  • Reducing social or recreational activities because of drug use
  • Continuing to use the drug, even if it's causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
  • Engaging in risky behavior to obtain the drug 
  • Engaging in risky activities when under the influence of the drug
  • Spending a lot of time using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
  • Unsuccessfully stopping use of the drug 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping drug use

Treatment Options for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

There is no cure for SUD, but there are many treatment options available. People with SUD experience the most success when using a combination of different treatments.

Treatment options include:

  • Medically supervised detoxification
  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Group and peer counseling
  • Behavioral therapy to help deal with cravings, identify drug use triggers, find better coping mechanisms, and reduce the risk of relapse
  • Self-help groups and 12-step programs

How to Prevent Prescription Drug Misuse & Addiction

Addiction specialists often say that there isn’t much you can do to help a loved one end their addiction. Aside from offering information about treatment programs and being supportive, only the addicted person can commit to sobriety.

On the other hand, many people play a role in reducing drug misuse. Patients, pharmacists, and health care providers all play a role in preventing prescription drug use and the risk it creates for addiction.

What can patients do?

  • Provide a complete medical history to your doctor before accepting a prescription (this helps your doctor evaluate your existing addiction risk)
  • Follow all of the directions associated with any prescription given to you by your doctor
  • Understand the potential interactions of any drugs you are taking
  • Do not take more of or less of a drug prescribed to you
  • Never stop taking a drug without your doctor’s guidance (unless the prescription is complete)
  • Never use anyone’s prescription other than your own

What can healthcare providers do?

  • Recognize the symptoms of prescription drug misuse and abuse
  • Help patients recognize symptoms of misuse and/or abuse
  • Screen for abuse as part of the standard routine of examining a patient
  • Help patients set goals for recovery
  • Provide addiction resources to patients when needed

What can pharmacists do?

  • Explain to patients how to properly take medications
  • Provide advice about drug interactions
  • Provide clear information regarding the effects of medications
  • Be aware of prescription fraud and report it when necessary

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Resources

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(1) National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, UK. “INTRODUCTION to DRUG MISUSE.” Nih.gov, British Psychological Society, 2019.

(2) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Misuse and Addiction.” Drugabuse.gov, 2018.

(3) Mayo Clinic. “Drug Addiction (Substance Use Disorder) - Diagnosis and Treatment - Mayo Clinic.” Mayoclinic.org, 2017,.

(4) “Dangers of Misusing Prescription Medications.” Healthcare.utah.edu.

(5) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” Drugabuse.gov, Jan. 2019.

(6) Pollock, Madelyn, et al. “Appropriate Prescribing of Medications: An Eight-Step Approach.” American Family Physician, vol. 75, no. 2, 2013, pp. 231–236.

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