Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Information from Your Family Doctor

Substance Abuse


Am Fam Physician. 2004 Mar 15;69(6):1501-1502.

Why do people use alcohol and other drugs?

People use alcohol and other drugs because they like the way these substances make them feel. Pleasure is a powerful force. Your brain is “wired” so that if you do something once that gives you pleasure, you probably will want to do it again. All drugs that are addicting can start and affect your brain’s pleasure center.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a disease that affects your brain and your behavior. When you become addicted to alcohol or other drugs, your brain changes in certain ways. Someone who is addicted goes on using drugs even if there are bad consequences, such as problems with health, money, relationships, and performance at work or school.

Which drugs can cause addiction?

People can become addicted to illegal drugs and to drugs that doctors prescribe. People also can become addicted to things they may not think of as drugs, such as alcohol and the nicotine in cigarettes or smokeless tobacco.

Are prescription drugs safe?

When prescription drugs are taken the right way, there is much less chance that you will become addicted to them. But prescription drugs can be dangerous if they are abused (for example, taking too much, taking them when they are not needed, or mixing drugs).

Possible Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse

  • Trouble paying attention

  • Being more forgetful than usual

  • Missing work or school

  • Being more moody than usual

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Paranoia (feeling that people are “out to get you”)

  • No interest in things you used to enjoy

How do I know if I have a problem?

You have a problem with drugs or alcohol if you continue to use them even when they cause problems with your health, money, work, school, or personal life. You may have a problem if you have developed a tolerance to drugs or alcohol. This means that you need to use more and more to get the same pleasure effect.

Can addiction be treated?

Yes, but addiction is a chronic disease. This means it goes on for a long time. It may take several tries before you can stay free of drugs or alcohol. You will always have to be careful not to fall back into using alcohol or other drugs.

What treatments are available?

Treatment can include counseling, medicines, or both. Your doctor will help you find the treatment that is right for you.

How can I quit abusing drugs or alcohol?

The first step in breaking addiction is to understand that you can’t control all the things that happen in your life or many of the things other people do, but you can take steps to help control the way you react. Here are the next steps to breaking your addiction:

  1. Commit yourself to quitting. Once you decide to quit, make a plan to be sure you really do it.

  2. Get help from your doctor. Your doctor can give you support and help you find a treatment program that meets your needs. Your doctor also can treat withdrawal symptoms and other problems you may have as you recover from your addiction.

  3. Get support. Ask your family and friends for support. You also can contact one of the organizations listed below. These groups can give you the tools and support you need to break your addiction and move on with your life.

Where to Get Help

Your doctor

Narcotics Anonymous


Alcoholics Anonymous


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment


Adult Children of Alcoholics


Al-Anon and Alateen


National Association for Children of Alcoholics


National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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