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This topic is about drug use in adults. For information about drug use in young people, see the topic Alcohol and Drug Use in Young People.

Why do some people start using drugs?

People tend to try new things and take risks, so they may use drugs because it seems exciting.

Drugs can make you feel good for a while. They may make you feel energetic, self-confident, and powerful. You may take a drug to reduce stress or anxiety or to help you forget a problem. Or you may think drugs help you do better at work or school. You may take a drug because you're curious about it or because your friends use it.

What do you need to know about drug use?

You may begin to use drugs without thinking about how drugs can harm you and those you care about. You may not feel that using drugs can become a problem. Maybe you feel that you are a casual user because you use drugs only now and then. But drug use quickly can become a habit and start to affect your general health, work, behaviour, and relationships.

When you use drugs, it can change how well you make decisions, how well you think, and how quickly you can react. And it can make it hard for you to control your actions.

If you feel you have a drug use problem, get help. You can visit a doctor or go to a self-help group. If someone you know has a drug use problem, find a good time to talk with him or her, and encourage that person to get help.

Facts About Drug Use

Marijuana is used more than any other illegal drug. Many people also misuse prescription and over-the-counter medicines to get high.

Even casual use of certain drugs can cause severe health problems, such as an overdose or brain damage. Many illegal drugs today are made in home labs, so they can vary greatly in strength. These drugs also may contain bacteria, dangerous chemicals, and other unsafe substances. There is no quality control for illegal drugs like that required for prescription drugs.

What happens when you use drugs?

Drugs target a part of your brain that allows you to feel pleasure. This causes your brain to release certain chemicals that make you feel good.

At first, drugs may make you feel happy, energetic, social, self-confident, and powerful. But after the "high" from the drug wears off, you may feel the opposite effects. Depending on the drug you used, you may feel tired, anxious, or depressed after the drug wears off. Or you may be more sensitive to pain, have sleep problems, lose interest in everyday activities, or withdraw from family and friends.

Since the pleasure only lasts a short time, you may crave more of the drug to get the good feeling back. Over time, your brain adjusts to the drug by making less of the "feel good" chemicals. With less of these chemicals, your brain can't function as well, and it becomes harder to feel pleasure. So you use drugs to get the good feeling back.

Drugs also affect the parts of your brain that deal with judgment, decision-making, problem-solving, emotions, learning, and memory. They change how the cells in your brain send and process information. These changes in your brain make it harder for you to think and make good choices. And you may be less able to control your actions.

Which drugs might be a problem?

The types of drugs that might be a problem include:

    • Marijuana. It can affect your ability to think, learn, reason, remember, and solve problems. It can also cause mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
    • Prescription drugs, such as diazepam (for example, Valium) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). People misuse these drugs—as well as over-the-counter medicines such as cough syrups and cold pills—to get high. What effects these drugs may have on your health depend on the type, strength, and amount of these drugs you use and whether you take them with illegal drugs or alcohol. The use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines with alcohol or illegal drugs may increase the effects of each substance.
    • Cocaine. This drug can cause abnormal heartbeats, which may cause a deadly heart attack, seizure, or stroke. Its use can also increase the risk of car crashes and violent behaviour. The chance of these things happening increases when cocaine is combined with alcohol.
    • Inhalants (glues, aerosol sprays, gasoline, paints, and paint thinners). They contain poisons that can harm the brain. They can also damage the liver, kidneys, blood, and bone marrow.
    • Club drugs, like ecstasy (MDMA) and date rape drugs such as gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), and ketamine. These drugs are often used at all-night dances, raves, or trances. These drugs can be dangerous, especially in overdose or when combined with other drugs or alcohol. Some of these drugs can cause you to have trouble breathing, to pass out, or to be conscious but unable to move. Some of them can also lead to thought and memory problems, anxiety, depression, overdose, and date rape.
    • Methamphetamine (commonly called meth, crank, or speed). Methamphetamine can cause seizures; stroke; serious mental health issues, including paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions; and long-term health problems.
    • Hallucinogens, including LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, PCP (phencyclidine), and ketamine. Serious and lasting problems such as psychosis or hallucinogenic flashbacks can occur after you use LSD.
    • Opioids, such as heroin, morphine, and codeine. Some of these drugs can cause lung problems, harm the liver and kidneys, cause infections like hepatitis and HIV if you use shared injection equipment and fluids, and lead to overdose. 
    • Anabolic steroids, which people use to build muscle tissue and decrease body fat. Steroids can cause liver cancer and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Other substances that might cause a problem

  • Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can harm the liver, pancreas, heart, brain, and nervous system. It can also cause some cancers. If used during pregnancy, alcohol can harm a developing baby (fetus). Alcohol can also cause mood swings and affect your sleep and your ability to think, learn, reason, remember, and solve problems. If you combine drugs with alcohol, you are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours like drinking and driving or having unprotected sex. The use of drugs with alcohol may increase the effects of each.
  • Energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Monster, or Rockstar. Many people consume energy drinks to help them stay awake, feel more energized, and perform better in school and sports. These drinks contain high levels of caffeine and other stimulants, which can cause anxiety, abnormal heartbeats, high blood pressure, dehydration, and other serious problems. When energy drinks are combined with drugs or alcohol, the effects can be even more harmful. For example, many people mistakenly think that stimulants such as caffeine can undo the effects of alcohol or sober them up before driving, but this is not the case. If you combine drugs or alcohol with energy drinks, you're more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours such as driving while high or drinking and driving or having unprotected sex.

Health Risks of Drug Use

When you use drugs, you may be putting your health and safety at risk.

Your risk of harm increases with:

  • Each drug that you use.
  • How often and for how long you use drugs, whether you use drugs only now and then or on a more regular basis.
  • The type and strength of the drug you use. Different drugs harm your body in different ways. Even casual use of certain drugs can cause severe health problems, such as an overdose or brain damage. Many illegal drugs today are made in home labs, so they can vary greatly in strength. These drugs also may contain bacteria, dangerous chemicals, and other unsafe substances. There is no quality control for illegal drugs like that required for prescription drugs.
  • How you use drugs.
    • If you smoke a drug or inject it into a vein, you are more likely to overdose and become dependent on the drug than if you swallowed it. These methods give you a fast and intense "high," but you lose the high quickly and then feel low. This may make you use the drug more often.
    • If you share needles, syringes, and other equipment (such as cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers), you are more likely to get hepatitis, HIV, or other serious infections.
    • If you combine drugs with alcohol, you are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours and have serious health problems. The use of drugs and alcohol may increase the effects of each.

Using drugs can affect your general health, work, behaviour, and relationships. It can also change how well you make decisions, how well you think, and how quickly you can react. And it can make it hard for you to control your actions.

Drug use can:

  • Make car crashes more likely. If you drive while you're high, you can easily hurt yourself or others.
  • Lead to unprotected sex and/or sexual assault. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
  • Increase the risk of overdose, injury, and death.
  • Cause you to do things you wouldn't usually do. You may say things that hurt your friends. Or you may do something illegal that could result in paying a large fine or going to jail, like being arrested for driving while on drugs or using or selling drugs.
  • Affect your work or schoolwork. It can cause you to lose your job or drop out of school.
  • Change how you feel about your life. It can lead to depression and suicide.
  • Cause mood swings and affect your sleep and your ability to think, learn, reason, remember, and solve problems.
  • Harm many organs and systems in the body, such as the liver, pancreas, heart, brain, and nervous system.
  • Cause some cancers.
  • Cause infectious diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV, if you share needles, syringes, and other equipment (such as cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers).
  • Cause harm to a developing baby (fetus) if drugs are used during pregnancy.

For some people, using drugs may turn into a drug use problem. This means that you have a strong need, or craving, for drugs. This craving makes it hard for you to control how much of a drug you use and may make it hard for you to stop. So you continue to use drugs even though you know that your use is causing problems in your life.

Problem Drug Use

It can sometimes be hard to know when your drug use becomes a problem. Maybe you feel that you're a casual user because you use drugs only now and then. You may feel that you can cut down on the amount of drugs that you use or that you can stop using drugs at any time.

What are some of the signs of a drug use problem?

The signs of a drug use problem depend on the drug you use and how that drug affects you. Not all drugs affect people the same way.

