What is the Difference Between Drug Abuse and Drug Addiction?

Drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction are not interchangeable terms. They refer to three things that often happen across a single timeline in someone’s life. There is a very thin line between drug abuse and drug addiction, so thin that no one is really aware of the exact moment they crossed it. 

One is not better than the other — in fact, one almost always leads to the other if left unchecked for too long. 

If you’re looking to eliminate drugs from your life and form healthier habits, you need to understand where you are on this linear path. Depending on what stage you’ve reached in your relationship with drugs, specific courses of treatment may be available to you. 

Planning your recovery begins with the fundamental knowledge of the severity of your drug use.

What is Casual Drug Use?

Casual drug use is any type of drug use that occurs without pattern or consistency. A casual drug user may be someone who takes ecstasy at a party once and doesn’t do it again until a concert two years later. It might be someone who socially hits a joint once or twice a month. It could be someone who tries psychedelic mushrooms once and never does it again.

Most people who use drugs will only ever be casual drug users. They experiment, but they move on. It isn’t a habit that sticks with them. It’s not something they desire to do with any type of frequency, but a special occasion indulgence that they don’t go out of their way to look for.

This doesn’t mean their drug use is safe. Drugs are never safe or healthy in any amount. All it means is that they don’t have a habit or pattern of behavior that a treatment program could fix or address. They could just as easily decide on a whim to never do drugs again and have no problem committing to that decision independently. 

What is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse is when the set of circumstances regarding someone’s drug use is beginning to have a negative impact on their life. They may misappropriately spend their money on drugs when they have bills to pay. They may have been caught with drugs and faced legal ramifications for possessing them.

An individual who abuses drugs may be harming themselves or others around them with little regard. They may choose opportunities to do drugs instead of choosing activities necessary for their lives, like going to work or school. 

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is when drug abuse progresses to the point where someone becomes physically ill as a result of not having drugs. 

If you feel like there is a minimum amount of drugs you need to do just to keep yourself going, you have a drug addiction. If finding or using drugs has become such a focal point of your life that you don’t have time for anything else, you’re an addict. 

Addicts find they need more and more drugs to achieve the same effect that they experienced when they first started using. It may get to the point where drug addicts can’t even afford to get high anymore — they can only afford to stave off withdrawal day by day. They often have to borrow or steal money just to keep themselves involved with drugs, and they crave drugs so desperately that they don’t hesitate with the moral implications of doing so. 

If you’ve found yourself in this position, you need immediate help.

Where Does Alcohol Fit In?

Alcohol fits into every bracket. Simply replace the word “drugs” with alcohol and the warning signs are the same. 

There are casual drinkers, problematic drinkers, and alcoholics. The progression is similar, and in the end, the needs are the same. Problematic drinkers and drug addicts need help equally.

When Does Abuse Become Addiction?

No one quite catches when abuse becomes addiction.

Intervention is best when casual drug use first starts to become drug abuse. At this stage, it’s less traumatic to someone’s mind and body to change course. Addiction hasn’t fully developed and created havoc in the lives of everyone around that person. Most people, however, don’t seek treatment at the moment when casual use becomes drug abuse.

Some people seek treatment right before drug abuse becomes addiction, but most people don’t catch that transition in time. It’s so subtle that you’d miss it if you blinked. This leads to addicts that often don’t realize that they’re addicts, and they continue to get worse before they eventually wind up in treatment. Sometimes, they only wind up in treatment because they were mandated by the court.

Treating Drug Abuse

Drug abuse can be treated with inpatient or outpatient treatments. 

When recognized and acted upon early, outpatient treatments can be highly beneficial. Working with a therapist, attending group meetings, and changing your lifestyle and habits may be enough to keep you from turning back to drugs and progressing into full blown addiction.

If you have even the slightest doubt in your ability to change your course and manage your life through outpatient therapies alone, it’s better to go to an inpatient facility for comprehensive care. It may be better to take a through approach from the beginning to prevent the possibility of winding up back where you started. 

The First Step To Treating Drug Addiction

Drug addicts will experience profound withdrawal symptoms when they stop using drugs. These symptoms motivate them to find more drugs and deter them from attempting to detox at home. They feel sick, and some of them describe it as the feeling of being near death. The exact opposite is true.

Drugs, especially opioids, significantly alter the brain. That’s their entire purpose. They’re supposed to alter the way the brain receives pain, dulling the sensation. 

The problem is that opioids cannot be so precisely targeted to only impact certain neurotransmitters. They negatively impact all neurotransmitters. Opioids slow your breathing and even impact your digestion, causing constipation. They begin to run the show, and your body suffers for it.

When you stop using drugs, your brain is intensely happy. It frantically begins the process of repairing itself. It pumps you full of adrenaline to check all of your vital processes, causing your heart to race, your breathing to become rapid, and your blood pressure to raise in conjunction with a feeling of anxiousness or restlessness. It makes you sick and feverish and sweaty, in an attempt to flush out any remainers of the drug. You may vomit or experience diarrhea. Your body may ache. 

This process will continue until your brain can re-establish proper levels of the chemicals you need for your body to work correctly. It’s bringing you back to life, and that’s what withdrawal is. 

Even though this is a process that needs to happen and is, despite how it may feel, a very positive thing, it can still be dangerous. It’s especially dangerous for people who have been addicted to drugs for a long time, because they’ve suppressed their neurotransmitters for so long that they’ve likely done damage.

Detoxification should always take place in a controlled inpatient environment where medical professionals trained in helping addicts safely detox are always present. In the event that something goes awry, such as dehydration due to a wealth of fluid leaving the body, the medical professional will know what to do to prevent the situation from becoming dangerous. 

The Second Step To Treating Drug Addiction

Detox takes the drug out of the addict, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent the addict from putting it back in. 

If you’re a drug addict, inpatient treatment can help you determine why you use. The idea of putting your life on hold to check into an inpatient treatment center may not seem appealing, but it’s a power move that will help you reclaim your life.

You’ll work with a therapist to discuss how aspects of your life or your past make you feel, and discover how they impact your behavior. If you also live with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, you’re what’s considered a dual-diagnosis patient. Your therapist will work to simultaneously treat your addiction and your mental health condition, assuring that one can no longer impact the other.

You’ll learn new skills for personal accountability, how to build healthy relationships, how to be a more responsible person, how to set goals for yourself, and how to recognize your personal strengths and weaknesses. 

Inpatient rehab has the potential to be one of the most empowering experiences in your life. 


The best time to get help for your struggles with drugs is before you become an addict. The second best time to get help is right now. You don’t want to wait until the eleventh hour to go to rehab. Your mental and physical health will deteriorate more and more each day you procrastinate your wellbeing. 

Going to rehab is taking care of yourself. It’s loving yourself, and giving yourself the things you deserve to have the life you’ve always wanted. There’s no shame in wanting to be happy and successful, and it all starts with treatment.

If you or a loved one are ready to get started, click here to explore what Starbridge Recovery can offer




Call Now Button Skip to content