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Talking to a Doctor About Substance Abuse

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 13, 2021

It can be intimidating to get professional help with drugs or alcohol. Take the first step and consult with your doctor.

When to Discuss Substance Use

If you think you have a problem with addictive substances, bring it up with your doctor. Some signs could be that you:

  • Keep using drugs or alcohol even if doing so causes problems
  • Need to use more and more of them to keep feeling good
  • Are no longer interested in things you used to enjoy
  • Aren’t taking care of yourself or your personal hygiene

Make an appointment for a checkup with your regular doctor. Primary care doctors deal with these issues often.

What to Expect

Your doctor is required to keep anything you tell them private. They aren’t allowed to report you to the police if you’re doing illegal drugs. If you’re a minor and don’t want your parents to find out what you share with your doctor, ask if they will keep it confidential.

They will ask about what substances you are using, how much of them you use, and how often you use them. Your doctor will talk to you about what problems your drug or alcohol use has caused you.

You’ll also talk about any health conditions that could be related to your substance use, like depression or other mental health issues.

Treatment

Your doctor might suggest that you see other doctors that can help, like a psychiatrist or psychologist, who specialize in mental health. They could also refer you to a substance abuse counselor.

There are a few ways to treat addiction and substance abuse:

  • Therapy. Behavioral therapy, or talk therapy, helps you deal with stress without substances. In inpatient therapy, you stay in a hospital or rehab center for days or weeks. During outpatient therapy, you see a doctor for appointments while living at home.
  • Medication. You can take medicines to help you stop using drugs and alcohol. They might ease withdrawal symptoms or cut cravings.
  • Support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are popular programs where people with similar problems meet and share their experiences.

Your doctor will talk to you about what kind of treatment will work best for you, depending on what substances you’re using.

If you’ve injected drugs, you should get tested for HIV and hepatitis.

What to Do if It Doesn’t Go Well

You might be afraid that your doctor will look down on you or lecture you if you’re truthful about your substance use. Don’t let that discourage you from reaching out.

Your doctor should be straightforward when asking questions and accept your answers without judgment. They should listen to you, show empathy, and empower you to make changes.

If you don’t feel your doctor understands your point of view, or that they treated you poorly, there are many more ways to get help.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a free helpline at 800-662-HELP. Call for referrals to treatment facilities, support groups, and other resources. You can also use its website (https://findtreatment.gov) to find counseling and recovery facilities near you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics/FamilyDoctor.org: “Substance Abuse.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Talk with Your Doctor About Drug Misuse.”

Archives of Internal Medicine: “Role of the Primary Care Physician in Problems of Substance Abuse.”

Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “Should You Tell Your Doctor About Your Drug Use?”

TeensHealth/Nemours: “Talking to Your Doctor.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/Center for Substance Abuse Treatment: “A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.”

American Family Physician: “A Primary Care Approach to Substance Misuse.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “National Helpline.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, FindTreatment.gov.

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