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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Alcohol and Drug Problems - Topic Overview

The overuse or abuse of alcohol (alcoholism) or other drugs is called substance abuse. It can cause or worsen many medical problems and can destroy families and lives.

If you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, take a short quiz to evaluate your symptoms:

Assess Your Substance Abuse(What is a PDF document?)

Alcohol abuse causes over 100,000 deaths in the United States and Canada each year. It is the drug most commonly abused by children ages 12 to 17. Alcohol-related car crashes are the leading cause of death in teenagers. People who drink alcohol are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior, have poor grades or job performance, use tobacco products, and experiment with illegal drugs. Alcohol and drug use may be an unconscious attempt at self-treatment for another problem, such as depression.

You have an alcohol problem if your use of alcohol interferes with your health or daily living. You develop alcoholism if you physically or emotionally depend on alcohol to get you through your day.

Long-term heavy drinking damages the liver, nervous system, heart, and brain. It can lead to high blood pressure, stomach problems, medicine interactions, sexual problems, osteoporosis, and cancer. Alcohol abuse can also lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, jail or prison time, and problems at work and home.

Symptoms of an alcohol problem include personality changes, blackouts, drinking more and more for the same "high," and denial of the problem. A person with an alcohol problem may gulp or sneak drinks, drink alone or early in the morning, and suffer from the shakes. He or she may also have family, school, or work problems or get in trouble with the law because of drinking.

The use of alcohol with medicines or illegal drugs may increase the effects of each.

Alcohol abuse patterns vary. Some people drink and may be intoxicated (drunk) every day. Other people drink large amounts of alcohol at specific times, such as on the weekend. It is common for someone with an alcohol or drug problem to call in sick for work on Monday or Friday. He or she may complain of having a virus or the flu. Others may be sober for long periods and then go on a drinking binge that lasts for weeks or months.

Someone with alcohol dependence may suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, such as trembling, delusions, hallucinations, and sweating, if he or she stops drinking suddenly ("cold turkey"). After alcohol dependence develops, it becomes very hard to stop drinking without outside help. Medical detoxification may be needed.

Drug abuse includes the use of illegal drugs—such as marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, or other "street drugs"—and the abuse of legal prescription and nonprescription drugs. Some people use drugs to get a "high" or to relieve stress and emotional problems.

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