Drug and Alcohol - Trends and Statistics - Opioid Addiction

What Are the 4 Most Common Types of Substance Abuse?

The most abused substances include alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, and opioids. Addiction to these substances is treatable. Learn why in our blog!

What Are the 4 Most Common Types of Substance Abuse?

Table of contents

Written by

Brian MooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

Jeremy ArztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

August 26, 2022

The Forge Recovery Center

Every year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) performs the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Among the data the survey collects is the most commonly used addictive substances during the year, as well as multiple years. They stratify this information further by age group and co-occurring mental illnesses. The data from the most recent survey, the 2020 NSDUH, is used to focus on drug prevention and addiction treatment.

According to the 2020 NSDUH, the most common substances abused by people 12 years and older include:

It is important to look at what each substance does and its signs of abuse.


Though it is used as a social/party substance, alcohol serves as a depressant. It boosts dopamine levels through the taste buds and increases the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Alcohol also suppresses the communication of neurons. This causes issues like slurred speech and poor reflexes. It prevents people from thinking straight.

Alcohol's effect is not limited to the brain. Drinking is directly connected to heart problems, strokes, liver damage, pancreatitis, and a poor immune system. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) labels alcohol consumption as a human carcinogen.

It is related to:

  • Head and neck cancer

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Liver cancer

  • Breast cancer

  • Colorectal cancer

What Does Alcohol Abuse Look Like?

People can struggle to identify alcohol abuse from the outside. This is partly due to the legality and normalization of drinking. When trying to identify alcohol abuse, look for the following signs:

  • Blackouts when drinking

  • Severe mood swings

  • Drinking instead of engaging in hobbies

  • Not fulfilling responsibilities due to drinking

  • Isolation from loved ones

  • Making excuses for frequently drinking

  • Drinking alone

  • Having a drink right after waking up


Marijuana impairs the ability to think clearly. It disrupts memory function. The pleasurable effects of marijuana can be attributed to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes a flood of dopamine.

Frequent marijuana use can lower IQ, though this largely affects people under the age of 25. For some people, marijuana can cause paranoia, panic, and anxiety. It's also extremely common for people under the influence to get the “munchies.”

What Does Marijuana Abuse Look Like?

Many U.S. states have legalized marijuana. As such, it is difficult to spot marijuana abuse for the same reasons as alcohol. Some common signs of marijuana abuse can include the following:

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Excessive snacking in between meals

  • Poor school or work performance

  • Isolation from loved ones

  • Possessing marijuana paraphernalia

  • Knowing in-depth information about the different types of marijuana consumption

  • Poor memory

  • Using slang words for marijuana

Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants

When discussing CNS stimulants, this includes prescription stimulants, cocaine, and methamphetamines. CNS stimulants impact the brain in an interesting way.

Unlike other substances that primarily impact one to two neurotransmitters, stimulants boost the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Not only does it increase dopamine, but it also prevents reuptake. Stimulants cause alertness, focus, awareness, learning, and memory. It can also induce mania and anxiety. 

What Does CNS Stimulant Abuse Look Like?

Identifying CNS stimulant abuse is easier than other substances. Many symptoms present outwardly. Look to the following symptoms to determine if a person is likely abusing CNS stimulants:

  • Doctor shopping to obtain multiple stimulant prescriptions

  • Borrowing stimulants from friends

  • Paranoia

  • Inability to sit still

  • Rapid talking

  • Weight loss

  • Not sleeping for long periods

  • Severe mood swings

  • Making poor decisions

  • Isolation from loved ones


Opioids pose possibly the highest risk of any substance on this list. They suppress noradrenaline (NA) function in the brain, causing drowsiness and the inability to focus. Opioids may severely impair memory and speech.

Since they cause poor reflexes, a person should never drive on opioids. Additionally, opioids flood the brain with dopamine receptors. Addiction to opioids can occur within just a week.

What Does Opioid Abuse Look Like?

Opioids possess a high potential for addiction. If individuals know someone taking opioids, it is important to watch for signs of opioid abuse.

The following signs indicate opioid abuse:

  • Drowsiness

  • Pinpoint pupils

  • Excessive sleeping

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Stopping hobbies

  • Financial difficulties

  • Isolation from loved ones

  • Severe mood swings

  • Poor hygiene

  • Weight loss

How to Help an Addicted Loved One (Or Yourself)

If an individual is abusing one of these drugs, others in their lives should address their concerns with them. It might help them to seek out professional assistance from a mental health professional specializing in interventions and substance abuse. This individual can function as a mediator in an intervention. 

Additionally, individuals should plan out what they want to say to them ahead of time. Prepare answers for the typical objections to help. Overall, individuals should make sure the person knows they will support them through this. 

The Forge Recovery Center Effectively Treats Drug & Alcohol Addiction

Support is key in recovery A strong support system can help a person seek treatment sooner. This can be potentially lifesaving. It can also offer them confidence in their decision to pursue a substance-free life.

When you or your loved one feels ready to move forward in their healing journey, that’s the time to talk to The Forge Recovery Center. Our evidence-based methods provide expert help for drug and alcohol addiction. We don’t just treat symptoms; our program addresses addiction at its roots, helping people grow and thrive in a life free from addiction.

When you’re ready to have a conversation about your (or a loved one’s) addiction, contact The Forge Recovery Center.

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