Some signs that your drug use may be becoming a problem are:

  • You keep using drugs even though your drug use is causing problems in your life.
  • You take more of the drug over longer periods of time and need more of the drug to feel "high."
  • You often have a strong need or craving to use drugs.
  • You spend a lot of time trying to get the drug, and you give up other activities to do this.
  • You try to quit using the drug, but you are not able to.
  • If you stop using the drug, you feel sick. This is known as withdrawal.

When you have a drug use problem, you and others may notice some changes in your behaviour and your physical health and appearance.

Behaviour changes that may be signs of a drug use problem

  • Changes in your sleeping or eating habits, paying less attention to dressing and grooming, or having less interest in sex
  • Up-and-down moods, a mood or attitude that is getting worse, or not caring about the future
  • Anger toward others or treating others badly
  • Sneaky behaviour, lying, or stealing
  • Poor family relationships, or relationships that are getting worse
  • New problems at work or school, or problems with the law
  • Not keeping up with old friends and activities, finding new friends, and not wanting old friends to meet them

These signs don't always mean that a person is using drugs or has a drug use problem. The behaviour could be because of work or school stress, or it could be a sign of depression or another medical problem. But behaviour changes like these are common in people who use drugs.

Physical changes that may be signs of a drug use problem

  • Red eyes, a sore throat, and a dry cough
  • Needle marks on the arm or other area of the body
  • Small, "pinpoint" pupils in the eyes
  • Losing weight without trying to, or not feeling like eating
  • Changes in how well you sleep
  • Seeing things that don't exist (hallucinations)

Signs in older adults

Drug problems in older adults may go unnoticed, since the signs may be similar to those of aging. Older adults often take more medicines, such as sleep medicines and painkillers, that can lead to a drug use problem.

What kind of help is available if you think you have a drug use problem?

Keep in mind that most people who use drugs don't develop a drug use problem. Some people who want to cut back on or stop using drugs are able to do so on their own. But others may need help.

If you are worried about your health and want to reduce your alcohol or drug use, ask your family, friends, or doctor for help. Or you could join a support group such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Your family members might want to attend a support group such as Nar-Anon.

In some provinces, there are telephone helplines you can call for support and to find out what resources are available in your area that can help you manage your drug use problem.

    • Alberta: Addiction Helpline, 1-866-332-2322 (toll-free)
    • British Columbia: Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service, 604 660-9832 (Greater Vancouver) or 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free)
    • Saskatchewan: See the Directory of Alcohol and Drug Treatment Services online at www.health.gov.sk.ca/treatment-services-directory for a phone number in your area.
    • Other provinces: Call your local telephone information line or check the phone book to find out if there is a helpline you can call in your area.

If you are still finding it hard to reduce your drug use on your own, or if these support services don't help, you may need medical help. This is especially important if you have withdrawal symptoms when you try to reduce your drug use. Symptoms of withdrawal may include sweating and feeling sick to your stomach, feeling shaky, and feeling anxious.

Talk to your doctor about whether you need treatment for your drug use problem. In many cases, treatment may focus on helping you reduce your drug use to levels that are less harmful rather than stopping completely. You and your doctor can decide what treatment approach is best for you.

Treatment approaches

Some treatment approaches may involve:

  • Outpatient or inpatient care to help you cut back on or stop using drugs. These programs provide education and individual, family, and group counselling. They may also provide medical care to help reduce your cravings for drugs and manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Counselling that helps you to:
      • Learn to change the thoughts and actions that make you more likely to use drugs. A counsellor teaches you ways to deal with cravings and reduce your alcohol or drug use. This is called cognitive-behavioural therapy.
      • Resolve mixed feelings you have about your drug use and getting treatment. A counsellor helps you find personal motivation to change. This is called motivational interviewing.
      • Set goals on how to reduce your drug use. This is done in short counselling sessions, called brief intervention therapy.
      • Identify talents and strengths. These can be used to find healthy interests, hobbies, and jobs.
      • Learn ways to resist drugs when someone offers them to you.
  • Medicines. They can help reduce your cravings for drugs and manage withdrawal symptoms.

People who use drugs also may have mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have a drug use problem and a mental health issue, it's important that you get help for both.

If you feel that you have a drug use problem, get help. The earlier you get help, the easier it will be to reduce your alcohol or drug use. If someone you know has a drug use problem, find a good time to talk with him or her and encourage that person to get help.

