the 8 types of drugs

What are the 8 Types of Drugs?

Although most people vaguely understand that not all drugs are identical, it’s common to speak simply of “drugs” as though they all fell under one umbrella. Or to talk about “alcohol and drugs” even though alcohol is no less a drug than is any illegal substance. Or to focus so much attention on opioids (or whatever drug is at the center of the currently most publicized social crisis) as to forget how many other drug categories exist.

While there is no single comprehensive list of the different “families” or “types” of drugs, many medical experts recognize eight categories.

1. Opioids

Opioids/opiates are the first drugs that come to most people’s minds upon hearing “addiction” or “street drugs,” though opioids are also used medically as painkillers. Derived from opium-poppy extract or made synthetically, these drugs induce a pleasant feeling of drowsy numbness, but can also cause dangerous slowing of body functions. Opiates are extremely addictive, and a person in withdrawal will experience symptoms akin to a severe case of the flu: vomiting, muscle pain, fever, heavy perspiration. 

Examples of opioid drugs include:

2. Depressants

Opiates are also depressant drugs in the sense of “depressing,” or slowing down, body functions. Many other depressants are even more dangerous: besides carrying high risk for addiction or overdose, they can have truly life-threatening withdrawal effects, such as seizures or heart failure. “Sleeping pill” medications and many antianxiety compounds, as well as alcohol, are in this category.

Examples of depressant drugs include:

  • Alcohol
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines.

3. Prescription Drugs

While most prescription drugs/medicines also fit one of the other drug categories, many people assume that anything prescribed by a doctor is “different” from illegal drugs and carries no potential for harm. This is a very dangerous assumption. Prescription drugs are safer than illegal ones in being well-tested and subject to quality control; but that doesn’t mean any prescription should be taken with a cavalier attitude. Anyone can have an unexpected bad reaction, and even doctors can get careless in their advice: indiscriminate prescriptions helped cause the current opioid-addiction epidemic. Most serious problems, however, begin when someone goes outside prescription instructions and starts taking “just a little more” on their own initiative. (This is a common temptation when a prescription no longer seems to be “working”—a possible warning that tolerance, the first step toward addiction, is developing, in which case more of the same is the last thing a person needs.)

Examples of prescription drugs include:

4. Cannabinoids

Drugs extracted from cannabis plants soothe nausea, reduce pain, and induce feelings of euphoria, confusion, or anxiety. Marijuana, the best-known cannabinoid, is a Schedule I drug (no recognized legitimate medical use) under U.S. federal law and is known to carry psychosis and addiction risks. Nonetheless, cannabinoids are now considered medical drugs in most states, and are sold over the counter in many places.  

Examples of cannabinoid drugs include:

  • Marijuana
  • Hashish
  • Marinol (a prescription pill that reduces nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients)
  • Syndros (an antiemetic for anorexia patients)
  • Epidoloex (an epilepsy medicine).

5. Stimulants

Stimulants “stimulate” the nervous system, speeding up body functions and causing users to feel energized, alert, and often anxious or euphoric. Medically, stimulants are most often used to treat concentration-related problems such as ADHD. However, many people take stimulants carelessly in attempts to stay awake for late-night work, “wake up” after taking depressants, lose weight, or boost self-confidence. Stimulants can be highly addictive, and withdrawal is characterized by extreme anxiety, drug cravings, and/or depression.

Examples of stimulant drugs include:

6. Hallucinogenic Drugs

Hallucinogens distort perception of reality, or cause users to experience things that don’t actually exist. Mood swings are frequent under hallucinogenic influence. For some people, a hallucinogen “trip” is a pleasant experience: others become panicky or develop delusions of invulnerability, and may seriously injure themselves acting on their misperceptions.

Examples of hallucinogenic drugs include:

  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
  • Phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP)
  • Psilocybin
  • Mescaline.

7. Inhalants

Anything that gives off chemical fumes becomes a drug when someone deliberately inhales those fumes to get high. To concentrate the fumes for greater effect, users often cover the inhalant container and their heads with a plastic bag: death by suffocation is not uncommon.

Examples of inhalant drugs include:

  • Nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”)
  • Gasoline
  • Glue
  • Paint thinner.

8. Steroids

Anabolic steroids are probably the best-known “performance-enhancing drugs”: they build muscle and improve athletic ability, but they have extremely unpleasant side effects: violent mood swings, balding, altering of secondary sex characteristics, and sometimes heart trouble or stroke.

Examples of steroid drugs include:

  • Anadrol
  • Dianabol
  • Stanozol.


More Than 8 Types of Drugs

Of course, not every drug falls neatly into a single category—and many people take drugs from different categories together, which increases risks.

While understanding the unique qualities of each drug type is useful in determining medical treatment for overdose or addiction, it’s as important to recognize that any type of drug—even if not particularly addictive—can cause serious problems if used carelessly. Remember these key points:

  • Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all. (If you or anyone in your family have a history of substance use disorder, complete abstinence is the safest course.)
  • Never use any illegal drug.
  • Take medical drugs strictly according to prescription—and report any problems to your doctor at once.
  • And if you suspect you already have a drug-addiction problem, get professional help immediately. Don’t procrastinate, rationalize, or try to “just quit” on your own. Medical detox and follow-up support guarantee the best odds of getting and staying clean.

Contact Recovery Without Walls for Addiction Treatment

Different types of drugs have different effects, addiction risks, and withdrawal symptoms; but whatever the exact drug(s) involved, addiction is an illness that requires professional medical treatment. If you have symptoms of substance use disorder but your other responsibilities make a lengthy inpatient treatment program less than feasible—or if you’ve tried detox before and found it inadequate for your needs—consider our Recovery Without Walls holistic outpatient program. We treat every aspect of addiction and tailor every treatment program to individual patient needs. Contact us today to learn more!