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Substance Use Disorders


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Full review/revision Mar 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
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What are substance use disorders?

A substance use disorder is when you keep using a substance even though using it causes you problems at home or at work.

  • People with a substance use disorder aren't able to control their use of the substance

  • A substance use disorder can happen with legal or illegal substances

  • There's no specific personality type that's more likely to get a substance use disorder

  • Using a substance doesn’t always mean you have a substance use disorder

  • Doctors treat these disorders with counseling and sometimes medicine

What's drug addiction?

Drug addiction, drug abuse, and similar terms have become very judgmental. The terms also aren't very specific. That's why doctors prefer the term "substance use disorder" for when people can't stop using substances that harm them.

What causes a substance use disorder?

Not everyone who uses a substance has a substance use disorder. Although almost anyone can develop a substance use disorder, your risk is greater if:

Your risk also is increased if you take prescription opioid painkillers for a painful injury or chronic pain. Opioids, though a legitimate way to control pain, are highly addictive.

What are the symptoms of a substance use disorder?

With a substance use disorder, you may:

  • Not be able to control use of the substance: You take it even when you know it's bad for you

  • Have tolerance to the substance: You need to use more and more of it to get the same effect

  • Experience withdrawal: You get unpleasant symptoms when you stop using the substance

How can doctors tell if someone has a substance use disorder?

Sometimes people tell their doctor they're having a problem. Or doctors may suspect you have a substance use disorder if you:

  • Spend a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of the substance

  • Want to stop using the substance but can't

  • Have a strong craving to use the substance

  • Can't meet your responsibilities at work, school, or home because of the substance

  • Use the substance in dangerous situations, such as when driving

  • Give up social or work activities because of the substance

Tolerance and withdrawal also are signs of substance use disorder, unless they develop while you're using the substance legitimately. For example, you may have opioid withdrawal after taking opioids for less than a week, which may be necessary for certain painful injuries, such as severe burns.

Although urine and blood drug tests can tell if you have drugs in your system, they can't tell if you have a substance use disorder.

How do doctors treat substance use disorders?

Where can I get more information about substance use disorders?

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