What Are Drugs?
Drugs are substances that alter the physical and/or cognitive workings of the human body. (1) There are several types of drugs:
- Prescription drugs: Medications prescribed by a physician and distributed to the patient by a pharmacy or other approved medication source
- Over-the-counter medicines: Medications sold in brick-and-mortar retail stores and online without prescriptions or physician oversight
- Alcohol: Intoxicating beverages—think liquor, beer, and wine—that are legal for adults aged 21 and over and widely available
- Tobacco: A nicotine-rich plant that people typically smoke or chew
- Illegal drugs: This is a broad category covering all drugs that people produce, distribute, and consume outside of the law. Examples include cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine
All types of drugs have the potential for abuse. Even prescriptions that are initially taken at the advice of a physician can become problematic if the patient begins to take the medication other than according to the doctor's prescription. (2)
Substance use disorder (SUD) is a mental health condition that causes distress and impairs daily function. Treatment options depend on the type of drug and the existence of co-occurring mental health disorders and other illnesses or injuries. (3) Get clarity on your substance abuse with our substance abuse assessment.
Different Types of Drug Categories
Most drugs fall into one of five categories. (4)
Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs
Explore Your Options Today
- Stimulants: Drugs that speed up the body’s internal processes, producing feelings of euphoria or a “high” that can easily lead to abuse
- Cannabinoids: Drugs, like marijuana, that include cannabinol and other active cannabis compounds
- Central Nervous System Depressants (CSND): Nervous system depressants used to combat anxiety and promote sleep
- Opioids: Substances that relieve pain and can cause feelings of euphoria that require increasingly bigger doses to maintain
- Hallucinogens: Drugs that significantly distort someone’s idea of reality as well as their perception of their internalized thoughts and feelings
Alcohol is an intoxicant created by fermenting a strategic combination of yeast, starch, and sugar. (5) Consumable alcohol comes in many forms, including wine, liquor, and beer. Approximately 85.6% of Americans aged 18 or older say they’ve drunk alcohol at least once, while just under 55% say they’ve consumed alcohol in the past month. (6)
Social drinking, when someone drinks alcohol in the company of others, is a socially acceptable practice. But when drinking becomes compulsive, there could be a larger issue at hand. As of 2019, nearly 15 million people in the United States aged 12 and older had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD). An individual’s inability to control their alcohol intake characterizes this disorder, and the consequences of that uncontrolled drinking can result in everything from social isolation to long-term health consequences. (7)
Alcohol is both highly addictive and readily available—two reasons why AUD is the most common substance use disorder in the United States. (8) Thankfully, professional help is available courtesy of treatment options such as: (9)
- Talk therapy
- Prescribed medications
- Outpatient or residential rehab
- Inpatient rehab
Many people navigating AUD use a combination of the above treatment options, often combining those approaches with telehealth sessions, support groups, and ongoing therapy.
Marijuana is made from the dried flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant. (10) People can smoke, vape, or infuse it into edibles like baked goods and gummies. The active compound in marijuana, called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is also an ingredient in topical products, resins, and oils.
For decades, the United States classified marijuana as an illegal drug. But over the last decade, many states have passed legislation legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, adult use, or both.
Approximately 10% of people who try marijuana will eventually become addicted. (11) Long-term use is associated with:
- Declining brain health, especially among individuals who start using marijuana at a young age
- Mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and psychosis
- Impaired reaction time and coordination
- Fetal complications, such as fetal growth restrictions and poor cognitive development, when someone uses during pregnancy
- Difficulty performing common daily tasks, including interacting in social situations and keeping up at work or school
Treatment for marijuana addiction and/or abuse may include cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription medications to tackle withdrawal symptoms, and support for underlying mental health conditions. (12)
Cocaine is a powerful stimulant derived from the coca leaves. Historically, people in South America chewed these leaves to get the same effect modern-day Americans seek from legal stimulants like tea or coffee. Today, cocaine is a highly processed drug that comes in one of two forms: (13)
- A powdered hydrochloride salt that individuals who use inject or snort
- A rock-like compound, commonly known as crack, that is heated and then smoked
Cocaine is highly addictive and dangerous, not only due to the drug’s innate chemical makeup but also because dealers often cut cocaine with risky and/or inedible substances like talcum powder, flour, or amphetamine. These dilution agents help stretch product to increase sales and can also make the cocaine sold even more irresistible.
One of the reasons cocaine has been in circulation for so long is that its short-term effects can seem quite appealing. Individuals who use cocaine report feeling increased energy, greater mental alertness, and decreased appetite. (14) But cocaine also increases heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, a combination that can lead to serious health problems ranging from insomnia and irritability to respiratory arrest.
Oxycodone is prescription opioid medication approved for treatment of acute and chronic pain. (15) It works by dampening or even blocking pain signals from reaching the brain. Oxycodone may be combined with other pain-relief medications and anti-inflammatories and is commonly dispensed under the brand names Percocet, Oxycet, and Percodan.
Used as prescribed, oxycodone can be helpful for people struggling with severe pain due when other, less intense medications and therapeutic options have failed. Issues arise when as-prescribed usage morphs into misuse and abuse. Studies show opioid use disorder (OUD) has hit epidemic levels, affecting more than 3 million people in the United States alone. (16)
Symptoms of OUD include: (17)
- Taking increasingly large amounts of opioids
- Unsuccessful attempts to cut down on opioid use
- Strong desire to use opioids that interferes with ability to invest time in other, non drug-related activities
- Using opioids even when the individual is at physical risk
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when opioid intake is reduced
Treatment for opioid abuse can be particularly tricky as some people want to stop using Oxycodone but still need to address the source of their underlying pain. Support options may include finding pain management alternatives as well as supervised detox, medication-assisted treatment, and nonpharmacological therapies like counseling and formal support groups.
Adderall is the brand name for a synthetic stimulant that treats the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (18) It works by boosting naturally existing levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Those changes in brain chemistry can help people with ADHD feel more focused, increasing mental alertness and reducing impulsivity.
But when people without ADHD use Adderall, the drug can deliver a burst of “feel-good energy.” It can also cause problematic side effects, such as: (19)
- Decreased appetite and associated weight loss
- Digestive issues
- Increased heart rate
- Mood swings
- Suicidal ideation
- Risk of heart attack or stroke
A 2018 study showed that approximately 5 million people aged 12 and over had misused stimulants, including Adderall, at some time during the previous year. (20)