Drug Abuse – Risk Factors Signs & Symptoms

Drug Abuse

Summary

Drug abuse is the habitual misuse of a drug. This includes the use of illegal drugs, or the use of prescription medications for non-prescribed purposes. It can also include the use of substances such as nicotine and/or alcohol. Some people who abuse drugs become addicted. This involves the uncontrollable craving and misuse of drugs, as well as other self-destructive behaviors.

According to a 2004 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 19.1 million Americans (7.9 percent of the population aged 12 or older) reported that they had used an illegal drug in the month prior to the study.

Some of the most commonly abused drugs are marijuana, prescription medications (such as sedatives), cocaine and heroin.

Risk factors for drug abuse may include genetics, age, being unemployed and having a mental health disorder. Risk factors for children include a chaotic home environment and poor social and coping skills.

Signs and symptoms of drug abuse vary according to the type of drug being abused. For example, signs and symptoms of depressant drug abuse include drowsiness, slurred speech and lack of coordination. Individuals abusing hallucinogens may have hallucinations, delusions and euphoria.

Drug abuse may be diagnosed by a physician. Patients suspected of being addicted to drugs may also be referred to a substance abuse specialist (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor) for evaluation. Patients may be asked how often they use drugs and how the drug usage affects their life (e.g.,whether they have missed school or work because of drug use).

Patients whose drug abuse has developed into addiction may undergo detoxification (treatment technique designed to remove drugs or alcohol from the body while managing any symptoms of withdrawal). After successfully withdrawing from a drug, patients may receive treatment to help avoid relapse (drug use that starts after a period of abstinence), which may include counseling or self-help groups.

The best way to prevent drug abuse is to refrain from using illegal drugs and/or prescription drugs for non-prescribed purposes. Parents can help prevent drug abuse in children by informing them of the dangers of drug use and strengthening relationships with children.

About drug abuse

Drug abuse is the habitual misuse of a drug. It may include using illegal drugs or using prescription medications for non-prescribed purposes.

Drug abuse can result in tolerance, whereby increasingly larger amounts of a drug must be taken to produce the same effect.

Some people who abuse drugs become addicted. Addiction is a chronic illness that involves the uncontrollable craving and use of drugs despite the potential or actual harm to the person that may result from it. Addiction is different from using a large quantity of drugs or using drugs frequently. Those addicted to drugs often cannot quit by themselves and must receive treatment to help them stop using.

Drug abuse can cause a variety of problems, including:

  • Disruptions in family, work, school or social settings. Relationships often suffer because of drug abuse. Some people who abuse drugs also have difficulty performing at work and school.
  • Legal problems. People can be arrested for using drugs. Also, sometimes people commit crimes, such as theft and prostitution, to support drug habits.
  • Financial problems. Spending money on drugs can reduce the amount of money available for other needs.
  • Health issues. Drug use can result in many health problems, such as heart and lung damage. Abusing drugs may cause people to participate in unsafe behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or sharing needles.
  • Death. People can die as a result of taking too much of a drug (overdose) or by engaging in reckless behaviors while under the influence of a drug.

Drug abuse can be found in people of all ages, from children to the elderly. According to a 2004 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 19.1 million Americans (7.9 percent of the population aged 12 or older) reported that they had used an illegal drug in the month prior to the study.

A variety of drugs may be abused. According to the 2004 SAMHSA survey, there were:

  • 14.6 million marijuana users.
  • 6 million users of prescription drugs taken for nonmedical purposes. Of those, 4.4 million used pain relievers, 1.6 million used tranquilizers, 1.2 million used stimulants and 300,000 used sedatives.
  • 2 million cocaine users, 467,000 of whom used crack cocaine.
  • 929,000 hallucinogen users.
  • 450,000 ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) users.
  • 166,000 heroin users.

Alcohol and nicotine are other substances that are commonly abused.

Types and differences of drug abuse

Many different types of legal and illegal drugs are abused. They can be taken in a variety of ways, such as swallowing pills, smoking and injection in a vein. They include:

  • Cannabinoids (chemicals found in the cannabis plant, which effect physical and mental processes). It is usually smoked in pipes, and sometimes in joints mixed with tobacco. It can also be added to brownies or other food and ingested. When smoked or eaten, the following cannabinoids produce intoxicating effects, such as mild euphoria:

    • Hashish (hash). A type of cannabis that comes from the resin of the plant. The resin is dried and pressed into a solid lump.

    • Marijuana. A type of cannabis that comes from the flowers of the plant.

  • Depressants (medications that suppress the nervous system, causing the body to slow down and relax). They usually come in pill form and can be habit-forming when taken in high doses for long periods of time. Types include:

    • Barbiturates. A class of drugs that slow down the central nervous system (CNS) and cause relaxation. They are commonly prescribed as sleeping medications and for seizure prevention.

    • Benzodiazepines. Medications used to produce sedation, induce sleep, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms and prevent seizures. They can be habit-forming when taken in high doses for long periods of time.

