Drug Abuse and Addiction – What Is the Difference?

Drug Abuse and Addiction – What Is the Difference?

Table of Contents

It is common for people to use the terms “drug abuse” and “addiction” interchangeably. However, there is a slight difference between the two. If you or a loved one is struggling with drug abuse or addiction, read on to learn the difference between these two so you can seek the most suitable treatment.

What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse involves using legal or illegal substances in ways that you should not. For example, you may take more than the recommended dose of a drug or use someone else’s prescription pills. However, the worst consequence of abusing drugs is its ability to develop into drug dependency or drug addiction.1 In most cases, people abuse drugs to ease the negative symptoms of a medical condition, release stress, feel a pleasing “high,” or avoid reality. People also use drugs for several other reasons, including:

Curiosity and peer pressure

As a means of obtaining creative inspiration

As part of religious rituals

Signs of Drug Abuse

Physical Signs

The most common physical signs of drug abuse include:

Behavioral Signs

Drug abuse can have some of the following behavioral signs:

Lower performance at work or school

Loss of interest in activities or hobbies

Chronic dishonesty

Lack of motivation

Loss of interest in family or activities

Sudden oversensitivity



Secretive behavior

Changing in personal hygiene and grooming habits

Excessive need for privacy

Changes in friends

Stealing money or items2

What is Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a disease that alters a person’s brain and behavior where they are unable to stop using legal or illegal substances. Someone struggling with addiction may continue using the drug despite being aware of its negative consequences. A person can be addicted to various substances such as cocaine, heroin, prescription pills, and hallucinogens. Marijuana, alcohol, and nicotine are also considered drugs.

For some, drug addiction begins with recreational use in social situations and progresses into frequent use. For others, it may start with taking prescription medication to overcome certain health conditions. How soon a person develops an addiction depends on the drug. Some substances with a higher potency, such as opioid painkillers, can lead to addiction faster than others.

Frequent drug use can cause changes in one’s brain, impacting their self-control and interfering with their ability to resist urges.

Signs of Drug Addiction

Physical Signs

When a person suffers from drug addiction, they may exhibit several physical signs including:

Behavioral Signs

In addition to their physical health, an addicted person will deviate from their usual behavior. The most significant behavioral signs include:

Drop in performance at school or work

Loss of interest in activities and hobbies

Changes in friends

Loss of participating in family activities

Secretive behavior

Repeated dishonesty


Financial issues

Legal issues3

What Are Substance Use Disorders?

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex condition that involves a person uncontrollably using a substance despite harmful consequences. People dealing with SUD have intense cravings to use a specific drug, including alcohol, nicotine, or illegal drugs, to the point where they have difficulties functioning in everyday life. The most severe cases of SUDs are sometimes called addictions.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, not all people are equally vulnerable to developing substance use disorders. Some people naturally have lower self-control levels, making them more susceptible to developing an addiction if exposed to substances.4


Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite its negative consequences. A person’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder depends on a range of factors, including:

How much alcohol a person drinks

How often a person drinks alcohol

How quickly a person consumes alcohol

Drinking at an early age

Genetics and family history of alcohol problems

Mental health conditions and a history of trauma

Excessive drinking, including binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, significantly increases the risk of AUD. Approximately 15 million people in the United States suffer from AUD. In 2018, around 14.4 million adults in the United States battled with AUD. This number includes 9.2 million men and 5.3 million women.5

Illegal Drugs

Illicit drugs include highly addictive and illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens, and meth. These substances are illegal to use, sell, and make. Many people start using these drugs out of curiosity or in social situations. Others may use them in an attempt to self-medicate or find relief from a condition or disorder.

Users of illicit drugs become addicted to the euphoric high of the drugs. Over time, they may need more of the drug to experience the same effects. Heavy use of illicit drugs can lead to addiction and have short and long-term consequences.

In 2019, 39.1% of young adults and 18.3% of adults aged 26 and older said they used illicit drugs in the past year.6

Prescription Drugs

Many people associate drug addiction with illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. However, in recent years, addiction to prescription drugs has become more common than addiction to illicit substances. Prescription drug abuse involves a person taking prescription medication, such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills, in a way not recommended by their doctor.

