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    Substance Abuse

    A quick guide to understanding some of the most common conditions

    Understanding Substance Abuse

    When someone uses illegal drugs or misuses prescription drugs, alcohol or other legal substances, it’s known as substance abuse. People abuse substances in order to experience a desired feeling or intoxication. Abused substances can also temporarily mask unpleasant feelings, like anxiety or depression. The effect, however, can also negatively impact judgment, perceptions or physical responses. For example, a person may become dizzy, experience shakiness, blurred vision or slurred speech.

    The more a person abuses a substance, the greater the chance they will build up a tolerance to it. That means they must use larger and larger amounts of the substance to produce the same effect. On the other hand, if a person decides to quit taking a substance they have habitually used, problems can occur too, including withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can be mild, such as experiencing worry to much more severe, like having hallucinations.

    According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2017, more than 20 million people (over age 12) required treatment for substance abuse. However, only 4 million people received it. Left untreated, substance abuse can lead to coma or death. However, with the right treatment and support people with substance abuse can quit, improve their unhealthy behavior and go on to have a better quality of life.


    Types of Substance Abuse

    There are many different types of substance abuse, and substance abuse affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Here are some of the most common substances that are abused in the U.S.:

    1. Alcohol
    2. Inhalants
    3. Prescription Opioids
    4. Over-the-Counter Medications
    5. Street Drugs (Heroin, Cocaine, Methamphetamines, Marijuana, etc.)
    6. Steroids
    7. Tobacco


    Substance Abuse Symptoms

    To help a doctor properly diagnose you, or if you are concerned about a family member or friend, take note of symptoms as well as when they are occurring. If you notice any of the problems listed here and they are not going away—or are becoming worse—make an appointment to see a mental health specialist or medical professional as soon as possible:

    Signals of substance abuse include:

    • Aggressiveness
    • Blackouts
    • Bloodshot eyes
    • Eating more or less than normal
    • Forgetfulness
    • Frequent hangovers
    • Giving up sports or activities
    • Grades in school getting worse
    • Lack of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
    • Lying, especially about amount or frequency of substance use
    • Mood swings
    • More and more problems at work
    • Needing more of a substance in order to feel the effects
    • Spending more time alone than you used to
    • Tiredness
    • Selfishness
    • Sleeping at odd hours
    • Using substances alone or hiding them

    Signs in the Physical Environment

    If you have concerns that a friend or family member has a substance abuse issue, these are some signs that may indicate there is a problem:

    • Disappearing money or valuables
    • Finding paraphernalia such as baggies, small boxes, pipes and rolling paper
    • Using room deodorizers or incense to mask smoke or other odors


    Substance Abuse Treatment

    People who abuse substances can’t simply stop using them for a few days, then be cured. Most require long-term or repeated care to quit and rebuild their lives. Treatment usually involves a combination of therapies and support, such as psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and programs that offer occupational support, as well as prescription medications.

    If a person has a severe issue, or is dealing with other medical problems at the same time, inpatient or residential treatment that offers round-the-clock care is often recommended.

    Prescription Medications

    Medical providers and mental health professionals can prescribe medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms during detoxification, which is the process of ridding the body of the toxic substance. Detoxification, however, is just the first step a person with a substance abuse issue needs to take and does not solve the problem on its own.

    Medications may also be prescribed to help reset and re-establish a patient’s normal brain functions as well as decrease cravings. Often people who have a substance abuse problem abuse more than one type of substance. When this happens, they need treatment for all the different types of substances they use and it can take time to find the right combination of medications in the right doses.


    How DNA Testing Can Help People with Substance Abuse

    Not everyone reacts to medications in the same way, and finding a safe and effective medication to treat substance abuse may take some trial and error. In fact, up to half of all patients do not respond as desired (and some even experience adverse reactions) to the first psychiatric medication they are prescribed. This is due in part to their individual genetic makeup (their DNA).

    In recent years, however, scientists have identified innovative ways to use genetic testing to help personalize treatment in order to better meet the needs of individual patients—and help get them medications that are more likely to be well tolerated and effective. This science is now available to health care professionals to help them treat patients who have substance abuse issues.

    The information revealed by a patient’s DNA can also help a doctor better understand if a patient might experience negative side effects or adverse drug reactions, and avoid those options.

    This remarkable science is already helping people suffering from substance abuse issues, helping them gain peace of mind and better control of the lives, and be more informed than ever before.



    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2017 NSDU Annual National Report, Publish Date: September 14, 2018, https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report



    With good information, you can better understand how these conditions may affect you, your loved one or your patient. The better informed you are, the better you can advocate. Learn more by clicking the topics below: