Patient talking with a counselor as part of their addiction treatment.

What Are the Most Common Addictions & Abused Substances?

Addiction is a chronic mental illness that about 23 million American adults struggle with, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It’s a disease that ultimately affects every aspect of a person’s life, from their relationships and families to work and hobbies.

Addiction is not just a craving; it’s an inherent need to partake in that action or substance, despite any negative consequences. People can form addictions to illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, nicotine, social media, and gambling, among many others. Learn more about the most common addictions and abused substances.

Table of Contents:

  1. What Are the Most Common Addictions & Abused Substances? 
  2. Most Common Addictions in the United States
    1. Alcohol Addiction
    2. Tobacco Use
    3. Illicit Drug Use
    4. Prescription Drug Addiction
      1. Stimulants for Mental Disorders
      2. Depressants
      3. Pain Relievers
    5. Inhalant Addiction
    6. Gambling Addiction
    7. Video Game Addiction
      1. Mobile App Games
  3. Addiction Treatment Programs
  4. Meridian Provides Hope for Recovery

Most Common Addictions in the United States

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) every year to collect data on how many people are struggling with addiction across the country. Some of the most common are alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, prescription medication, inhalants, problem gambling, and video game addiction.

Alcohol Addiction

One of the most common addictions in the United States is alcohol. Alcohol has widespread availability, making it easier for people to try the depressant. Alcohol abuse problems are more likely to form the earlier a person drinks. A 2006 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that young adults who began drinking in their early teenage years were at a greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. In fact, out of the 43,000 respondents, 47% met the criteria for alcohol dependence before the age of 21.

Alcohol can present other health risks, even without an addiction. Excessive alcohol can cause harm to the heart and circulatory system, as well as cause kidney and liver disease.

Tobacco Use

While tobacco use has decreased over the years, it is still one of the most addictive substances commonly used today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 13 out of 100 adults in the U.S. actively smoked cigarettes in 2020 — a 20% decrease from 2005 when 21 out of 100 adults were active smokers.

Tobacco use can lead to numerous health problems depending on its form. Smoking tobacco is known to cause lung cancer and emphysema. Chewing tobacco can cause cancers of the tongue, jaw, and esophagus. It can also contribute to the development of inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Illicit Drug Use

The 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by SAMHSA reveals the types of illicit drugs used by people over the age of 12. Marijuana use was the most common, with 46% using the drug within their lifetime (18% in the past year). Cannabis users may become dependent and experience withdrawal symptoms after no longer using, even without a severe marijuana addiction. Hallucinogens also had a high prevalence, with 16% using within their lifetime and 2% in the past year. Methamphetamine use is another common addiction, with 6% of those surveyed trying the drug within their lifetime.

Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription medications are used every single day by millions of people treating various illnesses. Prescription misuse can still occur even when the drug is medically necessary. In 2020, over 16 million people reported misusing prescription drugs within the past year, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Stimulants for Mental Disorders

Medications that treat mental disorders can be misused when directions are not followed or when they are taken by those who do not need them. These include stimulant drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Dexedrine.


Depressants like barbiturates and benzodiazepines are often prescribed to treat sleep disorders, anxiety, muscle spasms, and seizures. Commonly used medications include Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and sedatives (Ambien and Lunesta).

Pain Relievers

Painkillers are commonly prescribed to patients who suffer from a serious injury or are experiencing a great deal of pain. While they successfully relieve pain, a person can become addicted if misused. Prescription opioids, in particular, are extremely addictive. For this reason, doctors’ orders for dosage and frequency should be strictly followed. Common addictive painkillers include morphine, codeine, Vicodin, and OxyContin.

Inhalant Addiction

More than 1,000 household products can be misused by inhaling the substance as a hallucinogen. Teenagers and young adults primarily use inhalants, but over 2 million Americans across age groups have reported using inhalants in the past year.

Inhalants fall into several broad categories, such as volatile solvents, aerosols, gasses, and nitrites. Users inhale vapors directly from the container or rags soaked in the substance.

Side effects of long-term inhalant abuse include severe damage to the user’s heart, lungs, and brain. The brain is especially vulnerable to inhalants, and chronic use can permanently affect the user’s mental health and result in brain damage. Effects of brain damage include slurred speech, loss of memory, and personality changes.

Gambling Addiction

While most people associate addiction with substance use or alcohol, other activities are common addictions as well. In fact, approximately 1% of the American population has experienced problem gambling.

For some people, gambling is more than just a form of entertainment – it becomes an ongoing problem that leads to financial issues, lost relationships, and psychological stress. If continued gambling creates negative consequences in a person’s life, this is a sign of addiction.

Video Game Addiction

Playing video games can have benefits like improving hand-eye coordination, sharpening deductive skills, and teaching players to work in collaboration. Problems arise when players ignore their lives and obligations to continue gaming. Excessive video game playing can lead to social withdrawal as players prioritize socializing in a digital environment.

Due to the hard-to-define nature of video game addiction, warning signs are harder to spot. A gamer can lose interest in other aspects of life, develop problems with concentration, or display more aggressive behavior.

Mobile App Games

Video game addiction is not solely an adolescent problem. Video game consoles used to need television connections. These days, however, people carry a video game console around with them everywhere they go: their smartphones. With the rise of mobile app games, video game addiction has become more common in a wider range of age groups and demographics.

It may not be what comes to mind when you first think of a “video game addiction,” but mobile app game addiction is real (and has been for a decade now). A Time Magazine article dating back to 2013 outlines the science behind the addition to the popular app Candy Crush.

Addiction Treatment Programs

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, treatment options are developed based on the addiction and its severity. The mental health professionals at addiction treatment centers evaluate and determine the best treatment plan for each individual.

Most addiction treatment programs use a variety of individual and group therapy to help the patient. Individual counseling allows them to open up and talk to their counselor, learning ways to cope with their cravings. Group therapy and support groups allow like-minded people with similar struggles to meet with each other and support their recovery process.

Substance abuse treatment often begins with a detox. Detox is an inpatient service for those with substance use disorder to overcome withdrawal symptoms. Detox centers provide 24/7 monitoring and support from trained medical staff.

Meridian Provides Hope for Recovery

Addiction is a disease and should be treated as such. As you can see by the most common addictions and abused substances, many people across the country are struggling with addiction — but there are people taking steps forward in their recovery every single day.

The first step in any addiction treatment program is acknowledging the existence of a problem — and it’s the hardest. If you or a loved one is struggling with any kind of addiction, Meridian HealthCare is ready to help.

*If this is a crisis, please call 9-1-1.