A Comprehensive Guide on What Are Drugs

Discover the comprehensive guide on what are drugs. Uncover origins, impacts, and health risks. Knowledge is power!

By Alis Behavioral Health Staff

May 8, 2024

Understanding Drugs

To truly comprehend the nature of drugs, it is important to explore their origins and their impact on neurons.

Origins of the Term

The term "drug" originated in Middle English as "drogge" in the noun form in 1611, with its verb form emerging in 1667, as stated by Merriam-Webster. Over time, the term has come to encompass a wide range of substances that have various effects on the mind and body.

Impact on Neurons

Drugs have a profound impact on the intricate workings of neurons, the cells responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. They interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters.

Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. By binding to specific receptors, these drugs can initiate abnormal neuronal activity, leading to various psychoactive effects.

On the other hand, drugs like amphetamine or cocaine can cause neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent their normal recycling by interfering with transporters. This disruption in neurotransmitter function can result in intensified neural signaling and alter the balance of chemicals in the brain, ultimately affecting mood, cognition, and behavior.

The brain areas affected by drug use include the basal ganglia, which is part of the reward circuit. Drugs can alter these important brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions and can drive the compulsive drug use that characterizes addiction.

The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a central role in reinforcing pleasurable activities. Drugs can cause large surges of dopamine, which "teach" the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other healthier activities. This hijacking of the brain's reward system can contribute to the compulsive drug-seeking behavior observed in addiction.

Understanding the origins of the term "drug" and the impact of drugs on neurons provides a foundation for grasping the complex nature of these substances. By delving deeper into the dangerous drugs, common illicit drugs, prescription drugs, and the health risks associated with drug use, one can gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Dangerous Drugs

When discussing drugs, it is important to highlight some of the most dangerous substances that pose significant risks to individuals' health and well-being. In this section, we will explore three highly dangerous drugs: fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine.


Fentanyl is a highly dangerous and potent opioid that presents a grave threat to individuals who come into contact with it. Fentanyl is considered to be one of the most potent opioids available. It is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. The potency of fentanyl increases the risk of addiction, overdose, and even death.

Fentanyl is commonly found mixed with other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, which further elevates the risk of overdose and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that individuals who use drugs may unknowingly consume fentanyl, as it is often added to other substances without their knowledge, making it difficult to determine the strength and potential dangers of what they are taking [1].


Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that has severe mental and physical side effects. Heroin is known for its negative impact on individuals' health. It can lead to a range of health problems, including collapsed veins, infections, liver and kidney disease, and respiratory issues.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights the addictive nature of heroin and the potential for severe health consequences, including overdose and death. The withdrawal symptoms from heroin can be intense and painful, which often contributes to the cycle of addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also emphasizes the increased risk of infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, associated with heroin use.


Methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, is a highly addictive stimulant drug that poses significant risks to an individual's health. According to Health Canada, methamphetamine is a strong stimulant that can have long-lasting effects and can be fatal. The drug is known for its highly addictive properties and the potential for devastating consequences.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights the detrimental effects of methamphetamine on the brain and body, including addiction, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk of HIV and hepatitis due to risky behaviors associated with drug use. Tooth decay, weight loss, psychosis, and an elevated risk of stroke and heart attack are among the physical and mental health problems associated with methamphetamine use, as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Understanding the dangers associated with these drugs is crucial in raising awareness about their potential risks and promoting informed decisions regarding substance use. The health and well-being of individuals should always be a top priority, and seeking help and support for those struggling with drug addiction is paramount.

Common Illicit Drugs

When discussing drugs, it is important to understand that not all substances are legal or safe for consumption. In this section, we will explore three common illicit drugs: ketamine, GHB, and marijuana.


Ketamine is a powerful dissociative anesthetic that was originally developed for medical and veterinary purposes. However, it is now commonly used recreationally due to its mind-altering effects. Ketamine causes detachment from reality and may lead to risk-taking behaviors. It is important to note that ketamine is sometimes used as a "date rape" drug, making it a dangerous substance to be aware of.


GHB, or gamma-hydroxybutyrate, is a central nervous system depressant that is commonly known as a "date rape" drug. It is usually found in the form of a colorless and odorless liquid. GHB has a high risk of overdose and can be addictive, with serious withdrawal effects. Due to its potential for misuse and harm, caution must be exercised when dealing with GHB.


Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States. In 2019, nearly 50 million people reported using marijuana at least once. It is estimated that around 30% of marijuana users experience marijuana use disorder. Marijuana can be consumed in various forms, such as smoking, vaping, or ingesting edibles. It has mind-altering effects due to the presence of the psychoactive compound THC. It is important to note that marijuana use is subject to legal restrictions in many jurisdictions.

While the use of illicit drugs may be prevalent, it is essential to understand the potential risks and consequences associated with their consumption. Illicit drugs can have both short-term and long-term effects on physical and mental health. It is important to approach drug use with caution and seek professional help if needed. Always remember that the use of illicit drugs is illegal and can lead to serious legal consequences as well as detrimental health outcomes [8].

Effects on Brain Function

When it comes to understanding the impact of drugs on the brain, two key aspects come into play: drug-induced neuronal activation and neuronal communication disruption.

Drug-induced Neuronal Activation

Drugs have the ability to interfere with the normal functioning of neurons in the brain. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, have a chemical structure that mimics that of natural neurotransmitters in the body. As a result, these drugs can activate neurons by binding to specific receptors, triggering abnormal signals and responses [9].

