Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

[səbstəns] [yooz] [dis-or-dr]

Shot of an unrecognizable psychologist sitting with her patient and taking notes during a consultation

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 40.3 million Americans, aged 12 or older, had a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year. Substance use disorders continue to be an important health issue in our country.

Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) are treatable, chronic diseases characterized by a problematic pattern of use of a substance or substances leading to impairments in health, social function, and control over substance use. It is a cluster of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues using the substance despite harmful consequences. Patterns of symptoms resulting from substance use (drugs or alcohol) can help a doctor diagnose a person with a SUD or SUDs. SUDs can range in severity from mild to severe and can affect people of any race, gender, income level, or social class.

Key Facts

  • SUDs are treatable, chronic diseases that can affect anyone – regardless of race, gender, income level, or social class.
  • One in seven Americans aged 12 or older reports experiencing a SUD.
  • SUD diagnosis can be applied to the following classes of drugs: alcohol; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; opioids; sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics; stimulants; tobacco (nicotine); and other (or unknown) substances.
  • SUDs can lead to significant problems in all aspects of a person’s life including in their work, school, or home life
  • Coordinated care is critical in treating anyone with a SUD to achieve positive outcomes. Coordinating treatment for comorbidities, including mental health conditions, is an important part of treating a SUD.



SUDs are treatable, chronic diseases. People suffering from SUDs have trouble controlling their drug use even though they know it is harmful. Recovery is possible and there are many safe and effective treatment options, some of which involve medication. Finding the right path to recovery, and continuing to walk it, is critical to overcoming addiction.

Polysubstance Use

The use of more than one drug, or polysubstance use, is common. It includes two or more substances taken together or within a short time, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether intentional or not, mixing drugs is not safe because the effects may be stronger, more unpredictable, and even deadlier than one drug alone.

Illustration showing brain and words drug use and effects on the brain
Effects on the Brain

A key aspect of SUDs is a change in brain circuits that produce long-term behavioral effects. When people take drugs, the brain is flooded with chemicals that stimulate the reward system. This can lead to strong cravings and continued use of the drug despite harmful consequences. The brain adapts to continued use by developing a tolerance, where more drugs are needed to feel the same effect.

An unrecognizable mid adult woman listens as the cheerful mature adult male counselor gestures and speaks
SUD Treatment

Like many other chronic conditions, treatment is available for SUDs. Treatment may involve medications to help with cravings and withdrawal, as well as different forms of therapy. Some individuals may benefit from treatment at a rehabilitation facility. Finding the right treatment option is the key to a successful recovery journey.

Prevention Tips

  • Education, awareness and recognizing the signs of someone who may have a SUD can help prevent adverse consequences and even save a life.
  • Be supportive. If you think you or someone you know needs help for substance use, talk to family members, friends, or a healthcare professional. Everyone can play a role to help their loved ones recover.
  • Reduce stigma with simple changes in your language. Stigma can affect an individual’s willingness to seek treatment or talk to a healthcare provider about their substance use.
  • Recognize that people with SUDs may have other medical conditions, including mental health disorders, and should follow up with their physician on treatment options. For example, medications are available to treat mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, that may co-occur with a SUD.
Access the latest guideline, data, and resources