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Drug Abuse and Dependence - Overview

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This topic is about drug abuse and dependence in adults. For information about drug abuse in teens or children, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

What are drug abuse and dependence?

Drug abuse is using drugs in a way that harms you or that leads you to harm others. You can abuse illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or over-the-counter drugs.

When you abuse drugs, you are not always able to meet work, home, or school duties. You may be late to work. You may use drugs in dangerous situations, such as when driving or operating machines. Or drugs may cause problems in your relationships.

Drug abuse can lead to drug dependence, where you are addicted to a drug. The drug controls your life. Any of the following can happen:

  • You take more of the drug over longer periods of time and need more of the drug to feel "high."
  • You try to quit using the drug, but you are not able to.
  • You continue to use the drug even though it harms your relationships and causes you to develop physical problems.
  • If you stop using the drug, you feel sick. This is known as withdrawal.

Drug dependence is a disease. It's not a weakness or a lack of willpower. It's your choice to begin using a drug. But as you use it more, your brain begins to change. This change can lead to a craving to use the drug, and this can influence how you act.

Which drugs might be a problem?

Drugs that are abused include:

What are the signs of drug abuse and dependence?

Behaviors that may be signs of a drug problem include:

  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits, less attention to dressing and grooming, or less interest in sex.
  • Up-and-down moods, a mood or attitude that is getting worse, or not caring about the future.
  • Sneaky behavior, lying, or stealing.
  • Poor family relationships, or relationships that are getting worse.
  • New problems at work or school, or problems with the law.

Having these signs doesn't always mean a person is using drugs. The behavior could be because of work or school stress, or it could be a sign of depression or another medical problem. But behavior changes like these are common in people who abuse drugs.

Physical signs of drug abuse and dependence include:

  • Red eyes, a sore throat, a dry cough, and feeling tired.
  • Needle marks on the arm or other area of the body.
  • Small, "pinpoint" pupils in the eyes.
  • Losing weight without trying to, or not feeling like eating.
  • Changes in sleep behavior, such as not sleeping as well.
  • Seeing things that don't exist (hallucinations).
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