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Substance abuse

Substance use disorders involve using too much alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, and are also known as substance abuse, substance dependence or addictions.

When does a habit become a problem?

Signs of substance use problems include when:

  • someone loses control of their use of alcohol or drugs
  • the substance use becomes harmful - for example, causing medical problems, injuries, inability to work or damage to relationships
  • someone becomes dependent, meaning the user becomes tolerant of the effects of the substance, and experiences cravings or withdrawal symptoms when stopping.

Around 1 in 20 Australians have an addiction or substance abuse problem. Alcohol and other drugs affect the reward systems of the brain and create a feeling of pleasure or relaxation - a ‘high’. This causes some people to use the substance too often, which can become damaging when it results in changes and long-term damage to the brain and other organs.

The most commonly used substances in Australia are smoking tobacco and alcohol. Smoking is the single most preventable cause of sickness and death. Around 13% of Australians aged 14 and over smoke every day, and smoking causes almost 8% of the burden of disease in Australia

Most people can enjoy an alcoholic drink on social occasions without developing a problem. However, just under 1 in 5 Australians drink at risky levels. Alcohol can lead to the short-term risk of accidents, injuries or violent behaviour as well as long-term medical complications such as liver disease and mental disorders.

Drug use disorders include the misuse of illegal drugs (such as cannabis and amphetamines) as well as the use of prescription medicines, like painkillers or sedatives, for non-medical reasons. People who use illegal drugs have much higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the population. The most commonly used illegal drugs in Australia are cannabis and stimulants (amphetamines or speed).

Not sure what to do next?

If you or someone you know are finding it difficult to manage mental health issues as a result of drug use, try healthdirect’s Symptom checker and get advice on when to seek professional help.

The Symptom checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: November 2016

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Substance misuse is the harmful use of substances (like drugs and alcohol) for non-medical purposes. The term “substance misuse” often refers to illegal drugs. However, legal substances can also be misused, such as alcohol, prescription medications, caffeine, nicotine and volatile substances (e.g. petrol, glue, paint).

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