Top of the pageCheck Your Symptoms
The overuse or abuse of alcohol (alcoholism) or other drugs is called substance abuse. It can cause or worsen many medical problems and can destroy families and lives.
If you think you may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, take a short quiz to evaluate your symptoms:
Alcohol abuse causes over 100,000 deaths in the United States and Canada each year. It is the drug most commonly abused by children ages 12 to 17. Alcohol-related car crashes are the leading cause of death in teenagers. People who drink alcohol are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior, have poor grades or job performance, use tobacco products, and experiment with illegal drugs. Alcohol and drug use may be an unconscious attempt at self-treatment for another problem, such as depression.
You have an alcohol problem if your use of alcohol interferes with your health or daily living. You develop alcoholism if you physically or emotionally depend on alcohol to get you through your day.
Long-term heavy drinking damages the liver, nervous system, heart, and brain. It can lead to high blood pressure, stomach problems, medicine interactions, sexual problems, osteoporosis, and cancer. Alcohol abuse can also lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, jail or prison time, and problems at work and home.
Symptoms of an alcohol problem include personality changes, blackouts, drinking more and more for the same "high," and denial of the problem. A person with an alcohol problem may gulp or sneak drinks, drink alone or early in the morning, and suffer from the shakes. He or she may also have family, school, or work problems or get in trouble with the law because of drinking.
The use of alcohol with medicines or illegal drugs may increase the effects of each.
Alcohol abuse patterns vary. Some people drink and may be intoxicated (drunk) every day. Other people drink large amounts of alcohol at specific times, such as on the weekend. It is common for someone with an alcohol or drug problem to call in sick for work on Monday or Friday. He or she may complain of having a virus or the flu. Others may be sober for long periods and then go on a drinking binge that lasts for weeks or months.
Someone with alcohol dependence may suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, such as trembling, delusions, hallucinations, and sweating, if he or she stops drinking suddenly ("cold turkey"). After alcohol dependence develops, it becomes very hard to stop drinking without outside help. Medical detoxification may be needed.
Drug abuse includes the use of illegal drugs—such as marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, or other "street drugs"—and the abuse of legal prescription and nonprescription drugs. Some people use drugs to get a "high" or to relieve stress and emotional problems.
Drugs like ecstasy (MDMA), ketamine, GHB, Rohypnol, and LSD, which are known as "club drugs," may be found at all-night dances, raves, trances, or clubs. The use of club drugs accounts for increasing numbers of drug overdoses and emergency room visits. Inhalants like nitrous oxide may also be used at these clubs. Drugs come in different forms and can be used in different ways. They can be smoked, snorted, inhaled, taken as pills, put in liquids or food, put in the rectum or the vagina, or injected with a needle. Teens and young adults may be at risk for becoming victims of sexual assault or violent behavior in situations where these drugs are used.
Some nonprescription medicines, such as cold medicines that have dextromethorphan as an ingredient, are being abused by teens and young adults as a way to get a "high." Glue, shoe polish, cleaning fluids, and aerosols, are common household products with ingredients that can also be used to get a "high."
In the United States and Canada, approximately 40% of adults will use an illegal drug at some time during their lives. This does not include the use of alcohol or prescription medicines. Many people abuse more than one illegal substance at a time.
Drug dependence or addiction occurs when you develop a physical or emotional "need" for a drug. You are unable to control your use of a drug despite the negative impact it has on your life. You may not be aware that you have become dependent on a drug until you try to stop taking it. Drug withdrawal can cause uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms. The usual treatment is to gradually reduce the dose of the drug until you can completely stop using it.
Some groups of people are more likely than others to have problems related to alcohol or drug abuse. These groups include:
Alcohol is part of many people's lives and may have a place in cultural and family traditions. It can sometimes be hard to know when you begin to drink too much.
There is a strong connection between the use of drugs and alcohol and high-risk sexual behaviors. This increases a person's chance of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), hepatitis B, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
If you think you might have a drinking or drug problem, take a short quiz to evaluate your symptoms:
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
The use of alcohol and drugs can affect your behavior. Here are some questions to think about:
The risk of a suicide attempt is highest if:
Being dependent on alcohol or drugs means that you have a physical or emotional dependence on the substance. When you are dependent on a substance:
If you are with a person who is drunk or high, it's a good idea to seek medical help right away if:
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
Severe withdrawal symptoms may include:
Mild withdrawal symptoms may include:
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
If you are concerned about your own or another person's alcohol or drug use, learn what steps to take to help yourself or someone else.
Call your doctor to evaluate your symptoms if your alcohol or drug problem becomes more frequent or severe.
Some alcohol and drug abuse problems can be prevented.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Other Works Consulted
- Ewing JA (1984). Detecting alcoholism: The CAGE questionnaire. JAMA, 252: 1905-1907.
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as ofJuly 22, 2014
Current as of: July 22, 2014
To learn more, visit Healthwise.org
© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.