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Drug abuse

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Drug abuse is when a drug is used for a different purpose than intended, or in excessive amounts.
  • Drug abuse can involve illegal drugs, as well as medicines.
  • There are many problems associated with drug abuse, such as drug tolerance, dependence and addiction.
  • These problems can impact your mental and physical wellbeing.
  • You can overcome drug abuse with support and treatment — it is important to speak with your doctor.

Using drugs can affect your health, relationships, jobs and education. You or someone close to you may have a problem with drugs. Recognising the problem is an important first step in seeking help and treatment.

Drug dependence or addiction can be treated. If you are struggling with drug abuse, it’s important to seek help and support. You do not have to deal with it on your own.

What is drug abuse?

Drug abuse is when a drug is used inappropriately. This can be when it is:

  • used for a different purpose than it is meant for
  • taken in excessive amounts

Substances such as alcohol can be used in harmful ways. However, drug abuse usually refers to the use of illicit drugs.

What are illicit drugs?

When a drug is not used as intended, it is known as an illicit drug.

Some types of illicit drugs include illegal drugs, such as:

Illicit drugs can also include pharmaceuticals, such as:

The non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs is an ongoing public health problem in Australia.

More than 4 in 10 Australians over 14 have used an illicit drug in their lifetime.

People from all walks of life take illicit drugs. The type of drug they use can depend on their socioeconomic status, including things like:

  • their cultural background
  • where they live
  • what their income is

Illicit drugs and the law

People who use illicit drugs can also get into legal trouble. Australia has laws surrounding:

  • the use of drugs
  • the production of drugs
  • possessing and selling drugs
  • driving while under the influence of drugs

Breaking these laws can lead to penalties such as:

  • fines
  • being disqualified from driving
  • serving jail time

What are the risks of drug abuse?

Drug use carries many risks, including:

Regular use of drugs can also lead to drug:

  • tolerance
  • dependence
  • addiction

Drug tolerance

A person who regularly uses a drug can develop a tolerance. This means that in order to feel the same effect, they need to take larger doses of the drug. Depending on how often a person takes the drug, their tolerance can change. This puts them at risk of overdose, which can be fatal (cause death).

Drug dependence

A long-term consequence of drug abuse is drug dependence.

Drug dependence is when your body gets used to repeated use of a drug. When a person stops taking the drug, they experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include:

  • cravings for the drug
  • exhaustion and difficulty sleeping
  • changes in your mood
  • aches and pains

Drug dependence can make it physically difficult to stop taking a drug. Drug dependence can happen with drug abuse, and also when a person takes a medication for a long time.

Drug addiction

Regular use of a drug can also lead to drug addiction, or substance use disorder.

Addiction is not being able to control or stop using a substance or doing a behaviour, even though it is causing harm. Drug addiction can have a negative impact on your life, and those around you.

You may have a drug addiction if you take a drug, and you:

  • are not able to reduce or stop your use of the drug
  • feel uncomfortable when you don’t have the drug
  • rely on the drug to cope emotionally, socially or physically
  • avoid people who don’t use drugs
  • participate in dangerous activities due to drug use, such as driving under the influence of drugs
  • lie about how much of the drug you are using

If you have a drug addiction you could also:

  • withdraw yourself from family and friends
  • experience problems with your relationships, school or work
  • experience financial problems because of the cost of buying drugs
  • find yourself selling belongings or stealing from others to pay for drugs
  • feel anxious, angry or depressed

Am I at risk of drug abuse?

Some people experience drug dependence, but not addiction. Different people will react to drugs differently. Your risk of dependence and addiction can be related to your:

  • genetics
  • home, school and social environments
  • age

If you have a family member who has had problems with drug abuse, you may be at higher risk of a similar experience.

Having a supportive family and social circle can reduce the risk of drug abuse issues.

Young people are at a higher risk of drug abuse.

How can I overcome drug abuse?

You can recover from drug abuse. The first step to overcoming drug abuse is recognising that there is a problem.

If you have a problem, you should speak to your doctor. They can:

  • give you advice
  • refer you to further help such as rehabilitation
  • help you manage withdrawal symptoms

Your doctor can refer you to treatment programs and addiction specialists if needed. These can help you overcome drug abuse, and prevent you from relapsing. Rehabilitation from drug abuse can include both counselling and medicines, such as methadone for recovering heroin users.

You could also try talking to someone for support, such as:

  • a family member
  • a friend
  • a teacher
  • a support group
  • a counsellor

If you’re concerned about someone you know, find out how you can help them with their drug problem.

What happens if I have a drug overdose?

You are at risk of an overdose if you:

  • take too much of a drug
  • take different types of drugs together

If you suspect you or a person you know if having a drug overdose, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Overdosing on different drugs causes different symptoms.

A person who has overdosed on a depressant such as heroin or codeine may:

  • vomit
  • be unresponsive
  • be pale and sweaty
  • have trouble breathing

A person who has overdosed on a stimulant such as ice or cocaine may:

  • be panicked, agitated or anxious
  • have chest and stomach pain
  • convulse or have a seizure
  • have trouble breathing

Naloxone is a medicine that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The Australian Government is offering this medication free of charge and without a prescription to people who may experience, or witness, an opioid overdose.

Learn more about the Take Home Naloxone program.

Resources and support

If you need to talk to someone about drug use, addiction and rehabilitation, you can:

  • call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website
  • visit the DrugInfo website, or call them on 1300 85 85 84
  • Call the National Alcohol and Other Drugs hotline on 1800 250 015

You can also visit Narcotics Anonymous Australia for support, information, and links to other services. Call them on 1300 652 820.

If you have a friend or family member with a drug problem, you can find support through the Family Drug Support website. You can also call them on 1300 368 186.

If you are concerned about your use of an opioid medicine, try the healthdirect Opioid Risk Indicator.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2023

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