The misuse of drugs and alcohol is a prevalent issue in today’s society, especially with the increased mental health challenges Americans have been facing since the beginning of COVID-19. Using substances often carries serious consequences for individuals, families, and communities. The use of drugs and alcohol is often described using various terms, some of the more known or popular being “drug addiction”, “substance use disorder”, “drug misuse”, and “drug abuse.” Each of them represents distinct issues and stages of problematic substance use.

First, it is important to look at the term “drug abuse.” This is a commonly used term by people, although like the term “addict”, it carries with it a heavy stigma. Throughout informed or educated individuals that work in behavioral health, addiction treatment, mental health, as well as others such as advocates, educators, and peers, the terms “drug abuse” and “addict” are never used. Instead, they would use terms like substance use disorder, drug misuse, and identify people struggling with addiction by the first-person language, “person with substance use disorder.” However, for many who may be reading this and are unaware of the stigma associated with that language, “drug abuse” is still commonly used. Due to both old and new terminology being used, many people wonder about drug abuse vs drug addiction. While the hope is that eventually such stigmatized language will be removed from society’s vernacular, it will be used here to help educate people on the differences.

Drug Abuse vs Drug Addiction

woman suffering from addiction - drug abuse vs drug addiction concept

The following will aim to shed some light on the difference between drug abuse and drug addiction, highlighting some of the key characteristics, consequences, and treatment approaches for each.

Drug Abuse:

The term “drug abuse” refers really to the idea of “drug misuse.” It is the habitual and excessive consumption of a substances (or multiple substances), whether those substances be legal or illegal, with a medical prescription or without a medical need, and often in ways that are harmful to someone’s physical, mental, or social well-being. Individuals engaged in drug abuse (or drug misuse) may misuse substances such as alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. Several key characteristics can define drug abuse (or drug misuse):

  • Recreational Use: Individuals who engage in drug abuse typically use substances for recreational purposes, seeking pleasure, relaxation, avoidance, or escape from reality.
  • Control: Those individuals involved in drug abuse may still have some level of control over their substance use. They may be able to choose when and how much to use, although typically this control often diminishes over time.
  • Social Consequences: Drug abuse often leads to social consequences, such as conflicts with family, friends, and loved ones, deteriorating work or academic performance, and legal problems due to drug-related activities.
  • Physical and Mental Health Impact: Continued drug abuse can lead to adverse physical and mental health effects, but these are generally less severe than similar physical and mental health consequences that come from drug addiction.
  • Potential for Recovery: Individuals engaged in drug abuse are more likely to respond positively to interventions and lifestyle changes. They may not be as dug into their drug use than someone in full-blown addiction, so they may not suffer in as much denial about their relationship with drugs and alcohol. Early intervention can help prevent progression to addiction.

Drug Addiction:

Drug addiction, which is a more generally used social term, refers to substance use disorder (SUD.) According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a substance use disorder is “a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drug, alcohol, or medications.” The American Psychiatric Association (APA), defines substance use disorder as “a complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences.” In short, drug addiction is a chronic, progressive condition characterized by the compulsive use of drugs and alcohol despite adverse consequences. Addiction is a complex brain disease that often starts with recreational use of substances, turns into drug abuse or drug misuse, and eventually evolves into a condition where an individual’s brain and behavioral are fundamentally altered. Key characteristics of drug addiction include:

  • Loss of Control: Addiction is marked by the loss of control over drug use. Individuals may want to quit or moderate their drug use but find it extremely difficult or impossible to do so.
  • Compulsive Use: Addiction involves compulsive drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviors, driven by intense cravings and a preoccupation with obtaining and using drug and alcohol.
  • Tolerance and Withdrawal: Individuals suffering from drug addiction over develop a physical and mental dependency on substances of use or may develop a tolerance (requiring more of the substance to achieve the same effect.) These individuals often experience physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop using drugs and alcohol.
  • Negative Consequences: Addiction leads to severe negative consequences, including deteriorating physical and mental health, damaged or broken relationships, academic struggles, loss of employment, legal issues, and financial problems.
  • Biological Changes: The brain undergoes significant changes in individuals suffering from addiction, affecting their decision-making, judgement, and impulse control.

When it comes to drug abuse vs drug addiction, both those suffering from addiction and those suffering from drug abuse (or drug misuse) may require professional help, treatment, and support to move towards recovery. For drug abuse, individuals can often benefit from early intervention, counseling, and positive lifestyle changes. They often may have reached a place where they will need comprehensive treatment to address the underlying causes of their drug misuse.

Individuals suffering from addiction will almost always require more intensive treatment options, including detox, inpatient rehab or residential treatment, or outpatient treatment. Medication may also be prescribed to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Typically for someone suffering from drug addiction, lesser levels of care such as therapy or counseling are insufficient in both time and intensity to help them stop using and overcome the addiction, although these are important resources for ongoing treatment, care, and support post-intensive treatment.

Detox from Drugs and/or Alcohol

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction or co-occurring disorders, please give us a call. Innovo Detox offers the latest in evidence-based medical, psychiatric, and clinical care for those in need of detox and medical stabilization in Pennsylvania and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or a loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a detox, rehab, treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please contact us at (717) 619-3260 or email our team at