Substance Use Disorder: Symptoms, Treatment, and FAQs

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Substance use disorder is a complex condition characterized by an unhealthy pattern of substance use, which can vary in intensity from mild to severe. Substance use disorder, sometimes abbreviated to SUD, is the clinical descriptor for addiction. 

Although SUD is incurable, all substance use disorders can be effectively treated. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be developing an addiction, seek assistance promptly – substance use disorder is a progressive condition that benefits from timely intervention.

This guide highlights the most common substance use disorder signs and symptoms to help you determine the existence or extent of a problem with addiction.

What is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized by a maladaptive pattern of substance use that leads to distress and impairs various aspects of life.

Substance use disorder occurs on a spectrum. Individuals may experience mild, moderate, or severe manifestations. SUD is a chronic and relapsing brain disorder often marked by an overwhelming compulsion to use substances regardless of adverse outcomes, the development of increased tolerance to the substance, and the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.

People may develop an addiction to one substance like alcohol or opioids, or they may abuse multiple substances – meth in combination with alcohol and prescription painkillers, for instance. Polysubstance abuse is an especially dangerous form of drug abuse.

Substance use disorder profoundly affects physical and mental well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life. Additionally, it poses a significant risk to life itself. Recognizing the signs of substance use disorder and seeking prompt assistance can streamline the journey towards recovery and healing.

A woman looks down to represent symptoms of substance use disorder

Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder

The revised edition of American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) outlines the following substance use disorder symptoms:

  1. Consumption of the substance in greater quantities than intended or for longer than planned.
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to reduce or discontinue substance use.
  3. Significant time spent acquiring, using, and recovering from substance use.
  4. Strong cravings use the substance.
  5. Failure to fulfill important personal and professional responsibilities due to substance use.
  6. Continued substance use despite experiencing persistent social and interpersonal problems as a result.
  7. Giving up or reducing participation in important activities as a result of substance use.
  8. Engaging in substance use in physically dangerous situations.
  9. Continued substance use despite a psychological or physical issue being triggered or worsened by it.
  10. Development of tolerance – either needing higher amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect or experiencing reduced effects with the same amount.
  11. Withdrawal symptoms, either characteristic of the substance or using the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms (such as alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal).

These DSM criteria help mental health specialists diagnose substance use disorder. Diagnosis of involves assessing the presence of DSM-5 substance use disorder symptoms and determining the severity of the disorder.

  • Mild addiction: Presence of 2 to 3 criteria.
  • Moderate addiction: Presence of 4 to 5 criteria.
  • Severe addiction: Presence of 6 criteria or more.

Additionally, substance use can trigger various symptoms and behaviors that include:

  • Cognitive impairment and confusion.
  • Neglecting or losing interest in maintaining a regular, healthy eating pattern.
  • Withdrawal from social interactions with friends and family.
  • Engaging in risky activities without considering the consequences.
  • Sudden, noticeable changes in behavior or mood.
  • Responding with denial or hostility if confronted about substance use.
  • Decreased concern for personal appearance compared to previous levels of grooming and self-care.
  • Exhibiting secretive behavior in an attempt to conceal substance use.
  • Using addictive substances even when alone, without the presence or influence of others.

An awareness of these additional signs and symptoms of substance use disorder can help determine the appropriate course of action – typically seeking professional help or staging an intervention.

man sitting at a table to represent substance use disorder signs and symptoms

What is The Treatment for Substance Use Disorder?

Treatment for substance use disorder involves a comprehensive and individualized approach to address the unique needs of each person. The goal of treatment is to help individuals overcome their problematic substance use, regain control over their lives, and improve their overall well-being.

There are various treatment options available, and the most effective approach depends on variables such as the type and severity of the substance use disorder, the individual’s specific circumstances, and their preferences. Some common components of addiction treatment include:

  • Detoxification: This is usually the first step in the treatment process and involves safely managing withdrawal symptoms as the body clears the substances from its system. Medical supervision and support may be necessary during this phase. Detox addresses the issue of physical dependence. Ongoing treatment in an inpatient or outpatient rehab is typically required to tackle the psychological aspect of substance use disorder. 
  • Behavioral therapies: These therapies focus on modifying harmful thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors related to substance use. CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), MI (motivational interviewing), and CM (contingency management) are examples of evidence-based approaches that can help people in recovery develop coping strategies, enhance motivation for change, and prevent relapse.
  • Medications: In the case of alcohol use disorders and opioid use disorders, FDA-approved medications may be prescribed to aid in the treatment of substance use disorders. Medications can help manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, or block the effects of certain substances. The specific medications used will depend on the substance involved and individual needs.
  • Support groups: Participating in support groups, such as 12-step programs like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous), can provide valuable peer support, encouragement, and a sense of community for individuals in recovery.
  • Counseling and therapy: Individual counseling or therapy sessions can address underlying issues contributing to substance use, improve mental health, and provide support during the recovery process. Family therapy may also be beneficial to address family dynamics and help rebuild relationships.
  • Holistic approaches: Complementary and alternative therapies, such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, art therapy, and exercise, can complement traditional treatment methods by promoting relaxation, self-awareness, and well-being.

Recovery from substance use disorder is a lifelong process, and treatment may need to be adjusted or continued over an extended period. The support and involvement of family, friends, and a strong social support network can also play a significant role in the success of treatment and long-term recovery.


What’s the difference between substance use/misuse and substance use disorder?

While substance use or misuse refers to the general consumption of substances in a manner that may be harmful or risky, substance use disorder is a clinically diagnosable condition characterized by a problematic pattern of substance use causing significant impairment or distress.

What is the difference between substance use disorder and addiction?

Substance use disorder is a clinical term used to describe a range of problematic substance use behaviors ranging from mild to severe, while addiction is a non-clinical term that is typically associated with severe substance use disorders.

Who does substance use disorder affect?

Substance use disorder can affect individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, including adolescents, adults, and older adults.

How common is substance use disorder?

Data from NSDUH 2021 indicate that over 46 million U.S. over-12s reported a substance use disorder in 2021.

an image of people who got through the signs and symptoms of substance use disorder

Get Treatment for Substance Use Disorder at Ohio Recovery Centers

At Ohio Recovery Centers, our personalized addiction treatment programs cater to individuals struggling with alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drug addictions.

Extensive research indicates that intensive outpatient treatment is as effective as residential rehab for mild to moderate addictions, offering greater flexibility and affordability without compromising the quality of care. Choose from IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) or outpatient programs at our Cincinnati rehab facility, depending on the level of support and structure you require.

Our comprehensive treatment approach combines pharmacological, behavioral, and holistic therapies, providing a scientifically-backed path to recovery. Upon completion of our program, you will possess relapse prevention strategies, coping techniques, and the option for ongoing therapy if needed. Call 877-679-2132 to contact our admissions team for immediate assistance.

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn