Substance Use vs Substance Use Disorder | Differences

Substance Use vs. Substance Use Disorder

drug use and addiction terminology

Communication around the disease of addiction is cumbersome and, at times, confusing. Labels and phrases are often used interchangeably, regardless of the differences in meaning. However, each label—whether referring to substance use vs. substance use disorder or prescription misuse vs. prescription addiction—has a proper definition that provides clarity with respect to the spectrum of alcohol and drug use. The terms defined for substance use can help others understand behavior and identify steps to take to help individuals overcome this life-altering disease. It’s also important to note that terms and words selected to describe the disease of addiction should take compassion, support, and respect into consideration.

In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) moved forward with making changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). What was once commonly referred to as substance abuse and substance dependence came to fall under the larger umbrella of substance use disorder. However, even with this new classification to consider, there are still important conceptual and practical distinctions among terms like substance use, misuse, and disorders (including addiction). For example, substance use vs. substance use disorder can effectively describe and quantify the important health and social problems associated with each term.

Why Labels Are Important

The United States has one of the most severe substance use problems, expanding and reaching rural communities and urban cities alike. Most Americans are already painfully aware of the size and cost of substance misuse issues. Over time, experts in the field of addiction and mental health science are finding new ways to classify alcohol and drug use to help provide clarity to levels of severity and prescribing treatment that is appropriate to where individuals stand on spectrums.

An estimated 61 million Americans admitted to binge drinking the past year, and more than 44 million people use illicit or non-prescribed drugs. Using any of these substances at high doses or in inappropriate situations can cause a number of health and social problems, either immediate or over time.  – National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2016

Knowing the similarities and differences in substance use vs. substance abuse disorder aids in proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Addiction is a broad category, and many different diagnoses are encapsulated to describe addiction behaviors. For example, substance use, substance abuse, substance dependence, binge drinking, and heavy drinking are considered to be just a few of the many possible disorders. Despite the similarities of the disorders previously mentioned, all addictive disorders have classifications used to distinguish one from the other. To make things even more complicated, each condition also has different severity levels or spectrum standards, types of substance used, patterns of use (e.g., episodic, prolonged, continuous, etc.).

Overall, addiction is very complicated, and a proper diagnosis is the best treatment.

What is a Substance?

To understand substance use vs. substance use disorder, it’s imperative to clarify a substance’s definition. The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines a substance as any psychoactive compound with the potential to cause health and social problems, including addiction. Some substances are legal such as alcohol and tobacco. Illicit drugs usually encompass any outlawed chemical, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc. There are also controlled substances used by licensed physicians or prescribers for medical purposes, such as hydrocodone or oxycodone.

Each substance can be arranged into seven classes depending on their pharmacological and behavioral effects:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Cannabinoids
  • Opioids
  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens

Individuals who use any of these substances at high doses or to self-medicate can define what is called substance misuse. A very prevalent type of substance misuse is binge drinking. Binge drinking refers to a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .08 percent or higher. That said, binge drinking doesn’t automatically qualify someone as having an alcohol use disorder (AUD). On the other hand, AUD isn’t defined by a particular BAC; instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes it as a chronic condition. Each of these classifications has tailored alcohol treatment plans that help to address binge drinking, regular use, and dependence on alcohol.

What is Substance Use vs. Substance Abuse?

substance use vs substance use disorderSubstance abuse is very similar to substance use. However, substance abuse is defined by the overindulgence of a substance rather than a single alcohol or drug use episode. 

Abusing a substance can happen in many ways. It can occur through heavy drinking, over medication, or using a substance in a manner other than its intended use. For example, according to the DSM-5, alcohol use disorder is the chronic binging or the problematic use of alcohol. The key terms here suggest long-term use with potential impactful health and social issues.

Abusing a drug is often considered to be a more severe diagnosis than substance use. For one, substance abuse is much more dangerous and risky for physical and emotional health. It can also indicate the disease of addiction and problematic habits despite consequences.

Substance abuse disorder also accounts for many of the overdoses and hospitalizations within the United States. Unfortunately, substance use vs. substance use disorder tends to be diagnosed simultaneously, indicating many who use a substance will use it in excess or in a manner not intended for use. In the United States, opioid abuse disorder is a significant concern as many of those struggling with opioid dependence are prescribed pain medication by a physician. Opioid use is an example of how substance use can turn into substance abuse quickly.

Further information on substance abuse criteria is provided below.

  • Loss of control over a substance
  • Investing a significant amount of time and energy in obtaining, using, and recovering from substance use
  • Continued use despite problems
  • Cravings
  • Risk-taking
  • Lack of pleasure in hobbies
  • Health problems
  • Loss of employment
  • Withdrawal
  • Tolerance

Substance abuse is very similar to a substance use disorder. The main difference between both is the excessive use of one or more substances in a risky or dangerous manner. Substance use refers to the patterns of use of a substance. To have proper treatment, it is vital to know the differences between the two diagnoses.

AspenRidge can provide a proper assessment to guide you through the recovery journey.

What is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use refers to episodes of substance use rather than ongoing, habitual, or patterned use. Substance use disorder suggests alcohol or drug addiction, a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior. It leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal substance. 

terms of addictionContinued use of drugs and alcohol is considered to be a substance use disorder. There are certain substances that automatically fall within substance abuse, even after a single-use. For example, heroin is considered an illicit and highly addictive drug even if only consumed once. For this reason, it automatically suggests substance abuse, given the severity and potency of the drug.

