Health Library

Substance Use Disorder


A substance use disorder is when a person keeps using a substance despite physical, emotional, or social problems.

Common items that are misused are:


The cause is not known. Things like genetics, the environment, and peer pressure may play a role.

Chemical Release in Brain
Drugs stimulate unnecessary chemical release in the brain. Long-term drug use may change brain function.
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Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:


Problems may be:

  • Poor control of the substance, such as:
    • Taking it in much higher amounts for a longer time
    • Problems trying to cut down or stop using it
    • Spending large amounts of time getting or using it or recovering from using it
    • Craving it
  • Repeated work, school, home, or relationship problems due to substance use
  • Using the substance even though it means risking physical safety or knowing it will make existing physical or mental problems worse
  • Repeated trouble with the law, such as driving while under the influence of a substance or stealing to get the substance


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will also be asked about your history of substance use. An exam will be done.

Blood and urine tests may be done to check for substances.


There is no cure. The goals are to:

  • Help a person stop using the substance
  • Decrease the toxins from the person's body to ease effects and help with withdrawal
  • Prevent the person from using again

It can take a long time to recover. Many people may need to be treated several times. It may include 1 or more of the following:


Medicines may be given to ease withdrawal symptoms and lower the risk of using again.


Therapy can help a person learn about the issues and lifestyle choices that lead to substance use. This can help a person learn coping and problem-solving skills. A person can also learn how to replace substance-using behaviors with healthier choices. A person's family should be involved in treatment to provide support.

Support Groups

There are many organizations and support groups that can help people become substance-free, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous. Members meet often to talk about their misuse problems and their recovery.


To lower the risk of this problem:

  • Learn about the risks from substance use.
  • Do not spend time with people who use.
  • Learn ways to handle peer pressure.
  • Teach children about the dangers of using substances.
  • Seek therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.


Narcotics Anonymous

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Canadian Resources

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Narcotics Anonymous


Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Available at: Accessed September 2, 2020.

Kampman K, Jarvis M. American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) National Practice Guideline for the Use of Medications in the Treatment of Addiction Involving Opioid Use. J Addict Med. 2015 Sep-Oct;9(5):358-367.

Opioid abuse and dependence. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed September 2, 2020.

Treatment approaches for drug addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Available at: Accessed September 2, 2020.