Drug Use Disorder vs. Drug Misuse - What is the Difference?
In 2016, approximately 2.1 million Americans over the age of 11 suffered from addiction to opioids such as the prescription pain medications OxyContin and Vicodin or the illegal drug heroin. Yet, 11.8 million people – nearly six times as many – reported misusing opioids, primarily prescription medications.
Although it does not receive the same media attention as addiction – clinically known as opioid use disorder - this startling figure highlights a serious yet often overlooked problem within our society: the issue of opioid misuse.
As the clinical term for drug addiction, drug use disorder (DUD) describes a complex disease that affects both the brain and the body. DUD, characterized by the compulsive use of one or more drugs, such as opioids, despite serious health and social consequences, typically develops during an individual’s adolescence and may affect him/her for an extended period of time.
DUD changes an individual’s brain, particularly the parts responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory. It also damages various body systems, such as the nervous system, cardiovascular system and immune system. Addiction can also have a negative impact on a person’s mental health, personal relationships, work or school performance, and financial stability.
Drug misuse, on the other hand, is not a diagnosed disease like addiction but a problematic pattern of drug use. When talking about prescription opioids, drug misuse includes the use of controlled drugs, as classified by the federal government, either:
- without a prescription (e.g., someone else’s medications),
- for a reason other than the condition for which they were prescribed or
- at higher doses, more often, or for a longer period of time than prescribed.
Although distinct from DUD, drug misuse should not be treated lightly. More than three-quarters of people who develop addiction to opioids (both prescription and illicit) started by using a prescription pain reliever.
The most common reason people give for misusing these medications is to relieve physical pain. Contrary to many people’s perceptions, misused opioids are not provided exclusively by doctors, but frequently by a friend or family member instead.
Additionally, uninsured, unemployed, and low-income adults or adults with behavioral or mental health problems are the most likely to misuse opioids or have an opioid use disorder, indicating that those at the highest risk for opioid misuse likely don’t have access to effective healthcare to address problems with pain or addiction. But, it’s important to remember, drug misuse has no boundaries. People of all ages, races, religions, genders, and economic backgrounds are susceptible to misusing prescription opioids.
One way you can help avoid opioid misuse and addiction is by taking prescription medications only as prescribed to you by a physician. If you are experiencing pain, ask a medical professional for help. Don’t accept a pain medication from someone else. Similarly, if you have a prescription for an opioid, don’t share it with friends or family members, regardless of the reason. Any of these behaviors can lead to devastating consequences.
For more information about the signs and symptoms of misuse and addiction, and what parents can do to help their children grow up healthy, please read our previous blog post, “Things Parents can do to Fight Addiction.”
Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at Center on Addiction