Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

Self-Medicating: What It Is and How to Seek Help

What Does “Self-Medicating” Mean?

Self-medicating is a behavior in which someone uses drugs, herbs, or other home remedies to self-administer treatment.

They do so to reduce physical or psychological ailments without consulting a doctor first.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

According to the Surgeon General’s Report, some people use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to suppress overactive brain stress systems that produce negative emotions or feelings.

This theory explains why someone living with social anxiety may choose to use alcohol for its calming and sedating effects.

Self-medication is common worldwide, especially in low-income communities.

In some areas where adequate healthcare is neither affordable nor available, people rely on self-medicating to treat their ailments.

In one study of 360 participants, over 76% had a history of self-medication, and 98.9% stored drugs at home.11 The most frequent diseases for self-medication were fatigue, weakness, anxiety disorders, and fever.

Common reasons for self-medicating include:

  • Perceiving self-medication as harmless
  • A history of disease
  • Suffering from chronic pain
  • Suffering from a mental illness
  • Availability of medications at home
  • The cost of medical treatment, including doctor’s visits and medications
  • A lack of time to seek proper medical care
  • An unwillingness to seek professional help due to fear or anxiety
  • Hiding or denying a condition
  • Inefficient drugs used for treatments in the past
  • Fear of side effects from medications

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to use substances to self-medicate.

Approximately 20% of individuals with PTSD use substances to relieve their symptoms, including depression and anxiety.6


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Signs You or Someone You Know is Self-Medicating

Identifying signs of self-medicating can help a person decide to undergo alcohol addiction treatment. It can also put a stop to a habit that has the potential to destroy his or her life.

People with mental health issues often use alcohol to cope with everyday stress and pressures. Considering how the brain develops an increasing tolerance to alcohol, addiction can quickly set in.

Signs of self-medication include:

  • Drinking or taking drugs first thing in the morning
  • Alcohol or drug use on the job
  • Alcohol or drug use during family functions
  • Drinking or taking drugs when stressed
  • Using substances to drown difficult emotions
  • A dependence on alcohol or drugs to cope with daily life

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Risks of Self-Medicating 

Self-medicating comes with many inherent risks.

People who self-medicate are only treating the symptoms rather than the source of their problem. Many don’t accurately diagnose their medical issues.

Even when the issue is correctly diagnosed, they don’t know the right therapy or medication to use. Because of this, they go without treatment. This can lead to many serious health issues.

The potential risks of self-medicating include:

  • Taking an incorrect or excessive dosage
  • Excessively prolonged use
  • Failure to recognize or report adverse reactions
  • Developing a drug addiction
  • Worsening depression or anxiety
  • Allergies or skin problems
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Masking symptoms of serious illnesses
  • Harmful interactions with other medications or food
  • Accidental overdose and death

Self-medicating increases the risk of addiction and worsens the user’s mental state. This may cause them to take more of the drug and develop a dependence.

Self-medication with drugs amongst people with mood disorders is more likely to lead to addiction.

Over 25% of people with a substance use disorder (SUD) developed the disease through self-medication.

Difference Between Substance Abuse and Self-Medicating

Self-medicating is drug or alcohol use to manage symptoms of a physical or mental health condition.

Substance abuse is when someone uses alcohol or drugs out of a compulsive physiological need. It's characterized by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

Frequent self-medicating can lead to substance abuse.

Many people with substance use disorders develop the disorder by self-medicating for a health issue.

In a study of 25,000 patients who were misusing prescription drugs, over 87% suffered from chronic pain.7 More than half used drugs to self-medicate their pain.7

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8 Common Self-Medicating Substances

The most used self-medicating substances are over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements. They don't require a doctor’s prescription to obtain and can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Other harmful options or indulgences used to self-medicate include:

1. Alcohol

A common substance that is used to self-medicate because of its availability and general acceptance.

Alcohol can temporarily relieve depression and anxiety. However, it can lead to dependence and worsen depression and anxiety when used regularly.