    • Methaqualone. A sedative-hypnotic drug that is often abused. Its trade name is Quaalude.

  • Club drugs. (Recreational drugs often used at dance clubs, parties and concerts). Types include:

    • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Commonly known by the street name ecstasy or XTC, a synthetic, psychoactive drug which usually comes in pill form.

    • Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB). Central nervous system depressant that is colorless, tasteless and odorless and can be added to beverages and ingested unknowingly. Street names include liquid ecstasy and soap.

    • Ketamine. Anesthetic approved for both human and animal use only in medical settings. It can be injected or snorted. It is sometimes called vitamin K or special K.

    • Rohypnol. Trade name for flunitrazepam. Although not approved in the United States, its use began appearing in the early 1990s. It is sometimes called roofies.

    • Methamphetamine. A stimulant drug that can also increase blood pressure and heart rate. It can be smoked, snorted or injected. Crystal meth is among its street names.

GHB, ketamine and rohypnol are also called “date rape drugs” because they have been used to temporarily disable sexual assault victims.

  • Hallucinogens (psychoactive drugs that induce hallucinations or altered sensory perceptions). Types include:

    • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A powerful drug that causes intensification and alteration of the senses, feelings, memories and self-awareness. It is sometimes called acid. It can come in many forms, but is usually swallowed.

    • Phencyclidine (PCP). A depressant drug developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic. However, PCP was never actually used for that purpose because of severe side effects. Today, it is sold illegally as a recreational drug. It causes memory loss, hallucinations and seizures. It is sometimes called angel dust.

    • Mescaline. A hallucinogen obtained from the peyote cactus and certain other cacti native to Central and South America.

    • Psilocybin. A hallucinogenic compound obtained from certain types of mushrooms.

  • Opioids (painkilling drugs prescribed to treat acute pain, cancer pain or chronic pain) and morphine derivatives. Types include:

    • Codeine. Sedative and pain-relieving agent obtained from opium. It is also used in cough medication as cough suppressant.
  • Fentanyl. Narcotic opioid drugs used in the treatment of moderate to severe pain.

  • Heroin. An illegal, highly addictive drug made from morphine, which is derived from the opium poppy. It can be snorted, smoked or injected.

  • Morphine. The most commonly used opioid drug. It is used to treat severe pain.

  • Opium. Drug obtained from the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy.

  • Oxycodone. Very powerful opioid pain medication. It is similar to codeine, but is more potent and has a higher potential for dependency. Drugs abusers tend to crush it up and add it to beverages.

  • Hydrocodone. Semisynthetic narcotic pain reliever and cough suppressant similar to codeine. It is prescribed for the relief of moderate to moderately severe pain.

Risk factors for drug abuse

The causes of drug abuse are complicated and differ among individuals. Factors that place people at greater risk of drug abuse include:

  • Genetics. People with family members that abuse drugs are more likely to abuse drugs.
  • Mental health problems. Substance abuse is particularly common among people with mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. In a 2004 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 21.3 percent (4.6 million) of people experiencing serious psychological distress due to a mental health problem abused drugs or alcohol. The rate of abuse among adults not experiencing such distress was 7.9 percent.
  • Being unemployed. In the SAMHSA survey, 19.2 percent of unemployed adults aged 18 or older used illegal drugs compared with 8 percent of people employed full-time and 10.3 percent of those employed part-time. It is not known whether unemployment causes drug abuse or whether people become unemployed due to drug abuse. Research also shows that job-related stress may increase a person’s risk of abusing drugs.
  • Age. Groups reporting the highest percentage of drug abuse in the SAMHSA survey were 18- to 20-year-olds (21.7 percent), 21- to 25-year-olds (17.9 percent) and 16- and 17-year-olds (17.3 percent).
  • Type of drug. Some drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have highly addictive properties. The use of these drugs may quickly result in addiction.

Children have a special set of risk factors for drug abuse. They include:

  • A chaotic home environment. Children who live in homes with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol are at greater risk of abusing these substances.
  • Poor or ineffective parenting. Children who are not well nurtured and have poor relationships with parents are more likely to use drugs.
  • Poor social and coping skills.
  • Poor school performance.
  • Inappropriately shy or aggressive behavior.
  • Associating with a deviant peer group.
  • The perception that parents, teachers or other adults approve of drug abuse.

Recent research also suggests that teenage girls who mature earlier than their peers and have a boyfriend who is at least two years older than them are more likely to engage in drug use.

Signs and symptoms of drug abuse

Signs and symptoms vary according to the type and quantity of drug used. Signs and symptoms of some of the most commonly abused drugs include:

DrugSymptoms
Cannabinoids (e.g., marijuana)Heightened sense of visual, auditory and taste perception Red eyes Increased appetite
Depressants (e.g., benzodiazepines)Drowsiness Slurred speech Lack of coordination
Stimulants (e.g., cocaine)Euphoria Decreased appetite Rapid speech
HallucinogensHallucinations Euphoria Delusions
OpioidsReduced sense of pain Sedation Depression

Signs and symptoms of drug abuse in children may include:

  • Change in activities. Giving up past activities such as sports or homework or spending time with new friends that may be unknown to caregivers.

