What’s the Difference Between Substance Abuse and Addiction?

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Addiction and substance abuse are often used interchangeably, but in reality, they mean two different things. It’s understandable why the lines are blurred. As family members and friends, it can be difficult to determine when a loved one has crossed the line from abuse to addiction.

Let’s talk more about what substance abuse and addiction mean, the differences between them and the signs to look for.

Substance Abuse vs Addiction

Put simply, drug abuse refers to the habitual use of drugs or alcohol. Addiction is the condition of being addicted. Both can have equally devastating consequences, which is why treatment is available for abuse and addiction. That said, substance abuse can be easier to treat than a full-blown addiction.

Below are the differences between drug abuse and addiction.

Abuse Can Appear Casual – Addiction Usually Does Not 

In the case of substance abuse, the drug or alcohol use can appear casual. A man in his 20s who goes out drinking with friends on the weekends might be abusing alcohol, but that doesn’t mean he’s addicted to it. On the other hand, addiction is usually less casual. Addicts continue to use drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences.

Addiction Has Withdrawal Symptoms

Another big difference between drug abuse and addiction is the withdrawal symptoms. With addiction, withdrawal symptoms are almost always present. However, withdrawal is not necessarily tied to drug and alcohol use on its own.

Addiction is a Disease

Addiction is considered a mental disorder or disease. It is the diagnosis given when a person cannot stop using drugs, even when negative consequences follow. Addiction causes permanent changes in the brain and requires a lifetime of recovery. Substance abuse isn’t technically a disease or a diagnosis, though it’s considered a precursor to addiction. Also, the changes it causes in the brain are short-term.

How to Tell the Difference

If a person continues to abuse drugs and alcohol, they are at a high risk for addiction. Not only is addiction a concern, but also so are other negative consequences such as driving while intoxicated, domestic abuse and financial problems. Additionally, the more a person uses drugs, the more tolerance builds up.

How do you know when abuse has progressed into addiction? We’ve listed out some warning signs to be on alert for. However, a proper diagnosis can only be given by a medical professional.

  • Withdrawal symptoms appear when the drug of choice is unavailable

  • Using larger quantities of the drug to get the same effects (tolerance)

  • Decreasing interest in old hobbies and activities

  • Withdrawal from friends and family

  • Unable to cut down or stop using drug of choice

  • Continues to uses drugs and alcohol despite negative effects

  • Behavior centers on getting drunk or high

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drug and alcohol use, call The River Source. We are here for you, and we have a thorough assessment process where we can properly diagnose your loved one. Remember, you never have to wait for rock bottom. Help is available, and treatment can be more effective at an earlier stage.