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What is a substance use disorder?

A substance use disorder, sometimes called drug addiction, is a chronic disease. You have a substance use disorder when you keep using drugs or alcohol even after it hurts your health or gets in the way of you staying on top of work, school, or family responsibilities. Substance use disorders are very common. About 7 out of every 100 people in the U.S. have a substance use disorder in a year, and about 16 out of 100 people smoke tobacco.

What substances are most misused?

Lots of substances are addictive and can be misused. Here are some common ones:

  • Alcohol – a very commonly overused legal substance.

  • Cannabis – also known as marijuana, pot, or weed, it’s the most used drug in the U.S. after alcohol and tobacco.

  • Stimulants – this includes drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine (AKA meth).

  • Tobacco — this includes smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and chewable products.

  • Opioids – these are pain killing drugs like heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone, fentanyl, and oxycodone.

What are the signs of a substance use disorder?

There are lots of different signs of a substance use disorder, depending on which drug(s) you’re using, how much, and how often. Some signs of a substance use disorder include:

  • Not being able to cut down or control how much you’re using

  • Having health problems because of drug or alcohol use

  • Having problems with work, school, or home life because of using the drug or alcohol

  • Feeling sick when you’re not using the drug or alcohol

  • Craving the drug or alcohol

These signs can vary depending on what you’re using, how much you’re using, and how often you’re using it.

How do I know if I have a substance use disorder?

A substance use disorder can be diagnosed by a doctor or nurse or a mental health professional (like a social worker or counselor). They’ll ask you questions about what you’re using and how it’s affecting your body and your day-to-day life.

Some Planned Parenthood health centers may be able to help you figure out if you have a substance use disorder.

How is a substance use disorder treated?

There are different ways a substance use disorder can be treated. The kind of treatment you get depends on things like your symptoms, what you use, and your health. It may involve things like:

  • Individual counseling from a mental health or addiction treatment professional

  • Individual or group counseling at a treatment center

  • Medicine (for tobacco, alcohol, or opioids)

  • Residential treatment (where you live at a treatment center for a while)

  • Peer support programs (like 12-step programs)

  • Social support (help with things like housing or jobs)

A nurse, doctor, or counselor can help you figure out the best treatment for you.

Recovering from a substance use disorder can be hard and can take a long time, but treatment works and you can be successful. Using drugs or alcohol over time can cause changes to your body and brain that make it hard to stop on your own. Relapse (using drugs or alcohol again after quitting) is really common. Relapsing doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person, and you can get right back into recovery. Getting help from friends or family and being open and honest with your nurse, doctor, or mental health professional can help you stay on track.

Some substances can cause problems with your health and even kill you if you suddenly stop taking them, like alcohol and benzodiazepines (a drug that helps with anxiety). So if you’re struggling with using drugs or alcohol, talk with a doctor, nurse, or counselor. They can help you stop using drugs in a healthy and safe way.

Some Planned Parenthood health centers may be able to help you figure out if you have a substance use disorder and connect you to somewhere that can help. You can also find local help at SAMHSA.

What do I need to know about substance use disorder during pregnancy?

Dealing with substance use disorder during pregnancy can be really hard, but help is available, and there are things you can do to keep you and your fetus healthy and safe. Stopping some kinds of substance use during pregnancy can actually be harmful (especially opioids), so working with a nurse or doctor is safest.

Being open and honest with your doctor or nurse about any alcohol or drugs you use can feel uncomfortable or even scary, but it will help them give you the best care possible. You deserve to have a doctor or nurse who understands and knows how to treat a substance use disorder during pregnancy in a caring way. You can find treatment and other support in your area at SAMHSA.

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