What is the Difference Between Substance Misuse and Abuse?

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The use of any substance – alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc. – is inherently dangerous. These drugs always carry the risk of addiction, dependency, or substance use disorder. That said, many people drink alcohol or experiment with marijuana products on occasion but appear to have control over their consumption. They can self-regulate their intake, stop before consuming too much, and not use it for days, weeks, or months. Certain people, however, will begin using a substance and then find it extremely difficult to quit it over time. From substance misuse, they get to substance abuse, which immediately leads to full-blown substance addiction.

What is Substance Misuse?

The ‘substance misuse’ term applies to any use of a drug that falls outside its intended purpose. Again, this can be relatively innocuous and have little to do with addiction, but there are times when substance abuse and misuse overlap (such as with people who huff paint or other such substances). Prescription drug misuse, in particular, is surprisingly common and could mean: 

  • Failing to take a dose or taking a dose of prescription medication at the incorrect time
  • Doubling up on medication – such as taking more sleeping pills – or discontinuing a prescription drug plan early (commonly happening with antibiotics)
  • Requesting or stealing prescription drugs from someone
  • Using drugs for purposes for which they were not prescribed, including using prescription pain medication for minor ailments, such as headaches

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse occurs when drugs, such as illicit drugs, alcohol, or psychoactive stuff, are used to get high or impose self-harm. It is also referred to as substance use disorder (SUD) because substance users have significantly changed thinking, behavior, and bodily functions.

One of the characteristics of drug abuse is that it leads to dependence syndrome, which involves:

  • a set of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological aspects that appear after repeated substance use and that usually include a powerful desire to take the drug
  • difficulties in controlling its use
  • persisting in its use despite obvious harmful results
  • substance use has a higher priority than other activities and obligations
  • increased tolerance to the substance
  • physical withdrawal state

As mentioned above, drug abuse is also where addiction begins to take root. When you start abusing drugs regularly, your body becomes accustomed to operating with those substances in your system as the normal default mode. You also begin to cultivate tolerance, which means you will require more and more of the drug to achieve the desired effects. Then, when you try to stop using them, your body goes through withdrawal, which can have unpleasant physical and mental side impacts. 

Some signs of substance abuse include:

  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Appetite changes
  • Behavioral changes
  • Poor hygiene
  • Unexplainable weight loss or gain
  • Hyperactivity or lethargy
  • Tremors
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Excessive sweating
  • Stealing
  • Losing a job

Depending on the drug, a person abusing substances may only exhibit some of these symptoms. However, substance abuse, in any form and way, harms a person’s life tremendously.

Substance Misuse vs. Abuse – Why the Difference Matters

So, why are we bothering to make this distinction, and why is it important? Because understanding the difference between substance misuse versus abuse is critical to understanding where you are in your addiction, or identifying an issue with a loved one. It is common for people to dismiss their substance abuse problems as ‘not a big issue’ or ‘not something that occurs all the time.’ This may be true for someone who misuses rather than abuses drugs; however, this does not mean there isn’t an issue. 

When you take pills or use a substance in a way that’s not intended for use, it can have severe consequences for your physical, mental, and emotional health. If left unchecked, a substance abuse issue can escalate into an out-of-control addiction that affects every aspect of your life, from your job to your daily activities to your relationships with family and friends. The ability to distinguish between substance misuse and substance abuse is the first step in accurately analyzing your problem and figuring out your next steps. 

When Does Use Become Abuse?

Many professionals believe the line between substance use and abuse becomes blurred when chronic use hinders specific aspects of life. For example, if a person’s regular use results in one of the following, they may have a substance abuse problem:

  • Health complications as a consequence of substance abuse
  • Inability to perform daily responsibilities
  • Physical dependence
  • Withdrawal symptoms if usage stops
  • Cravings for the substance

Get Help at DreamLife

Being aware of whether you are abusing or misusing a substance is essential in receiving the appropriate treatment. The truth is that both misusing and abusing drugs is concerning and a sign that you need to handle some issues in your life – and the sooner you seek help, the better for you, your life, and those around you. 
Our experienced staff at DreamLife can help you understand whether you are misusing a substance, abusing it, or dealing with a full-blown addiction, and we are here to help you. Contact us today to learn more about substance abuse treatment programs we offer and what a sober life can look like for you, whether you know you have an addiction or are just beginning to wonder if your substance use is a problem.