Language of Substance Use Disorder
The way in which we talk about substance use and misuse and substance use disorder matters. If used positively, our language can help reduce the stigma often experienced by people who use drugs. Click the dropdowns below to explore the language related to substance misuse and substance use disorder.
It is also important to note that the language relating to substance use and misuse changes quickly, and the list of terms below does not cover everything. If you see any language below that might need updating and/or if you would like to add terms, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Good Samaritan Law: Law that provides limited immunity to those who call 911 in good faith to save a life. It also allows first responders, law enforcement and trained lay people to administer naloxone to people experiencing an overdose.1 Learn about Minnesota’s Good Samaritan Law
- Opioids: Class of drugs that includes heroin and prescription medications. Opioids are often prescribed after surgery or injury, or to relieve cancer pain. Common types of opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), morphine, fentanyl, and methadone.1
- Opiate: Naturally-occurring substance that produces euphoria, derived from opium, a poppy plant.1
- Narcotics: A term used by law enforcement to reference illicit substances and controlled substances being used or sold for nonmedical purposes.
- Heroin: Highly addictive illicit opiate that creates a surge of euphoria; processed from morphine.1
- Fentanyl: A powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever similar to morphine but stronger than both morphine and heroin. Although it is a prescription medication, it is most often illicitly-manufactured. It is often found as an mixed with other drugs and is a cause for the increase in accidental overdose deaths.1
- Synthetic Opioids: Opioids created chemically in a laboratory (fentanyl, methadone).1
For more information, see Fentanyl 101
- Overdose: Injury to the body (poisoning) that happens when a drug is taken in excessive amounts. An overdose can be fatal or nonfatal.1
- Non-Medical Use of Prescription Drugs: Use of prescription opioids for reasons or in ways other than as prescribed, or without a prescription.2
- Substance Misuse: The use of a substance for a purpose not consistent with legal or medical guidelines.2 Avoid terms like ‘drug abuse’.
- Tolerance: The body’s ability to process and experience the effects of a certain amount of a substance. As opioid use increases or decreases, so too does a person’s level of tolerance to opioids.2
- Withdrawal: Symptoms that can occur after long-term use of a drug is reduced or stopped; these symptoms occur if tolerance to a substance has occurred, and vary according to substance. Withdrawal symptoms can include negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, or depression, as well as physical effects such as nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and cramping, among others. Withdrawal symptoms often lead a person to use the substance again. 3
- Substance Dependence: A condition that can occur with the regular use of illicit or some prescription drugs, even if taken as prescribed. Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when drug use is stopped. A person can be dependent on a substance without being addicted, but dependence sometimes leads to addiction.
- Substance Use Disorder (SUD): A medical illness caused by disordered use of a substance or substances. According to the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SUDs are characterized by clinically significant impairments in health, social function, and impaired control over substance use and are diagnosed through assessing cognitive, behavioral, and psychological symptoms. An SUD can range from mild to severe. Avoid terms such as ‘drug addict’ and ‘substance abuse’.
- Harm Reduction: Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs. 4
- Abstinence from Substances: When a person is not using any controlled or illicit substances, they are abstinent from substances. Avoid terms such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ to refer to someone’s current state of substance use.
- Addiction: A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive (or difficult to control) drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences, as well as long-lasting changes in the brain. In the past, people who used drugs were called “addicts.” A better, appropriate term is people who use drugs.
For more information, see Identification of Substance Use Disorder
1 Retrieved from CDC Commonly Used Opioid Terms
4 Retrieved from Principles of Harm Reduction
- Naloxone: Medication (opioid antagonist) administered to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. Naloxone is commonly sold under the brand names Narcan® and Evzio®. It is available through injectors (intramuscular or IM), nasal sprays, and auto-injectors.1
- Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) / Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Integrates medications (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) with behavioral therapies and medications to treat substance use disorders.1
- Benzodiazepines: Class of drug used mainly as tranquilizers to control symptoms of anxiety. Like opioids, benzodiazepines depress breathing. Taking opioids and benzodiazepines together can increase the risk for overdose.1
- Analgesics: a group of drugs used to achieve analgesia, or relief from pain.
- Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs): Electronic databases, typically state run, that collect dispensations of controlled substance prescriptions. Access is intended to provide a consolidated view of patients’ controlled substance history to aid in providing safe care and assist with investigation of potential misuse, abuse or diversion of controlled substances. Learn more at Minnesota’s Prescription Monitoring Program.
The common opioids have many street names, including, but not limited to:
- Heroin: Dope, Smack, H, Train, Black Tar, China, White Horse, Junk, Judas, Boy
- Fentanyl or fentanyl-laced heroin: Apache, TNT, China Girl, White China, Tango and Cash, Murder
- Morphine: Morph, Miss Emma, M
- Codeine: Cody, Captain Cody, Schoolboy, Lean
- Hydrocodone: Vike, Vic, Watson-387, Norco
- Oxycodone: Percs, Cets, Oxy, OC, Hillbilly Heroin, Roxy, Kicker
- Hydromorphone: Dust, Juice, Dillies, Smack
- Benzodiazepines: Downers, Sleeping Pills, Tranks, Chill Pills, Z-bar, Bricks, Benzos, Bars, Zan, Zannies
- Methamphetamine: Meth, Speed, Crank
- Cocaine: Blow, Bump, Coke, Line, Snow
How journalists and members of the media talk about substance use, misuse and substance use disorder can impact perceptions of people who use drugs. Visit Changing the Narrative's website to learn more about how to incorporate accurate, humane and scientifically-backed language relating to substance use into journalistic reporting.
Read the Overdose Cluster Response Messaging: A Guide for Public Health and prevention Organizations (PDF) document for further suggestions on language and images to use and how to shape a prevention-focused narrative when communicating about overdoses.
Please visit the Opioid Dashboard for more information on opioid overdose death, nonfatal overdose, use, misuse, substance use disorder, prescribing practices, supply, diversion, harm reduction, co-occurring conditions, and social determinants of health.