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Substance Use Disorder

Last Updated May 2024 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

Substance use disorder can happen when some products aren’t used in the right way. This includes prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, recreational and illegal drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Examples of substance use disorder include using medicines that aren’t yours, using medicines in a way that’s different than they’re supposed to be used, or using them when they’re not needed or legal.

Path to improved health

Using these substances improperly can seem OK because they can make you feel good. You may want to feel that feeling again. But it’s not OK. In fact, it’s dangerous. Using substances like this can affect your brain. A powerful urge to use the drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can control your behavior. This can cause you to use these substances without thinking of how they will affect you. They also may affect your health, relationships, money, and performance at work or school. That’s when substance use becomes substance addiction.

You can avoid substance use disorder by only using medicines as they’re supposed to be used. Follow dosing directions from your doctor for prescription medicines. Follow drug label instructions on over-the-counter medicines. Don’t use tobacco or drink alcohol. When prescription medicines are taken the right way, there is much less chance you’ll become addicted to them. Avoid using drugs classified as “recreational” or illegal.

Things to consider

Substance addiction is dangerous. Sometimes it’s hard to see an addiction in yourself. It’s important to listen to loved ones who express concern about you. They may help you recognize you have a problem. You may have an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco if:

  • You continue to use them even though they cause problems in your life.
  • You lose interest in things you used to like to do.
  • You don’t care for yourself. For example, you don’t change your clothes every day or you don’t take a shower.
  • You feel tired and sad a lot.
  • You’re often in a bad mood.
  • You’ve developed a tolerance to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. This means you need to use more and more to get the same “feel good” effect.

Substance addiction is different for everybody. However, you may be more likely to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco if:

  • You start using them when you’re young.
  • You have mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • You hang around with people who abuse drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
  • You’re having trouble at home or work.
  • You have a genetic and family history of substance abuse.

If you think you have an addiction, it’s important to visit with your doctor. Don’t be afraid to tell them what drugs or alcohol you’re using, even if they’re illegal drugs. They will keep that information private. You won’t get in trouble with the police. It’s best to be honest with your doctor so they can help you. Your doctor will visit with you about your situation. They may refer you to other doctors to help, too. These may include a psychiatrist or a psychologist. These are mental health doctors. Your doctor also may refer you to a counselor who specializes in substance use disorder.

Treatment options

Treatment for substance use disorder and addiction can include medicines, therapy, or support groups.

Medicines can help you stop wanting or craving the addictive drugs you’ve been using.

Therapy is available in two forms. Outpatient therapy means you visit your doctor for treatment and then go home. Inpatient therapy means you live in a substance abuse facility. You may stay there for several days or weeks. The workers at the facility specialize in helping people get over their addictions. This is a more intense treatment.

Support groups offer help from other people who have been in the same situation as you.

Your doctor will help you find the treatment that’s right for you. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. It will be a lifetime challenge to stay sober. But it is possible, and many people have achieved that goal. It may take many attempts before you can break your addiction.

List of top ten things to know about addiction

Questions for your doctor

  • How do I know if I have a problem?
  • How can I quit using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco?
  • What treatments are available for my substance use disorder or addiction?
  • Can I become addicted to prescription drugs?
  • What organizations can help me stop using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco?


National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse

National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse: Tobacco, Nicotine, and E-Cigarettes

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Young Adults: It’s Okay to Ask for Help

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