What is substance abuse/chemical dependence?

The main words used medically to describe substance abuse or addiction include the following:

  • Substance (drug) abuse (alcohol or other drugs). Substance abuse is the medical term used to describe a pattern of substance (drug) use that causes significant problems or distress, such as failure to attend work or school, substance use in dangerous situations (driving a car), substance-related legal problems, or continued substance use that interferes with friendships and/or family relationships. Substance abuse, as a recognized medical brain disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal (such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine)or legal substances (such as alcohol, nicotine, or prescription drugs). Alcohol is the most common legal drug of abuse.

  • Substance (drug) dependence. Substance dependence is the medical term used to describe abuse of drugs or alcohol that continues, even when significant problems related to their use have developed. Signs of dependence include:

    • Tolerance to or need for increased amounts of the drug to get an effect

    • Withdrawal symptoms that happen if you decrease or stop using the drug that you find difficult to cut down or quit

    • Spending a lot of time to obtain, use, and recover from the effects of using drugs

    • Withdrawal from social and recreational activities

    • Continued use of the drug even though you are aware of the physical, psychological, and family or social problems that are caused by your ongoing drug abuse

A family doctor, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse. Clinical findings often depend on the substance abused, the frequency of use, and the length of time since last used, and may include the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Constant fatigue
  • Red eyes
  • Little concern for hygiene
  • Laboratory abnormalities
  • Unexpected abnormalities in heart rate or blood pressure
  • Depression, anxiety, or sleep problems

[ top ]

Health Effects of Alcohol & Drug Abuse

Drugs change your perception. They affect how your brain works, including your memory. They cause a variety of potentially serious or fatal physical conditions.

These drugs have specific health risks:

  • Cocaine. Cocaine in any form can cause sudden death from cardiac arrest. Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system, which then raises blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. Injecting cocaine by sharing drugs or devices used to prepare the drugs can lead to HIV infection and hepatitis.

  • Marijuana. Marijuana increases heart rate, affects memory and comprehension, and makes it more difficult to perform tasks requiring concentration and coordination, such as driving a car. The drug also affects motivation, which has an impact on school and work, and, like smoking cigarettes, can lead to lung diseases, including cancer.

  • Prescription drug abuse. Over 7 million Americans used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes in the past month. Commonly abused medications include OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, as well as Ritalin and Adderal. OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet abuse can result in a fatal overdose due to low blood pressure and depressed breathing rate. Ritalin or Adderal abuse can cause very high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and high body temperature.

  • Methamphetamine. This drug can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and decrease appetite, which can lead to severe weight loss. High doses can cause tremors, delusions, paranoia, and death.

  • Anabolic steroids, such as testosterone. Steroid users can suffer side effects ranging from acne to liver cancer. In males, use can cause withered testicles, sterility, and impotence. In females, irreversible masculine traits can develop, for example, baldness, increases in body hair growth, including a beard, and voice changes. Psychological effects in both sexes include aggressive behavior and depression. Some side effects, such as heart attack and stroke, may occur years after use.

  • Alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol, such as one or two standard drinks, which is equivalent to one or two 12-ounce cans of beer, can affect your judgment and coordination. This increases the chance that you will be involved in a traffic accident. Moderate amounts also affect your ability to learn and remember information. High amounts can cause alcohol poisoning, resulting in death. Women who drink alcohol while pregnant may give birth to infants with birth defects and intellectual disability.

[ top ]