The overuse or abuse of alcohol (alcoholism) or other drugs is
substance abuse. It can cause
or worsen many medical problems and can destroy families and lives.
If you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, take a short
quiz to evaluate your symptoms:
- Assess Your Substance Abuse (What is a PDF document?)
Alcohol abuse causes over 100,000 deaths in
the United States and Canada each year. It is the drug most commonly abused by
children ages 12 to 17. Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are the leading
cause of death in teenagers. People who drink alcohol are more likely to engage
in high-risk sexual behavior, have poor grades or job
performance, use tobacco products, and experiment with
illegal drugs. Alcohol and drug use may be an
unconscious attempt at self-treatment for another problem, such as
You have an alcohol problem if
your use of alcohol interferes with your health or daily living. You develop
alcoholism if you physically or emotionally depend on alcohol to get you
through your day.
Long-term heavy drinking damages the
liver, nervous system, heart, and brain . It can lead to
high blood pressure, stomach problems, medicine
interactions, sexual problems, osteoporosis, and cancer. Alcohol abuse can also
lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, jail or prison time, and
problems at work and home.
Symptoms of an alcohol problem
include personality changes, blackouts, drinking more and more for the same
"high," and denial of the problem. A person with an alcohol problem may gulp or
sneak drinks, drink alone or early in the morning, and suffer from the shakes.
He or she may also have family, school, or work problems or get in trouble with
the law because of drinking.
The use of alcohol with medicines or
illegal drugs may increase the effects of each.
patterns vary. Some people drink and may be intoxicated (drunk) every day. Other people drink large amounts of
alcohol at specific times, such as on the weekend. It is common for someone
with an alcohol or drug problem to call in sick for work on Monday or Friday.
He or she may complain of having a virus or the flu. Others may be sober for
long periods and then go on a drinking binge that lasts for weeks or
alcohol dependence may suffer serious
withdrawal symptoms, such as trembling, delusions,
hallucinations, and sweating, if he or she stops drinking suddenly ("cold
turkey"). After alcohol dependence develops, it becomes very hard to stop
drinking without outside help. Medical
detoxification may be needed.
Drug abuse includes the use of illegal
drugs—such as marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, or other "street
drugs"—and the abuse of legal prescription and nonprescription drugs. Some
people use drugs to get a "high" or to relieve stress and emotional
Drugs like ecstasy (MDMA), ketamine, GHB, Rohypnol, and
LSD, which are known as "club drugs," may be found at all-night dances, raves,
trances, or clubs. The use of club drugs accounts for increasing numbers of drug
overdoses and emergency room visits. Inhalants like nitrous oxide may also be
used at these clubs. Drugs come in different forms and can be used in different
ways. They can be smoked, snorted, inhaled, taken as pills, put in liquids or
food, put in the rectum or the vagina, or injected with a needle. Teens and
young adults may be at risk for becoming victims of sexual assault or violent
behavior in situations where these
drugs are used.
medicines, such as cold medicines that have dextromethorphan as an ingredient,
are being abused by teens and young adults as a way to get a "high." Glue, shoe polish, cleaning fluids, and aerosols, are common household products with ingredients that can also be used to get a "high."
In the United States and Canada, approximately 40% of adults will use an
illegal drug at some time during their lives. This does not include the use of
alcohol or prescription medicines. Many people abuse more than one illegal
substance at a time.
Drug dependence or addiction occurs when you
develop a physical or emotional "need" for a drug. You are unable to control
your use of a drug despite the negative impact it has on your life. You may not
be aware that you have become dependent on a drug until you try to stop taking
it. Drug withdrawal can cause uncomfortable and sometimes
dangerous symptoms. The usual treatment is to gradually reduce the dose of the
drug until you can completely stop using it.
Some groups of people are more
likely than others to have problems related to alcohol or drug abuse. These
- Teenagers and young adults. Approximately one-half of all high school seniors in the U.S.
admit to having used alcohol or an illegal drug. Substance abuse in this age
group increases the risk of involvement in crime, high-risk sexual behavior,
accidents, and injuries. Teens that use alcohol and drugs are more likely to
have poor school performance and have higher dropout rates. For more information, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
- Although women are less likely than men to
abuse alcohol, they are more likely to have alcohol-related health problems,
- Women are more likely to
have problems with prescription medicines. More than two-thirds of all
tranquilizers are prescribed for women. Tranquilizers, sedatives, pain
amphetamines are abused most often by
- Alcohol and drug abuse in women increases the risk of
developing other health problems, such as
- Women who abuse alcohol and
suicide four times more frequently than
- Adults older than age 65.
Drug abuse in this age group is a problem because of the high number of
prescription medicines and the lack of coordination between doctors. Signs of alcohol or drug abuse may be mistaken for other disease
problems or simply overlooked as a symptom of "aging." Many older adults
"self-medicate" with alcohol to help relieve sleep problems, depression, and
other problems. Alcohol abuse is more common than drug abuse in older adults.
Alcohol contributes to car accidents and other types of severe injury in
this group of people. For more information, see the topic Substance Abuse in Older Adults.
- Low-income populations. Drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for many minorities,
including disabled adults, the homeless, and minority
- Babies. Drug and alcohol use
during pregnancy can cause birth defects and increase the risk of infant
death. Babies are more likely to have learning disabilities and social and
behavioral problems when their mothers use alcohol or drugs during pregnancy.
Babies with mothers who use alcohol are at risk for problems from
fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Children. Studies show that children who are exposed to drug
abuse in the home, especially methamphetamine, have higher rates of depression,
anxiety, post-traumatic stress, anger, and alcohol and drug abuse. They also
are more likely to have learning problems and do poorly in school.
Recognizing a problem
Alcohol is part of many people's lives and may have a place in cultural and family traditions. It can sometimes be hard to know when you begin to drink too much.
There is a strong connection between the use of drugs and
alcohol and high-risk sexual behaviors. This increases a person's chance of
sexually transmitted infections (STIs),
hepatitis B, and
human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
you think you might have a drinking or drug problem, take a short quiz to evaluate your
- Interactive Tool: Do You Have a Drinking Problem?
- Assess Your Drug Use (What is a PDF document?)
Check your symptoms to decide if and when
you should see a doctor.