Drug Abuse vs. Misuse: What’s the Difference?

Prescription drugs are intended to help us, but can end up hurting us when misused or abused. But what truly is the difference between drug abuse vs. misuse?

When a person misuses or abuses a prescription drug, there is no medical oversight of the risks. For example: a person who misuses or abuses opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin can die from respiratory failure. Prescription sedatives like benzodiazepines such as Xanax can cause withdrawal seizures. Prescription stimulants such as medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can lead to dangerous increases in blood pressure. The risks from these drugs are worse when they are combined with other drugs or alcohol.

Additionally, when a person misuses a prescription drug, even on a single occasion, that individual might enjoy the experience so much that they begin to seek out the drug more often. Thus, drug abuse and drug dependence are serious risks of misusing prescription drugs.

What is Drug Misuse?

To misuse a drug is to use a drug for purposes it is not intended for. Using Vicodin for a headache, Xanax for nausea, or any other example of people believing a drug can make them ‘feel better.’ Misuse involves not following medical instructions, but the person may not necessarily be looking to ‘get high’ from their use. For example, if a person isn’t able to fall asleep after taking a single sleeping pill, he or she may take another pill an hour later, thinking, “That will do the job.”

Though many drugs claim to cover a wide variety of symptoms, there is no panacea out there that can cure everything. It’s important to note that all drugs can produce adverse events (side effects), but the risks associated with prescription drugs are managed by a health care professional. Thus, the benefits outweigh the risks when the drug is taken as directed.

“Signs of Drug Misuse”

  • Taking a dose at the wrong time
  • Forgetting to take a dose
  • Stopping a medication too soon
  • Accepting prescription medication from a friend
  • Taking drugs for reasons other than what they were prescribed for

What is Drug Abuse?

People who abuse drugs typically do not have a prescription for what they are taking. Not only do they use it in a way other than it is prescribed, but they also use it to experience the feelings associated with the drug. Euphoria, relaxation, the general feeling of ‘getting high’ is always associated with drug abuse. The abuse of drugs in the opiate and benzodiazepine families frequently leads to unavoidable side effects, including dependency and addiction. For example, someone taking Vicodin frequently with no prescription, no symptoms and believing they ‘need’ it in order to feel better is an example of drug abuse.

“Signs of Drug Abuse”

  • Using a drug to ‘get high’
  • Using without a prescription
  • Exceeding a recommended dose
  • Chronic or repeated abuse
  • Developed tolerance

The Risks of Substance Abuse and Misuse

Misusing and abusing substances presents a wide range of risks that can have negative consequences across multiple facets of life. Whether it’s prescription medications, illegal drugs, psychoactive substances, or even alcohol, each carry significant effects that may impact mental and physical health, relationships, professional life, and more. Acknowledging these risks can provide valuable education and motivate individuals to practice caution when using substances. Let’s take a look at some of these risks.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

When individuals engage in regular substance misuse, it is very likely that they may develop a substance use disorder (SUD). SUD is a mental disorder affecting an individual’s brain and behavior. Progression of this disorder leads to the inability to control the use of substances including illicit drugs, medications, and alcohol. Drug addiction is the most severe form of SUD, having long lasting and harmful consequences across all aspects of life.

Physical and Psychological Dependence

At first, substance use may be a recreational or social activity, medical necessity, a coping mechanism, or simply a way to pass the time. Once a pattern develops, individuals may quickly feel the need to use substances more frequently and in larger amounts to receive the desired effect. This need for substances can manifest mentally and physically, indicating that a drug dependence has formed.

  • Physical Dependence: Physical dependence is when the body requires a specific substance in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms. If an individual goes for an extended period without the substance, they may experience physical withdrawal symptoms varying on the type of substances.
  • Psychological Dependence: Psychological dependence is a term used to describe the mental and emotional processes associated with a substance use disorder. Without the desired substance, individuals may experience intense cravings, mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety, restlessness, sleep issues, changes in appetite, and obsessing over accessing more substances.

Mental Health Connection

The connection between substance use and mental health is extremely important to understand. Oftentimes, addiction is a symptom of underlying mental health issues. Individuals may suffer from depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder and turn to substances for relief. Before long, a substance dependence is formed. While drugs may provide momentary relief, the long-term effects of drug abuse can worsen mental health symptoms. In addition, the reverse is also true. Becoming addicted to drugs can increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder. If you’re struggling with addiction and mental health, reaching out to a mental health professional can be the first step toward healing.

Using Illegal Drugs

In recent years, the landscape of illegal drug use has changed drastically. Namely, the prevalence of fentanyl in the drug trade has exponentially raised the number of drug-related overdoses. Unfortunately, fentanyl can be found in most drugs sold on the street including counterfeit prescription narcotics, cocaine, MDMA, marijuana, the list goes on. Individuals seeking street drugs may be completely unaware they are consuming fentanyl and place themselves in danger. While legislation surrounding illegal drugs has reduced the severity of consequences associated with drug-related infractions. The legal ramifications of illegal substance use are still prevalent.

The Difference Between Drug Abuse and Misuse

According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the key difference between drug abuse and drug misuse is the individual’s intentions when taking the drug. FDA stresses that both misuse and abuse of prescription drugs can be harmful and even life threatening to the individual. This is because taking a drug other than the way it is prescribed can lead to dangerous outcomes that the person may not anticipate.

Especially when revolving around prescription drugs, these terms are often used interchangeably and mislead people who have a potential for addictive behavior. It is important not only to recognize the difference, but to also be aware of the consequences of each. Though many people may chop up the difference to be semantics — that using any prescription drug outside of its intended use and dose should be prohibited — there is indeed a difference…and a significant one at that.

Seek Support for Substance Use Issues

When substance use becomes a problem, reaching out for help can seem like a daunting task. Not only does the idea of addiction treatment seem difficult, attempting to live a life free from drugs and alcohol might seem impossible. Recovery isn’t easy, however, it is possible. At New Life House, we specialize in helping young men and their families overcome addiction and mental health issues. Our recovery model places a strong emphasis on family and community involvement, providing unique services that contribute to a higher success rate of young men achieving long-term sobriety. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us to learn more about our sober living in Los Angeles.

Last Updated on March 1, 2024


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