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What’s the Difference between Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse?

What’s the Difference between Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse?

“Even for the normal person, drugs change the brain just like they change the brain of the addict…But eventually, the inhibitory neurotransmitters of the normal person’s brain put on the brakes…and the persons stop drinking or drugging. Those brakes don’t work in the addict’s brain. They were made defective or they’ve burned out…” ~Dr. Akikur Mohammad, M.D., The Anatomy of Addiction Most people who drink or experiment with recreational drug use will never develop a problem or become addicted. But when does this recreational drug “use” morph into drug “abuse”, and when does it further develop into drug “addiction”—is there an empirical standard? As it turns out… YES. Both “substance abuse” and “drug addiction” can be clearly defined. Knowing the difference can mean the margin between getting the right help at the right time and waiting until the disease progresses to its inevitably fatal conclusion.

What Is a Good Explanation of the Meaning of the Term “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 that is different from its intended use. In this case, the term refers only to the activity. prescription medications

What Are Some Examples of Substance Abuse?

There are many ways in which a person can engage in active alcohol or drug abuse. For example:

  • Habitual heavy alcohol assumption or “binge-drinking”
  • Regular marijuana use
  • Purposefully taking more of medication than is prescribed
  • Crushing pain pills so they can be snorted  for greater effect

There is a fine distinction 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 who takes one puff off of a joint is not yet a substance abuser. The difference is in the degree and in the establishment of a pattern of use. Habitual heavy alcohol assumption

What Is a Good Explanation of the Meaning of the Term “Drug Addiction”?

Addiction, on the other hand, is an illness that is often – although not always –a byproduct of that 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 the drug/drink alcohol.

 What Are Some of the Recognized and Accepted Symptoms of Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction – properly called “substance abuse disorder” – is a medically-diagnosable condition with recognizable symptoms.

  • A preoccupation with the next opportunity to use/drink
  • A neglect of important responsibilities – work, school, or family obligations
  • Engaging in dangerous activities – driving while impaired, sexual irresponsibility, physical altercations, etc.
  • Legal problems – DUIs, fines, jail time
  • Relationship issues – arguments, divorce, breakups, spousal or child abuse
  • Continued substance abuse despite negative consequences
  • Tolerance –needing more and more of the substance in order to achieve the same effect
  • Loss of control– consuming more of the substance than intended, or with greater frequency
  • 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—an inability to function or even “feel normal” without the presence of the substance
  • The manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when the substance  is unavailable


What Are Some of the Symptoms of Alcohol or Drug 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.

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

The severity of the withdrawal symptoms depend upon the individual’s personal history of substance abuse – length of use, amount of use, frequency of use, etc. –and the particular substance. For example, a person experiencing withdrawal from marijuana may feel irritable, anxious, and shaky for a few days, while a person who developed an addiction to heroin will need months of methadone maintenance therapy. The abrupt cessation of chronic benzodiazepine or alcohol abuse can actually be hazardous, sometimes resulting in delirium tremens or fatal grand mal seizures, and for that reason, medical supervision is always recommended. alcohol_withdrawal

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

Absolutely. This happens quite often with certain prescription medications. Typically, a medication with an appreciable potential for addiction will be improperly prescribed – an opioid painkiller might be given for long-term chronic pain, for instance, when in reality, guidelines dictate that prescription opioids should only be given for acute, short-term pain. All drugs that carry a potential for diversion affect a person’s brain in a similar fashion, by disrupting its reward pathways. The use of the substance triggers an over-production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. This flood of dopamine “trains” the person that the activity—the use of the drug—is a desirable activity that should be repeated. Over time, the brain stops producing dopamine naturally, and will only do so when the substance is used. This is the dependence that leads to withdrawal. The symptoms occur because, without the drug, the person is incapable of feeling “good” or “normal”. The person is compelled by these feelings to do something… anything… to get the drug again. This can be the result of purposeful substance abuse, but it can also happen with certain medications, even if they are taken exactly as prescribed. Those same biochemical changes occur simply because of the way that a person’s brain reacts to the long-term use of the mediation. In other words, the person can become just as dependent, and then addicted, to their medication as someone who reached this point because of chronic substance abuse. There is no blame because the powerful and cunning disease of drug addiction is in control. If your recreational drug use has worsened into substance abuse or active drug addiction, or if your use of prescription medication has become problematic, it is not too late to reverse the process. There IS help and hope available. The professionals at Northpoint Recovery—Idaho’s premier residential drug and alcohol rehab facility—can help you restore manageability to your life. By combining evidence-based treatment protocols with alternative holistic wellness therapies, Northpoint Recovery assists you in regaining the balance that drug addiction took away.