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What is a Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorders are often referred to as addictions. Misuse of substances such as drugs and alcohol can cause significant problems or distress. It can also lead to legal problems. A substance use disorder will often interfere with relationships and work responsibilities.

Substances that are frequently misused or used illegally include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription pills, such as pain pills, or anxiety pills
  • Methamphetamine
  • Opioids
  • Cocaine

When a person begins to misuse a substance, such as alcohol, they may not initially be impacted by negative effects. However, over time the harmful consequences of addiction may develop.

When to See a Doctor

If you or a loved one is showing signs of a substance use disorder, then you should consult with a physician as soon as possible.


A substance use disorder can be caused by multiple factors including the following:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental stressors
  • Social pressures
  • Mental health problems

Diagnosis and Tests

A physician or qualified mental health professional will diagnose a substance use disorder. He or she will ask about the frequency of use, and the length of time since the substance was last used.


A person with a substance use disorder will often have times of remission (when it seems to be under control) and relapse (when the addiction begins again). If untreated, it can lead to death.

There are several options for treatment for those with a substance use disorder. What’s best for you depends on your circumstances. You can work with your doctor to decide which solution works best for you.

Your treatment might combine two or more of the following:

  • An addiction treatment program
  • Counseling with an addiction specialist
  • Withdrawal medication
  • Support groups


While there is no one way to prevent a substance use disorder, there are things you can do to prevent substance abuse:

  • Understand how substance abuse develops
  • Avoid temptation and peer pressure
  • Seek help if you are struggling with a mental illness
  • Examine risk factors such as your family history of addiction
  • Focus on life and social goals


Symptoms that may signal addiction are:

  • Strong cravings for the substance, or needing it to get through the day
  • Spending a lot of time and effort thinking about and getting the substance
  • Continuing to use the substance even though it causes negative consequences
  • Tolerance, or a need for increased amounts of the substance
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you cut down, or stop using the substance
  • Inability to fulfill daily duties at work or home because of using the substance
  • Avoiding important activities because of using the substance