Other substances are a little more difficult to classify among the spectrum of substance use vs. substance use disorder. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition, substance use disorder is defined as the problematic use of drugs or alcohol to avoid emotional or physical pain.

Common substances used include alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, pain medication, and several other legal and illegal drugs. Substance use may be perceived as less severe than other substance use disorders. However, the use of substances places all users at an elevated risk for future substance abuse and dependence. Substance Use Disorder is often one of the first signs of a potential addiction in the future. Symptoms of a substance use disorder include:

  • Taking a substance in larger amounts than desired
  • Inability to minimize the use of a substance
  • Spending significant resources on obtaining, using, and recovering from alcohol or drugs
  • Urges or cravings
  • Dangerous and risky behavior
  • Relationship problems
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Tolerance

Substance use disorder is commonly found among young adults ages 18-25. This may be due to the drinking culture within the college systems. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates about 55% of college students engage in binge drinking or substance use per month. Although many college students are not diagnosed with a substance use disorder, it is important to know the warning signs to properly assess drinking behavior and possibilities for this behavior to transform into more difficult diagnoses such as substance use dependence.

How Does Misuse or Abuse Lead to Dependence?

Substance use or misuse can lead to more significant problems: substance dependence commonly referred to as an addiction.

Substance dependence is the physical and emotional reliance on a drug or alcohol despite physical, emotional, and social consequences. Substance dependence is often considered to be a strong addiction as the drug has become a part of the individual’s life regularly.

Recovery from substance dependence can be challenging and even life-threatening if not appropriately addressed. Many common substances or drug dependence symptoms include:

  • Using drugs despite the consequences
  • Being unable to stop using substances
  • Neglecting social and work obligations due to drug use

Ongoing Substance Use vs. Substance Use Disorder Trigger:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Glaucoma
  • High tolerance for the substance
  • More frequent use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop using

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 22.7 million Americans need help treating a drug or alcohol problem. In some cases, people may take prescription medication for pain and other medical conditions. This kind of use can sometimes develop into a substance use disorder.

The following are known to trigger substance use vs. substance use disorder issues:

  • Having a family history of addiction
  • Living in an environment with easy access or frequent use of illegal drugs
  • Having a history of anxiety
  • Having a history of depression
  • Having a history of other mental health conditions

It is critical to seek support for substance abuse, as stopping a substance immediately can lead to death. AspenRidge can provide care to those at all stages of their problematic behaviors. This also includes medication-assisted treatments. Common medications used for proper substance use recovery include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. If you or a loved one feel that they may have a substance use dependence disorder, you are highly encouraged to contact AspenRidge as soon as possible.

How Can AspenRidge Help Me Determine My Level of Use?

terminology for addictionAspenRidge offers a wide variety of services to address concerns with substance use vs. substance use disorder. These services are able to help in making a change in addictive behaviors. AspenRidge is exceptionally resourceful and is a strong advocate for those seeking further understanding of their substance use.

Our treatment program at AspenRidge is renowned for its ability to work with substance use and maintain sobriety during and after the treatment process. AspenRidge has developed a phase-oriented process that ranges in length and is tailored to individual needs related to mental health care, substance dependency, and evidence-based approaches. Through our Colorado addiction treatment center, we offer:

Online Care: Substance Use Vs. Substance Use Disorder

Whether you’re facing binge drinking or occasional illicit drug use, support is available. It’s much easier to address substance use issues early on rather than when addiction takes hold. AspenRidge understands that substances impact everyone differently and often support groups, individual therapy, and substance use coaching can prove beneficial and positively impactful for individuals and families. Our center now offers an easier way to receive support when facing substance misuse, abuse, and dependence.

AspenRidge now offers dual diagnosis treatment programs for substance abuse and mental health through AspenRidge Virtual Care Online. Discover evidence-based treatment modalities, community-based support, and dedicated certified therapists. For more information, give us a call directly at 855-281-5588.

  • Daily Strength – Daily Strength is a community of people that offers help to people who struggle with addictions. Their website has a convenient way to research various group topics. This will allow you to find the right place for you to begin talking with others. Daily Strength is a great online resource for information or new friendships.
  • Therapy Tribe – Therapy Tribe offers a great way to connect with others who are also battling addictions. They have a social media piece that will make it easy to find others using the most popular social media sites. You can also connect with others in recovery through their website.
  • SMART Recovery – SMART Recovery has been around for several years. They specialize in a personalized approach to addiction recovery support. SMART Recovery can assist you in creating the changes you desire in your life.

Contact AspenRidge Today

The staff at AspenRidge operate from an evidence-based model and provide proper assessment before treatment. They are dedicated to tailoring treatment as much as possible to each client’s needs. It is highly encouraged for prospective clients to contact AspenRidge Recovery Centers at 855-678-3144 to schedule an assessment, speak to staff about various programs, or verify different insurance plans. Gaining knowledge prior to taking the steps towards recovery is important, and AspenRidge is determined to provide clear information.

Further information can also be found at You can also participate in online self-assessments where you will be connected with safe and confidential staff members to review your results.

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