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Understanding Substance Use Disorders: Causes, Signs, and Treatment

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Substance abuse refers to the addition of illicit substances like alcohol, drugs, and tobacco that leads to harm to oneself. Read the article to know more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi

Published At October 13, 2023
Reviewed AtJanuary 22, 2024


The use of harmful substances like alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and illegal and illicit drugs repeatedly in a way that affects one's behavior negatively is known as substance abuse. It is a type of abuse in which excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, and other substances are consumed, causing harm to oneself and society. Substance abuse causes the body to become physically and psychologically dependent on the substance in question. Long-term drug use causes physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms develop when the drug is stopped. Psychological dependence is a strong desire to continue using a drug without physical dependence. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that can lead to physical and psychological dependence.

Why Do Substance Use Disorders Occur?

Multiple factors can lead to substance use disorder, such as:

  • Genetic predisposition.

  • Social pressures.

  • Unique personality traits.

  • Environmental stressors.

  • Psychiatric issues.

However, it is not always possible to determine which factors impact a particular person most.

What Is the Substance That Causes Abuse?

  • Opioids: Morphine, Heroin, Meperidine.

  • Stimulants: Amphetamine, Cocaine.

  • Hypnotics and sedatives: Diazepam, barbiturates, Methaqualone, Chlordiazepoxide hydrochloride.

  • Cannabinoids: Marijuana, Hashish.

  • Hallucinogens: Phencyclidine (PCP), Mescaline, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

  • Volatile hydrocarbons: Gasoline, paint thinner.

  • Alcohol

What Is the Significance of Substance Abuse in Youth?

Recurrent substance abuse leads to failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home, such as suspension, repeated absences, and expulsion.

Substance abuse and problematic patterns of substance use among youth can cause the following problems:

  • Exacerbate physical and mental health issues.

  • Promote poor peer relationships.

  • Social and financial consequences.

  • Stress the family.

  • Motor vehicle accidents.

  • Chronic health problems.

What Is Substance Dependence?

Substance dependence is known as dependence on drug or alcohol use that continues despite the emergence of serious problems associated with it. Dependency symptoms include:

  • Tolerance to the drug or a need for higher dosages to have an impact.

  • Continued drug use despite being aware of its negative effects on the body, mind, and relationships with family and community.

  • Withdrawal symptoms appear when this substance is stopped, or it is difficult to stop using.

  • Taking a long time to obtain, use, and recover from drug effects.

  • Abandoning social and recreational activities.

How to Diagnose Substance Abuse?

Most patients try to be truthful in most areas of their medical history because it is obviously in their best interest. However, there are strong pressures from social stigma and possible legal consequences that may lead to concealment in the case of substance abuse. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are frequently regarded as signs of weakness. Therefore, many patients are hesitant to admit anything they anticipate being forbidden. The physician must know that a patient in desperate need of drugs may give false information during the history-taking process. For example, patients needing narcotics may pretend to have kidney stones to obtain an opioid injection.

Opiate Addicts - These addicts have needle-track marks on their arms and legs. They will also present with areas of fatty necrosis from subcutaneous injections.

Marijuana - In Marijuana, users show redness in the eyes and increased heart rate (tachycardia).

Amphetamine - Amphetamine users are always excited with increased blood pressure and paranoid thinking.

Psychedelic Drug - These users look for sensory distortion, such as illusions and hallucinations.

If the physician wants to diagnose substance abuse without any physical signs, he must conduct laboratory procedures and diagnose it. Opiates, phencyclidine, barbiturates, cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol detection procedures are now widely available.

What Is Abstinence Syndrome?

To diagnose narcotic addiction, a drug called Naloxone, which is a narcotic antagonist, is given in small doses as a diagnostic test to induce abstinence syndrome that will confirm narcotic addiction. Many addicts use addictive substances to alleviate anxiety or depression. Generally, stimulants or depressant sedatives are given to addicts. Drug users who are primarily depressed tend to prefer uppers like stimulants. Those who suffer primarily from anxiety tend to prefer depressive stimulants.

Before concluding any investigation, the physician should determine the extent to which the patient's drug and alcohol use interferes with their live performance in work, family, education, and social relationships.

What Are the Signs of Opioid Abuse in Adolescents?

Teens may exhibit the following symptoms of opioid abuse:

  • Sluggishness.

  • Constipation.

  • Mood swings.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Dry mouth.

  • Headaches.

  • Sickness.

  • Dizziness.

  • Weakness.

  • Vomiting.

  • Sweating.

What Is the Treatment for People With Substance Abuse?

  • Many Heroin addicts are treated in Methadone maintenance programs and therapeutic communities.

  • Although Methadone programs do substitute addiction to one narcotic (Methadone) for addiction to another (Heroin), many studies have shown that Heroin addicts who enter Methadone maintenance programs improve their work records and have fewer criminal activities.

  • Stimulants like Amphetamine do not cause physical dependence but can cause extreme psychologic dependence.

  • Cocaine is most likely the drug that causes the most psychological dependence.

  • Barbiturates, Diazepam, Methaqualone, and other sedative drugs can cause physical dependence.

Complications of Abstinence Syndrome

Abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a patient is not given barbiturates, can be fatal, causing severe convulsions and even death. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are similar to those of barbiturates. Delirium tremens is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD do not cause physical addiction. However, there is the possibility of psychological dependence, which can impair mental function. Cocaine addiction has been somewhat limited because it is relatively expensive compared to other illicit drugs. Still, its use has rapidly increased in the last few years, particularly among affluent groups such as professional athletes.


Drug or substance use patterns that cause serious problems or distress are referred to as substance use disorders. This might entail skipping work or school or using drugs while in a dangerous situation, like driving a car. It might lead to substance abuse-related legal problems, persistent substance use that damages relationships with friends and family, or both. Substance use disorder, a recognized medical brain disorder, or the abuse of legal substances like alcohol, nicotine, or prescription medications are terms used to describe the use of illegal substances like Cocaine, Marijuana, Heroin, or Methamphetamine. Alcohol is the legal drug most frequently associated with substance use disorders.

Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi
Dr. Vishal Anilkumar Gandhi



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