Menu Close

Difference Between Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse

People learning the differences between drug addiction and substance abuse at a treatment center

Most people who drink or experiment with recreational drug use will never develop a problem or become addicted. But when does recreational drug use morph into drug abuse, and when does it develop into drug addiction? Knowing the difference can play a part in getting the right help at the right time and avoiding harmful and possibly fatal effects. Contact Northpoint Recovery at 888.296.8976 to learn more about substance use, how to spot the differences between drug addiction and substance abuse, and how our addiction treatment programs in Idaho can help.

What Is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is when a person routinely uses an intoxicating substance—alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications—to excess for recreational purposes or in a manner different from its intended use. In this case, the term refers only to the activity.

There are many ways in which a person can engage in active alcohol or drug abuse. However, there is a fine distinction between substance abuse and experimentation. Experimentation can refer to mild initial uses of a substance. A teenager who tastes his first beer at a party or takes one puff off a joint is not yet a substance abuser. The difference is in the degree and the establishment of a use pattern.

What Is Substance Addiction?

On the other hand, addiction is an illness that is often—although not always—a byproduct of substance abuse. Addiction has medical connotations, denoting a number of symptoms and a pattern of compulsive, dysfunctional behaviors resulting from an uncontrollable and growing need to use a drug or drink alcohol.

What Are the Symptoms of Addiction?

Substance addiction—properly called substance use disorder (SUD)—is a medically-diagnosable condition with recognizable symptoms:

  • A preoccupation with the next opportunity to use
  • A neglect of essential responsibilities
  • Engaging in dangerous activities
  • Legal problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Continued substance abuse despite negative consequences
  • Tolerance or needing more and more of the substance to achieve the same effect
  • Loss of control
  • An excessive amount of time spent acquiring and using the drug or alcohol
  • Loss of interest in other activities that were formerly pleasurable
  • Multiple successful attempts to cut back or abstain
  • Dependence or an inability to function without the presence of the substance
  • The manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when the substance is unavailable

The withdrawal symptoms associated with addiction are more than mere psychological discomfort. They can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.

What Are the Symptoms of Withdrawal?

Withdrawal is the body’s response to the absence of the accustomed drug or alcohol. These symptoms can vary in severity—from mildly uncomfortable to harshly unpleasant to extremely traumatic, even to the point of being life-threatening—and include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Profuse sweating
  • Accelerated heartbeat and palpitations
  • Muscle pains and cramps
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Weariness
  • Severe drug cravings
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

The severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends upon the individual’s history of substance abuse—length of use, amount of use, frequency of use, and more—and the particular substance.

Can a Person Develop an Addiction Without Ever Being a Substance Abuser?

Absolutely. This happens quite often with certain prescription medications. Typically, a drug with an appreciable potential for addiction will be improperly prescribed. For example, an opioid painkiller might be given for long-term chronic pain when guidelines dictate that prescription opioids should only be given for acute, short-term pain.

Find Help for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Idaho at Northpoint Recovery

If your recreational drug use has worsened into substance abuse or active drug addiction, it is not too late to reverse the process. Contact Northpoint Recovery at 888.296.8976 to learn more.