  • Behavior changes. This may involve aggression, irritability or forgetfulness.

  • Declining school performance. A drop in attendance and/or grades, or being suspended from school.

  • Financial changes. Requests for money that cannot be explained or disappearing money or valuables.

  • Changes in appearance. This may include a sudden lack of interest in clothing or grooming.

  • Risky behavior. This may include drinking and driving or having unprotected sex.

  • Legal trouble. This may involve getting arrested.

  • Possessing paraphernalia. This may include devices used to store and take drugs such as plastic bags, small boxes, pipes and rolling papers.

Patients who experience the following symptoms may wish to consult a physician or other healthcare professional because it may indicate drug addiction:

  • Feeling the need to use a drug daily, possibly several times a day

  • Ensuring an adequate supply of the drug is available

  • Failing several attempts to stop using the drug

  • Exhibiting abnormal and self-destructive behavior to obtain a drug, such as stealing

  • Feeling that drug use is necessary to solve problems

  • Exhibiting risky behavior, such as driving, while under the influence of drugs

  • Experiencing signs of withdrawal when not using drugs, such as nausea and shakiness

Diagnosis methods for drug abuse

Drug abuse may be determined during a physical examination that includes a medical history and list of medications. Visits to physicians are sometimes prompted by family members’ concerns about drug use.

Some questions physicians may ask patients regarding drug use include:

  • How often does the patient use drugs?
  • Has the patient missed school or work due to drug use?
  • Has the patient been criticized because of drug use?
  • Has the patient ever tried to quit taking drugs?

A patient may be given a urine or blood test to determine whether drugs are present in the body. Patients suspected of being addicted to drugs may be referred to a substance abuse specialist (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor) for further evaluation and treatment.

Treatment options for drug abuse

Many people who abuse drugs never seek or receive treatment because they do not view drug abuse as a problem. Some discontinue use on their own without receiving any special medical care. Others seek treatment after trying, and failing, to quit on their own. Research has shown that long-term drug use alters brain function and strengthens compulsions to use drugs.

Patients whose drug abuse has developed into addiction may require assistance in quitting and undergo detoxification (treatment technique designed to remove drugs or alcohol from the body while managing any symptoms of withdrawal). Patients may be treated in an outpatient health facility or an inpatient rehabilitation facility.

Patients with some types of addiction, such as addiction to sedative-hypnotics, opioids and alcohol, may be given a substitute medication while undergoing detoxification. This helps to minimize the effects of withdrawal (physical or psychological state experienced when certain substances or medications are discontinued rapidly).

Some patients who abuse drugs also have a mental health disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. These patients may receive treatment for the underlying disorder, (antidepressants or antipsychotics) in addition to undergoing treatment for the drug abuse.

After successfully withdrawing from a drug, patients may receive treatment to help avoid relapse (drug use that starts after a period of abstinence). This may include:

  • Counseling. Individual or family counseling with a psychologist, psychiatrist or addiction counselor may help patients develop ways to resist the urge to use drugs.
  • Self-help groups. These groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, are designed for patients addicted to drugs. Patients share personal stories and other information to support each other and try to prevent relapse.

Prevention methods for drug abuse

The best way to prevent drug abuse is to refrain from taking drugs. Patients taking prescription medications that have the potential to be abused, such as sedatives or narcotic painkillers, should follow the directions provided with the medication. A physician should be consulted before taking a larger dose than recommended or taking the medication for a longer time than prescribed.

Parents can take the following steps to help prevent drug abuse in children, including:

  • Talk. Inform children of the risks associated with drug use.
  • Listen. Listen to children’s concerns about peer pressure, school and other issues.
  • Set a good example. Do not abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • Strengthen relationships with children. Children who share a strong bond with parents are less likely to abuse drugs.

In addition, since 1995 public schools have been permitted by law to conduct random drug tests of certain student populations, such as student athletes and band members. Such testing may encourage students to refrain from drug use.

Some tips for patients who have been treated for drug dependency and are trying to avoid relapse include:

  • Be patient. Most people need at least three months to see significant improvement with drug abuse problems.
  • Seek treatment for mental health disorders. Patients with untreated mental health disorders, such as depression, are more likely to abuse drugs.
  • Avoid risky situations. Avoid places or social situations where drugs will be available. End friendships that involved drug use.

Questions for your doctor regarding drug abuse

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following drug abuse-related questions:

  1. What is drug abuse?
  2. What is the difference between drug abuse and drug addiction?
  3. What are some of the most commonly abused drugs?
  4. My loved one takes a prescription medication more often than it is prescribed. Is this drug abuse?
  5. How can I tell if my child is using drugs?
  6. What are some of the treatment options for drug abuse?
  7. Should I receive treatment in an outpatient or inpatient facility?
  8. What is the best way to prevent drug abuse?
  9. How can I help prevent my children from abusing drugs?
  10. What is the best way to prevent relapse after treatment?
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