This drug-induced neuronal activation can lead to various effects, including altered perception, mood changes, and euphoria. By hijacking the brain's natural reward system, these drugs can create a powerful sense of pleasure and reinforce drug-seeking behaviors.

Neuronal Communication Disruption

Another way drugs impact brain function is by interfering with the communication between neurons. Drugs like amphetamines or cocaine can cause neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters.

This disruption in neuronal communication can have profound effects on various brain areas, including those involved in reward processing and decision-making. The basal ganglia, which is part of the brain's reward circuit, is particularly susceptible to drug-induced changes. As a result, the brain can become rewired, leading to compulsive drug use and addiction.

The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a central role in reinforcing pleasurable activities. Drugs can cause large surges of dopamine, essentially "teaching" the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other healthier activities [9]. Over time, this can lead to reduced ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards, creating a cycle of drug dependence and addiction.

To summarize, drugs have a profound impact on brain function. They can activate neurons by mimicking neurotransmitters and disrupt normal communication between neurons. These effects can lead to altered perception, mood changes, and addiction. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial in comprehending the complex relationship between drugs and the brain.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are medications that are prescribed by healthcare professionals to treat various medical conditions. They are regulated and can only be obtained with a valid prescription from a licensed healthcare provider. Prescription drugs can be categorized into different classes based on their effects and therapeutic uses. Three common classes of prescription drugs are depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens.


Depressants are drugs that slow down messages between the brain and the body. They work by depressing or inhibiting the central nervous system, resulting in sedative effects. Depressants can induce relaxation, calmness, and inhibitions. Some commonly prescribed depressants include:

While depressants can have therapeutic uses when used as prescribed, larger doses or misuse can lead to adverse effects. Excessive use of depressants can cause sleepiness, drowsiness, confusion, impairments in coordination, and even unconsciousness. In extreme cases, overdose can result in respiratory depression, coma, or death. It is crucial to use depressant medications under the supervision of a healthcare professional and follow the prescribed dosage and guidelines.


Stimulants are drugs that accelerate messages between the brain and the body. They increase alertness, attention, and energy levels. Stimulants are commonly prescribed to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Some examples of prescription stimulants include:

Stimulants can be effective when used as prescribed, but larger doses or misuse can lead to negative outcomes. Excessive use of stimulants can cause anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and even seizures. It is important to follow the prescribed dosage and guidelines when using stimulant medications to minimize the risk of adverse effects.


Hallucinogens are drugs that alter perception, mood, and cognition, often causing hallucinations and distortions in senses. They can lead to unusual thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences. While hallucinogens are not commonly prescribed, they can be used in certain therapeutic settings. Examples of prescription hallucinogens include:

The effects of hallucinogens can vary depending on the specific drug and dosage. Small doses may result in mild effects such as floating sensations or numbness. However, larger doses can induce more intense hallucinations, memory loss, anxiety, paranoia, and even potentially dangerous behaviors. The use of hallucinogens should only be carried out under the guidance of a healthcare professional in a controlled environment.

Prescription drugs, including depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens, can be valuable tools in managing various medical conditions when used as prescribed. However, it is crucial to strictly adhere to the prescribed dosage, guidelines, and recommendations provided by healthcare professionals to ensure the safe and effective use of these medications.

Health Risks and Impact

When it comes to drug use, there are various health risks and impacts that individuals need to be aware of. The effects of drugs can vary significantly depending on the type, amount, and manner in which the drug is taken. In this section, we will explore the short-term effects, long-term consequences, and the development of tolerance and dependence.

Short-term Effects

Short-term health harms can occur due to drug use, including inappropriate use of medications. The immediate effects of drugs can vary depending on the specific drug used, but commonly reported short-term effects include:

  • Altered perception and cognition
  • Euphoria or intense pleasure
  • Increased energy or agitation
  • Relaxation or sedation
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making
  • Anxiety or panic
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

It is important to note that short-term effects can also include serious health emergencies such as overdose. Overdose can occur with prescribed drugs, illicit drugs, or a combination of them, depending on factors such as drug tolerance, purity, and other substances consumed. Immediate medical attention is crucial in cases of overdose to prevent life-threatening complications.

Long-term Consequences

Long-term drug use can lead to various health issues depending on the specific drug used. Some of the potential long-term consequences of drug use include:

  • Catching blood-borne viruses from sharing injecting equipment
  • Respiratory illnesses from smoking illicit drugs
  • Mental health disorders and cognitive deficits
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Weakened immune system
  • Hormonal imbalances and reproductive issues
  • Increased risk of certain types of cancer

Additionally, regular drug use can have significant social, legal, financial, and emotional impacts on individuals. These consequences can strain relationships, lead to legal troubles, and negatively affect overall quality of life.

Tolerance and Dependence

With regular drug use, individuals may develop tolerance, dependence, and experience withdrawal symptoms when reducing or stopping drug use. Tolerance refers to the body's adaptation to a drug, resulting in the need for higher doses to achieve the same effects. Dependence occurs when the drug becomes central to a person's life, and they experience cravings and a loss of control over their drug use.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the type of drug used and can include anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia, nausea, muscle aches, and sweating. The severity of withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, and professional support may be necessary to safely manage the process.

It is important to note that drug abuse can lead to serious health issues and significantly impact an individual's well-being. Seeking help from healthcare professionals, addiction specialists, and support groups can provide the necessary guidance and resources for those struggling with drug-related problems.

Remember, knowledge is power, and understanding the health risks and impacts of drugs can help individuals make informed decisions and seek appropriate help when needed.


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