The three types of most addictive prescription drugs include:

Opioids: prescribed for pain relief

CNS depressants: barbiturates and benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety or sleep problems

Stimulants: prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disorder narcolepsy, or obesity.

In 2019, 5.2% of young adults and 3.4% of adults older than 26 reported misusing prescription pain relievers in the past year. In the same year, sedatives were abused by 4.2% of young adults and 1.9% of adults older than 26.6

How Does Drug Abuse Lead to Addiction?

Addiction does not occur due to weakness or lack of willpower. Instead, it is a chronic disease involving changes in the brain. In the brain, millions of nerve cells or neurons communicate through a series of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. When messages leave one neuron, they attach to a receptor on the receiving one, like a key into a lock.

In an addicted person, this process of communication is disrupted. Large amounts of dopamine are released, overwhelming receptors and resulting in a high that people crave. The euphoric high that dopamine produces is what prompts the user to take the drug over and over again.

Over time, the brain changes and adapts, driving the user to desire more to experience the same high. That is called tolerance. Stopping the drug can lead to a range of withdrawal symptoms, such a depression, anxiety, tremors, and nausea. Taking too much of the same drug or mixing two or more substances can result in an overdose or even death.

How to Tell the Difference Between Drug Abuse and Addiction?

There is a thin line between drug abuse and addiction. Drug abuse is the earlier, milder form of drug or alcohol use that may or may not progress into an addiction. A person abusing drugs may suffer from legal or financial problems and face a drop in performance at school or work. However, while the individual may be using the drug, there is not a dependency formed on the substance.

On the other hand, drug addiction is much more severe than drug abuse. There is one key characteristic that separates drug abuse and addiction: an inability to stop using drugs or alcohol.

The person may suffer from physical addiction where the body develops tolerance to the drug and experiences unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped abruptly. In addition, there is a psychological element to addiction where the person wants to quit using but feels powerless to do so.

How to Help Loved Ones Who are Abusing Drugs

Holding an Intervention to Stop Drug Abuse

Someone who abuses drugs may have difficulties acknowledging their use and the severity of their behavior. They may be in denial about their situation and refuse to seek treatment. For this reason, a more focused approach is required.

An intervention is a carefully planned process, organized by the individual’s family and friends and in consultation with a doctor or substance abuse professional.

During an intervention, these people come together to confront their loved ones about the negative consequences of their condition and discuss treatment options. During interventions, family and friends may:

Offer specific examples of how their loved one's behavior has affected them.

Tell their loved one what they may do if he/she refuses to seek treatment.

Provide their loved one with a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals, and guidelines.

How to Help Loved Ones Struggling with Addiction

Placing a Loved One in Addiction Treatment

If an addicted person accepts treatment, they should be taken to a rehab facility immediately. Most of these treatment centers offer recovery programs for a range of substance addictions and service that include:

Medically supervised detox

Inpatient and outpatient rehab

Behavioral therapy

Individual and group therapy

Holistic therapy

Aftercare programs

The most suitable treatment program for each patient depends on the severity of the addiction, the substance the patient is addicted to, the patient’s financial situation, the patient’s personal obligations, and other factors.

One of the most effective types of treatment is inpatient treatment. It involves following a highly structured program while living in a rehab center for several weeks or months. During this time, the patient participates in individual and group sessions and receives around-the-clock medical care.

Family members can visit their loved one to support them through their recovery and participate in family therapy or educational sessions to learn more about addiction. Social support is important in recovery. Individuals with supportive and cohesive family relationships at treatment entry reported fewer drug, family, and psychological problems three months after starting treatment. When family members participate in treatment, individuals may also experience fewer and less severe episodes of relapse.7


  1. https://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/drug-addiction/what-is-drug-abuse-drug-abuse-information
  2. https://www.confirmbiosciences.com/knowledge/blog/physical-behavioral-psychological-signs-drug-abuse/
  3. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/signs-of-drug-addiction
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2916178/
  5. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder#:~:text=An%20estimated%2015%20million%20people,men%20and%205.3%20million%20women
  6. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2856126/

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