Drug Abuse and Addiction: What's the Difference?

Drug abuse and addiction mean different things.  Read the definition of drug abuse and the definition of drug addiction to discover the difference.

While many people use the terms drug abuse and addiction interchangeably, abuse and addiction have separate and distinct meanings. One can abuse drugs without necessarily being addicted to drugs. The drug abuse definition centers more around the way a person uses drugs, while the drug addiction definition includes the use of drugs and also the psychological and physiological effects the drug has on the body.

It's important to understand the drug abuse and drug addiction definitions so as to correctly identify problem behaviors seen in loved ones. It's also key to remember that alcohol is also a drug and is included in the definitions of drug abuse and addiction.

Drug Abuse and Addiction - Drug Tolerance

Central to the understanding of drug abuse and addiction is the idea of tolerance. When a person starts using a drug, they typically use a small amount to receive pleasurable effects or a "high." With time though, drug users find the same amount of drug no longer produces the desired effects and they have to consume more of the drug to attain the same high. This effect is known as tolerance.1

In drug abuse and addiction, the creation of tolerance depends on the drug used, the amount that is used and the frequency with which it is used. Drug tolerance can be both psychological and physiological.

Drug Abuse Definition

The definition of drug abuse does not have drug tolerance as a factor. Rather, it focuses on the pattern of drug use and the effects drugs are having on a user's life. Drug abuse and addiction takes place over time, but the definition of drug abuse specifically requires that drugs have negative effects on the user's life over a 12-month period. The following are drug abuse symptoms:2

  • Drug use has negatively impacted performance in work or school
  • Risky acts endangering the drug user or others are committed as a result of drug use, for example, drinking and driving
  • Continuation of drug use in spite of the negative consequences drug use is having on relationships
  • Legal or financial problems as a result of drug use

A drug user may match the drug abuse definition even if only one of the symptoms is present. Drug abuse frequently, but not always, leads to drug addiction.

Drug Addiction Definition

The definition of drug addiction contains aspects of the drug abuse definition in that the user is experiencing negative consequences from drug use and refuses to quit using the drug. However, with drug addiction, the addict has developed a tolerance to the drug, increasing the used amount, and experiences withdrawal symptoms when abstinent. In addition to drug tolerance, there are other drug addiction symptoms:

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug
  • Is unable to stop using the drug even after repeated attempts to do so
  • Consumes large and even dangerous amounts of the drug

While the term "drug addiction" is commonly known, it is not used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Instead, the DSM defines substance dependence similarly to the drug addiction definition above.

article references

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, December 15). Drug Abuse and Addiction: What's the Difference?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Last Updated: December 29, 2021

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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