Drugs have been a significant problem in the US for many decades, and they show no indication of slowing their pace soon. This will continue to result in countless lives being destroyed by drug misuse, not only the ones participating in the misuse but the devastating effects it can have on their friends, family, and loved ones.

One of the biggest contributing factors has become drug misuse, and while this may sound similar to drug abuse, it is a wholly separate problem from abuse and deliberate addiction. Drug misuse is always unintentional and can start very simply by individuals that would never consider using a drug for recreational purposes. 

It is important to know all you can about drug misuse and how it can affect anyone who legitimately uses medication or other substances. Additionally, it can be vital to understand the signs of drug misuse so that you are informed on how to identify a potential misuse situation. This can help you recognize the symptoms of drug misuse in others around you and yourself so that help can be sought. 

Some measures can be taken to help prevent or minimize the risk of drug misuse, but they aren’t always foolproof. For example, ensuring that drugs are safely stored when not needed to prevent accidental or early dosing and ensuring that old and outdated prescriptions or prescriptions that are no longer needed are properly disposed of are two of the most common ways to prevent drug misuse. Sometimes, however, this isn’t enough, and misuse can still happen.

The side effects of drug misuse can be incredibly serious and can vary as widely as the spectrum of conditions they are prescribed to treat. Since drug misuse can happen with any prescribed medication, the misuse can occur across several drug families, including stimulants, depressants, benzodiazepines, and even opioids. Once misuse happens, and the side effects are felt, it is often too late, and the individual should consider seeking some professional assistance. 

What Is Classified As Drug Misuse?

Drug misuse differs from intentional drug abuse and can only occur with over-the-counter or prescription medications. While over-the-counter medicines can be misused, serious side effects are rarer than when prescription medications are misused, resulting in medically significant and potentially deadly outcomes. 

Using a drug in a way that it is not intended to be used can vary and involve something as simple as forgetting to take medicine at a prescribed time or otherwise not following the medical instructions outlined in their treatment plan and prescription instructions. The most defining feature is that the term ‘drug misuse’ only applies to those taking a drug without the desire or objective “to get high.” 

For example, if an individual has been prescribed sleep aid, such as Ambien or similar substances, they may experience drug misuse when taking a second pill after the first one “didn’t work” or failed to help them gain restful sleep. While the medical directive from their healthcare professional may advise against taking a second dose on the same night, someone who fails to get the desired effect may take a contraindicated follow-up dose, qualifying as drug misuse.

This can be inconsequential, life-threatening, or anywhere in between. Each individual’s experience will depend greatly on the drug being misused and how it is being misused. Someone who begins taking two pills instead of one “because one doesn’t help the pain much” could be setting themselves up for an incredibly strong chemical dependency and an intense and potentially medically serious withdrawal when they stop taking the drug.

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Signs Substance Abuse May Be Affecting Your Life

There are many ways to tell if you or someone you know may be starting to misuse a drug, and while some may be apparent to those outside the circle of those close to the individual, many will be only recognizable by the one misusing the drug. Some of the most common signs will also be the most obvious, while some will be subtle changes to behavior or psychological stability.

All prescription medications come with specific instructions which detail the dosage, the frequency, and the precautions for the prescribed drug. Misuse can often be easily determined if the prescribed individual is not adhering to those instructions. The most common ways this is done is either by not adhering to the dosage frequency and taking a dose earlier than is indicated or by taking a higher dose at each prescribed dosage time. 

However, the proper dosage and frequency according to confidential doctor instructions is not something that someone other than the individual misusing the drug would know. With this in mind, many other signs could indicate that someone close to you may have a drug misuse problem. These signs will often be physical or behavioral and may be relatively subtle.

For those close to the individual, behavioral changes will likely be the first signs. When someone begins having trouble with drug misuse, they will frequently display increased irritability, aggression, and hostility. This will also usually accompany lethargy and an unusual lack of motivation.

There may also be sudden or drastic changes in eating habits or appetite, along with similar changes to their personal and professional priorities. Followers on social media may see postings become disjointed, manic, or noticeably different than usual. Those who have developed a very strong dependency during their misuse may also become involved in criminal activity or other legal problems exacerbated by increased spending on their drug misuse.

In some cases, the appearance of an individual living with drug misuse will also change drastically. Many drugs affect the eyes, causing them to become bloodshot or reducing pupillary response in dilated and constricted pupils. Frequently, the individual will begin to care less about their physical appearance and hygiene and develop poor coordination.

Other key signs include the constant mental focus on obtaining more of the drug or subsequently using the drug. The individual will also likely allow personal and professional relationships to suffer or deteriorate in the face of using the drug. Finally, the individual will often express a desire to stop using but may be deterred by the sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms. 

Side Effects of Misusing A Drug

Countless prescriptions are designed to help treat almost every condition under the sun. They can be incredibly effective when used under proper supervision according to the healthcare provider’s instructions. However, when a drug is misused, the same side effects that were manageable or non-existent under proper use can become much more serious and, in some cases, even deadly. 

The side effects of drug misuse will depend to a great extent on the individual misusing the drug, such as their age and medical condition, as well as the specifics about their misuse, such as the particular drug being misused and how it was being misused. Many of the side effects will be related to the drug in question, while the symptoms experienced and intensity will depend more on the individual’s medical condition and medical history. In addition, short-term and long-term effects will often be present depending on the drug and how long it was used in a way that wasn’t intended to be used.

Short-Term Side Effects Of Drug Abuse

  • Significant or drastic changes in appetite
  • Unusual levels of wakefulness or drowsiness
  • Unusual changes in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Emotional instability and mood swings
  • A sudden propensity for stroke or seizure
  • Psychosis
  • Coma
  • Death
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Long-Term Side Effects Of Substance Abuse

  • Mental illness
  • Blood-borne infections such as HIV/AIDS & hepatitis
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Kidney disease and renal failure
  • Liver damage and potential failure
  • Permanent changes or damage to key areas of the brain, such as memory formation, storage, and retrieval
  • Reduced pleasure in things once enjoyed, such as food, sex, and favorite hobbies
  • Potentially permanent reductions in cognitive abilities, like problem-solving, learning, and critical thinking
  • Damage to personal and professional relationships, which may be irreversible

How To Get The Help You Need When Struggling With A Substance Abuse Disorder

If you or someone close to you may be having an issue managing their drug misuse, the best thing to do is reach out today and speak with an experienced addiction professional on a confidential basis. Once misuse has started building a chemical dependency in the individual misusing the drug, it can be incredibly difficult, and even dangerous in some cases, to attempt the detox and withdrawal stage alone.

By working with experienced addiction counselors, the individual seeking treatment can help create their treatment plan and build a solid foundation for future recovery. Completing the detox and withdrawal stage in a clean and safe environment can be done with as much comfort as possible. In addition, competent medical supervision can significantly reduce the potential for dangerous medical complications.


Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

  1. MedlinePlus. Prescription Drug Misuse. Accessed July 9, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/prescriptiondrugmisuse.html
  2. Medical News Today. What Are The Effects Of Drug Abuse? Published June 19, 2022. Retrieved October 21, 2022. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/effects-of-drug-abuse
  3. National Institute On Drug Abuse. Drugs, Brains, And Behavior: The Science Of Addiction: Drug Misuse And Addiction. Published July 2020. Retrieved October 21, 2022. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-misuse-addiction
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed July 9, 2022

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