2. Nicotine

A highly-addictive chemical found in tobacco that causes both stimulant and sedative effects.

The self-medicating effects of nicotine use include an increase in focus and alertness and a feeling of increased relaxation.

Nicotine changes the brain’s chemicals and causes a wide range of side effects on the body’s organs and symptoms.

3. Opiates or opioids

While these can provide a temporary euphoric sensation or “high,” abuse of these substances is hazardous and can lead to serious injury or death from overdose.

Commonly used opioids include codeine, morphine, heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.

4. Marijuana

Also known as cannabis or weed, it is the most widely used substance among people with depression. Weed can actually worsen depression symptoms when used in excess.

5. Stimulants

These highly addictive drugs increase activity in the body.

Commonly used stimulants include cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine. Some amphetamines like Adderall are prescribed for the management of some medical conditions.

Stimulant misuse can cause significant damage to various organ systems, especially the cardiovascular system, and can be fatal. 

6. Caffeine

Another common substance used to self-medicate because of the availability and general acceptance of caffeine use.

This commonly used substance can cause positive reactions, including a boost in mood and focus. When overused, it can cause increased feelings of depression and anxiety.

7. Food

The terms “emotional eating,” “binge eating,” or “comfort eating” are commonly used to describe the practice of self-medicating with food.

Self-medicating with food may temporarily relieve stress in people who are not clinically depressed. But it can cause decreased self-esteem, lead to an eating disorder, and cause unhealthy weight gain.

8. Prescription drugs

Individuals can also self-medicate by using medicines prescribed to them, but at a different dosage or frequency than directed by their doctor.

Commonly misused prescription medications include anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or Klonopin.

Treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Addiction is a complex disease that drives a person to keep using drugs or alcohol despite the negative outcomes.

There are many addiction treatment options, including counseling, medication, and long-term follow up to prevent relapse.

People with substance use disorder (SUD) often need treatment for co-occurring disorders. This is when an addicted person also suffers from a mental illness (such as anxiety or depression).

Some common treatments for substance use disorder include:

No single treatment is right for everyone.

There are also several factors that will determine what type of treatment program is best, including:

  • The type of substance use disorder
  • The severity of the disorder
  • Work, familial, or school responsibilities
  • Living situation
  • Existing support system
  • Financial situation

Treatment plans should be reviewed often and customized to fit each patient’s changing needs.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
12 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Alexander, Adam C, and Kenneth D Ward. “Understanding Postdisaster Substance Use and Psychological Distress Using Concepts from the Self-Medication Hypothesis and Social Cognitive Theory.” Journal of psychoactive drugs vol. 50,2 : 177-186.

  2. Bennadi, Darshana. “Self-medication: A current challenge.” Journal of basic and clinical pharmacy vol. 5,1 : 19-23.

  3. Eating Disorders.Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.

  4. Hesse, Morten. “What does addiction mean to me.” Mens sana monographs vol. 4,1 : 104-26.

  5. Lazareck, Samuel et al. “A longitudinal investigation of the role of self-medication in the development of comorbid mood and drug use disorders: findings from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).” The Journal of clinical psychiatry vol. 73,5 : e588-93.

  6. Leeies, Murdoch et al. “The use of alcohol and drugs to self-medicate symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.” Depression and anxiety vol. 27,8 : 731-6.

  7. Many Patients Abusing Drugs and Alcohol Are Self-Medicating Chronic Pain.” Boston University School of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, 1 May 2016.

  8. THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION.SurgeonGeneral.gov, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

  9. Nicotine Abuse and Dependence.Tufts Medical Center Community Care.

  10. NIDA. "Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 17 Jan. 2019.

  11. Neafsey, O. Jarrín, et al. “Risk Factors Associated with Self-Medication among Women in Iran.” BMC Public Health, BioMed Central, 1 Jan. 1970.

  12. Signs That You're Self-Medicating with Alcohol and When to Consider Alcohol Addiction Treatment.” Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, 23 Feb. 2016.

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