If you realize that you have a drug use problem, you may decide you want to reduce your drug use. If so, it's a good idea to plan for a relapse. Getting control of a drug problem is very hard. It's normal to have setbacks where you start using drugs again, even years later. Your doctor, family, and friends can help you develop a plan. Someone who has been in recovery for a long time (called a sponsor) can also help.

Harm-Reduction Strategies

It's important to remember that using drugs isn't risk-free. Your risk of harm increases with each drug that you use, how often and for how long you use drugs, the type and strength of the drug you use, and the method of use. To learn more, see Health Risks of Drug Use.

It's also important to know that it's illegal to purchase, sell, and use illegal drugs.

Although there is no amount of drug use that is safe, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of serious health problems and injuries caused by drug use.

Ways to reduce harm from drug use

  • Avoid risky situations and activities. Don't get high and drive, and don't get in a car with a driver who has been using drugs.
  • Make a plan to get home safely. For example, choose a designated driver, have money to pay for a taxi or bus fare, or call a loved one for a safe ride home.
  • Create a safe environment. If you use drugs, make sure you do it in a place where other people are around so you can get help if you need it.
  • Don't take over-the-counter or prescription medicines with illegal drugs or other harmful substances.
  • Don't use drugs to try to make yourself feel better. Using drugs may make your problems worse and may cause you to do things that you normally wouldn't do, like hurt yourself or others.
  • Don't share needles, syringes, and other equipment (such as cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers) with others if you use drugs. Be aware of who you get your supplies from. Be sure the supplies haven't been used before. If you use dirty needles or equipment, you can get hepatitis, HIV, or other serious infections.
  • Be aware of who you get your drugs from. Drugs can vary greatly in strength, depending on who you get them from.
  • Be aware of how a drug might affect you, especially if you stopped using the drug and then started using again. You may not be able to handle the same amount of the drug as you could before.
  • Don't leave your beverage unattended or accept a drink from an open container.
  • Be aware at all times of your surroundings and the people around you.
  • Limit how much you use drugs, or stop using drugs altogether. The more you use, the greater the risk of getting sick, hurt, or in trouble.

Helping someone who is using drugs

If you know someone who puts himself or herself in situations where drug use is going to occur (such as at a bar or party), here are some things you can do to help reduce that person's risk of harm. You can:

  • Take the person's car keys so he or she won't drive while high on drugs.
  • Remove sharp objects and glassware from dance and party locations so the person won't hurt himself or herself or others.
  • Make sure the home or dance or party locations don't contain any drugs or items that help people use drugs.
  • Provide water so the person doesn't get dehydrated.

Know when to call for help

Don't be afraid to call for help if you or someone you know needs medical care. The reason for seeking medical care won't be reported to the police.

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:

  • A person passes out or has trouble breathing after taking drugs.
  • A person who has been using drugs threatens to hurt himself or herself or someone else.
  • A person who suddenly stops using drugs has trembling, hallucinations, seizures, or other severe withdrawal symptoms.

Have a healthy lifestyle

When you use drugs, you often get away from some of the basics of good health. Here are some things you can do to stay healthy:

  • Be active. Try to get 30 minutes of activity or more on most days of the week. Being active not only helps you stay healthy and strong but can also help you better deal with stress and anxiety. And it gives you something to do instead of using drugs.
  • Relieve stress. Stress can trigger a relapse. Stress-relief exercises can help.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is important for your physical and emotional health. Sleep may help you stay healthy by keeping your immune system strong. Getting enough sleep can help your mood and make you feel less stressed.
  • Eat a balanced diet. This helps your body deal with tension and stress. Whole grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and protein foods are part of a healthy diet.
  • Find things to do instead of using drugs, such as sports or volunteer work.
  • Meditate. It helps you feel calm and can give you a clearer awareness about your life.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
www.ccsa.ca
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Canada)
www.camh.ca

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Health Canada (2010). Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey. Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/drugs-drogues/stat/_2010/summary-sommaire-eng.php.

Credits

Adaptation Date: 12/3/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Date: 12/3/2017

Adapted By: HealthLink BC

Adaptation Reviewed By: HealthLink BC