The terms drug misuse and drug abuse get thrown around a lot and are used almost interchangeably, but is this actually accurate? The bottom line answer is no. Drug misuse and drug abuse each have their own medical definitions, and certain criteria must be satisfied to be classified as abusing drugs versus just misusing them. In this article, we go more in depth on the actual definitions of these terms and what they mean to finally answer the question of what is drug misuse and abuse once and for all.
Defining Drug Misuse
According to the American Public Health Association, misuse is defined as “the use of illegal drugs and the inappropriate use of legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco.” It’s important to note that drug misuse can also apply to situations involving prescription medications and even over-the-counter medications in some cases. Drug misuse really just means you are using the substance in a way other than what was intended.
Consider this example: You are prescribed a prescription painkiller for migraines. When you take the medicine, you notice that you also experience pleasant feelings of calmness and relaxation. So, one day after a fight with your spouse or a difficult day at work, you decide to take one of the pills for this effect, even though you aren’t currently experiencing a migraine. This would be classified as drug misuse. Even though you have a legal prescription and aren’t addicted to the medication, you are still using it in a way other than what the prescription is for.
Another common example is people using ADHD medications like Ritalin to lose weight or increase their focus during late-night study sessions. The important thing to remember here is that while drug misuse can lead to addiction, you don’t have to be addicted to a substance to be misusing it.
Defining Drug Abuse
While the term drug abuse sounds very similar to drug misuse, the technical definition is a little different. The World Health Organization defines drug abuse as the “harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.” It also goes on to note that one of the hallmarks of drug abuse is that it leads to dependence syndrome, which is defined as “a cluster of behavioral, cognitive and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use and that typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance and sometimes a physical withdrawal state.”
You can see from these definitions that there is a sort of progression from drug misuse to drug abuse and then to addiction, with the defining feature of drug abuse being that the drug misuse has gotten to the point that it is causing harm to the person. For example, if you start to misuse the painkillers in the earlier example to the point that you are driving under the influence of drugs or having difficulty safely managing your life or taking care of those around you, it has crossed the line into drug abuse.
Drug abuse is also where addiction starts to take root, as shown in the dependence syndrome above. Once you start abusing drugs on a regular basis, your body gets used to operating with those drugs in your system as its baseline normal mode. You also start to develop a tolerance, which means you will need more and more of the substance to achieve the effects. If you try to stop using the drugs, your body will go through withdrawal, which can have unpleasant physical and mental side effects.
Why It Matters
So, why are we taking the time to make this distinction and why does it matter? Because knowing the difference between drug misuse and drug abuse is key to understanding where you are in your addiction or recognizing a problem in a loved one. It’s normal for people to downplay their substance use issues as “not that big a deal” or “not something that happens all the time.” And this may be true for someone who is misusing instead of abusing drugs. However, this doesn’t mean there still isn’t a problem.
Any time you are taking medications or using a substance in a way other than it is intended to be used, it can have serious effects on your physical, mental and emotional health. Left unchecked, a substance misuse issues can spiral and become an out-of-control addiction that is affecting every area of your life, from your job to your daily activities to your relationships with friends and family. Being able to draw a distinction between substance use, substance misuse and substance abuse is the first step in accurately assessing your issue and figuring out your next steps.
Knowing whether you are misusing or abusing a substance is also key to getting the right help. The truth is that both misusing drugs and abusing drugs is concerning and a sign that there are some things in your life that need to be dealt with, and the sooner in the process you seek help, the better it is for you, your life and those around you.
At FHE Health, our experienced staff can help you understand whether you are misusing drugs, abusing drugs or dealing with a full-blown addiction, and we’re here to help. We know that admitting there’s a problem is difficult, but once you’ve done just that, you can start moving toward a better, healthier and sober lifestyle.
Whether you know you have an addiction or are just starting to wonder if your substance use might be a problem, contact us today to find out more about the programs we offer and what a sober life can look like for you.