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Alcohol and Substance Use
Please also reference:
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s page When It Comes to Reducing Alcohol-Related Stigma, Words Matter
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s page Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction
Alcohol misuse vs. alcohol abuse
Use alcohol misuse instead of alcohol abuse when referring broadly to drinking in a manner, situation, amount, or frequency that could cause harm to the person who is engaging in drinking or to those around them.
Alcohol overdose vs. alcohol poisoning
Use alcohol overdose instead of alcohol poisoning, which is not an accurate term.
Alcohol use disorder vs. alcoholism
Use the term alcohol use disorder rather than alcoholism, alcohol abuse, or alcohol dependence.
This aligns with the medical community and federal government’s initiatives to raise awareness that compulsive substance use is a complex brain disorder rather than a moral failing or personality flaw.
Alcoholic and abuse are negative terms that invite a value judgment. Addiction is not a diagnostic term although it is an acceptable synonym for moderate or severe substance or alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol-associated hepatitis, alcohol-associated cirrhosis, and alcohol-associated pancreatitis
Use the terms above instead of alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis, and alcoholic pancreatitis. While the substitution of alcoholic with alcohol-associated has not been adopted widely for these health conditions, changing the language may help to reduce stigma for people diagnosed with these health conditions.
Alcohol-associated liver disease
Use alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) instead of alcoholic liver disease. Use of alcoholic as an adjective may perpetuate stigma for people with ALD and other alcohol-related health conditions. Alcohol-associated liver disease has been adopted officially in the field of alcohol research.
Baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome vs. born addicted
Use baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal/neonatal abstinence syndrome instead of born addicted or addicted baby. Babies cannot be born with addiction because addiction is a behavioral disorder—they are simply born manifesting a withdrawal syndrome. Use clinically accurate, non-stigmatizing language the same way you would for other medical conditions.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, also known as FASD, is a term that refers to the broad range of lifelong birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormalities that occur because of prenatal alcohol exposure.
Focus on the fetus and pregnancy, rather than the mother, as this reduces stigma. For example, use alcohol-exposed pregnancy vs. mother/person who drinks during pregnancy.
Medications to treat opioid use disorders vs. medication-assisted treatment
The widely used term medication-assisted treatment (MAT) stigmatizes the pharmacotherapies as less than adequate and distinct from medications for other medical conditions. Use medications for opioid use disorder, or MOUD, instead of MAT.
Person in recovery
Use person in recovery or person in recovery from alcohol/substance use disorder instead of recovering alcoholic/addict.
Person with a substance use disorder
AP Stylebook: Addiction
Use person with a substance use disorder instead of addict, user, junkie, or drug abuser.
Person with alcohol use disorder vs. alcoholic
AP Stylebook: Alcoholic
Use person with alcohol use disorder instead of alcoholic.
Person with an opioid use disorder or person with opioid addiction
Use person with an opioid use disorder (abbreviated to OUD) or person with opioid addiction instead of addict, user, junkie, or drug abuser. In general, use the term opioid and not narcotic.
Return to use, recurrence vs. relapsed
Use the terms return to use or recurrence instead of relapse when referring to someone who has returned to alcohol or drug use.
Substance use disorder, drug addiction vs. habit
Use substance use disorder (SUD) or drug addiction instead of habit. Habit implies that a person is choosing to use substances or can choose to stop. This implication is inaccurate. Describing SUD as a habit makes the illness seem like a choice, or less serious than it is.
A person can have multiple substance use disorders to different substances (alcohol, stimulants, opioids, etc.). Be thoughtful about when to use a plural version of this term versus the singular disorder.
Testing positive (on a drug screen)
Use testing positive when referring to a drug screen, rather than dirty, or failing a drug test. Use medically accurate terminology the same way it would be used for other medical conditions. Also do not use clean to describe negative test results or abstinence from drug use.
Treatment center vs. rehab
Use treatment center instead of rehab or detox center. The latter terms carry cultural stigmas and misconceptions.
Use, misuse vs. abuse
When referring to illicit drugs, refer to their use instead of abuse. The term misuse should be reserved for prescription medications used other than as prescribed.
This page last reviewed on May 18, 2023