Substance misuse occurs when a person uses certain substances in a way that harms themselves or those around them. Substance use disorder (SUD) is a medical condition that causes uncontrolled use of certain substances despite their harmful effects.

Substance misuse can occur when a person misuses one of the following substances:

  • alcohol
  • illegal drugs
  • certain medications

If someone continues to misuse substances over a prolonged period, they may develop SUD.

This article outlines what substance misuse is and compares it to SUD. It also discusses what the treatment options are for SUD.

People sitting in a group therapy sessionShare on Pinterest
fotostorm/Getty Images

Substance misuse occurs when a person misuses certain substances. This misuse can harm themselves or those around them.

Substances that people can misuse tend to be psychoactive compounds that have the potential to cause health and social problems.

These substances include:

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people often begin taking drugs for the following reasons:

  • to experience pleasurable feelings or feel “high” or intoxicated.
  • to improve the way they are feeling by:
    • relieving stress
    • forgetting any problems they may have
    • feeling numb
  • to help improve their performance or the way they think
  • out of curiosity or due to peer pressure.

Substance misuse can cause a number of health and social problems, such as:

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

One serious risk of substance misuse is that if a person carries out prolonged, repeated use of these substances, they may develop SUD.

SUD is a condition that causes a person to develop uncontrolled use of certain substances. This use continues despite the harmful effects on their life and health.

Long-term exposure to substances can cause a person to develop mental and physical dependence.

The effects of SUD can vary significantly. However, the early stages of SUD often cause someone to experience:

  • Positive reinforcement when using the substance: This causes the person to experience a sense of well-being or euphoria when they use the substance.
  • Negative reinforcement when not using the substance: This causes the individual to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they are not using the substance.

SUD can affect a person’s:

  • health
  • social life
  • academic performance
  • occupational life

These effects occur due to the intoxication that substance use causes and the physical and psychological dependence that the person develops.

SUD can cause changes to the brain’s structure and function, which can cause a person to develop:

  • intense cravings
  • distorted thinking
  • atypical behaviors
  • changes in personality
  • atypical movements

If a person believes they or someone they know has developed SUD, they should contact a healthcare or mental health professional.

Substance misuse and SUD are different.

SUD is a diagnosable condition that can affect a person’s life in a number of ways. However, substance misuse is the name for the act of misusing certain substances.

If a person continually engages in substance misuse over a prolonged period and uses high doses of the substance, they may develop SUD.

SUD and substance misuse are treatable with certain behavioral therapies and medications.

Behavioral therapies

Behavioral therapies to help treat SUD and substance misuse include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of psychotherapy. It aims to help a person learn how to cope with certain situations by helping them change their thought patterns and behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT uses the concept of mindfulness and acceptance. It helps a person learn skills that can help them deal with intense emotions to reduce their self-destructive behaviors.
  • Assertive community treatment (ACT): ACT is a form of behavioral therapy that involves a community-based approach. It is a form of mental health care that utilizes outreach to the community and a personalized treatment approach.
  • Therapeutic communities (TC): TC is a form of care that aims to help a person improve their:
    • values
    • attitudes
    • behaviors
  • Contingency management (CM): CM is a method of encouraging healthy behaviors. A person can receive vouchers or rewards for exhibiting desired behaviors.


Various medications may help manage and treat SUD. These medications can:

  • help control cravings
  • relieve symptoms of withdrawal
  • prevent relapses

Medications are a useful treatment option for many people with SUD. However, they are more effective in combination with behavioral therapies.

Substance misuse is the term for the use of certain substances that harm the person using the substances or others around them.

A person can misuse a number of substances, including alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription medications.

If someone misuses substances over a prolonged period of time, they can develop SUD.

SUD is a condition that causes someone to develop uncontrolled use of certain substances. A person with SUD will continue to misuse substances despite the harmful effects it can have on their life and health.

SUD can cause a person to develop mental and physical dependence on the substance. However, it is typically treatable with a number of behavioral therapies and medications.