Types of drugs

Drugs can be grouped together in different ways – by the way they affect the body, how they are used or where they are used. Find out which drugs we are focused on reducing in Australia.

Drug categories

Drugs can be categorised by the way in which they affect our bodies:

  • depressants – slow down the function of the central nervous system
  • hallucinogens – affect your senses and change the way you see, hear, taste, smell or feel things
  • stimulants – speed up the function of the central nervous system.

Some drugs affect the body in many ways and can fall into more than one category. For example, cannabis appears in all 3 categories.


Depressants slow down the messages between the brain and the body — they don’t necessarily make you feel depressed. The slower messages affect:

  • your concentration and coordination
  • your ability to respond to what’s happening around you.

Small doses of depressants can make you feel relaxed, calm and less inhibited.

Larger doses can cause sleepiness, vomiting and nausea, unconsciousness and even death.

Examples include:


Hallucinogens change your sense of reality – you can have hallucinations. Your senses are distorted and the way you see, hear, taste, smell or feel things is different. For example, you may see or hear things that are not really there, or you may have unusual thoughts or feelings.

Small doses can cause a feeling of floating, numbness, confusion, disorientation, or dizziness.

Larger doses may cause hallucinations, memory loss, distress, anxiety, increased heart rate, paranoia, panic and aggression.

Examples include:


Stimulants speed up the messages between the brain and the body. This can cause:

  • your heart to beat faster
  • your blood pressure to go up
  • your body temperature to go up – leading to heat exhaustion or even heat stroke
  • reduced appetite
  • agitation
  • sleeplessness.

You can feel more awake, alert, confident or energetic.

Larger doses can cause anxiety, panic, seizures, stomach cramps and paranoia.

Examples include:

Common groups of drugs

Drugs can also be grouped by how or where they are commonly used.


Analgesics – or painkillers – relieve the symptoms of pain. Some people take more than the recommended dose to get high, or to self-harm. They can also be overused by people who have chronic pain.

Some are available over the counter, such as:

Others require a prescription from a doctor, such as:


Inhalants are substances that you breathe in through the nose (sniffing) or mouth. They are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly, giving the user an immediate high.

There are 4 main types of inhalants:

  • volatile solvents – liquids that turn into a gas at room temperatures — for example, paint thinners and removers, glues, petrol and correction fluid (liquid paper)
  • aerosol sprays – for example, spray paints, deodorants and hairsprays, fly sprays and vegetable oil sprays
  • gases – for example, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), propane, butane (cigarette lighters), helium
  • nitrites – for example, room deodorisers and leather cleaners.

Most of these are depressants, except for nitrites.


Opioids are a type of painkiller that can be made from poppy plants (heroin) or produced synthetically (fentanyl). Also called opiates or narcotics, they are addictive as they can give you a feeling of wellbeing or euphoria.

Examples include:

Party drugs

Party drugs are a group of stimulants and hallucinogens. They are often used by young people in an attempt to enhance a party, festival or concert experience. However, dozens of Australians become seriously ill or die after using party drugs each year.

The most common party drug is ecstasy (MDMA), but the pills/tablets/capsules are of variable purity or don’t actually contain any MDMA and may contain a wide range of other substances. You cannot be sure what you’re taking and the risks to your health are high.

Performance and image enhancing drugs

Performance and image enhancing drugs are substances used by people to change their physical appearance or boost their sporting ability, for example, weightlifters and athletes.

There are 3 main types of performance and image enhancing drugs:

  • anabolic steroids – synthetic hormones that help grow and repair muscles
  • peptides – stimulate the release of human growth hormone, which is involved in muscle and bone growth
  • hormones – both natural and artificial – for example, growth hormones, selective androgen receptor modules, insulin-like growth factors, mechano growth factor.

Read more about perfomance and image enhancing drugs.

Prescription drugs

Medicines prescribed by a doctor – also known as pharmaceuticals – that are not being used appropriately can cause harm, both short and long-term. People assume that all prescribed medicines are safe, but not following instructions or combining them with other medicines, drugs and/or alcohol can be dangerous.

Did you know?

Drug-related deaths from prescribed drugs are more common than those for illegal drugs.

Examples include:

Read more about medicines and prescribed drugs.

Psychoactive drugs

Psychoactive drugs affect the way you think, feel and behave. They act mainly on the central nervous system, changing brain functions and temporarily changing your consciousness.

Examples include:

Synthetic drugs

Synthetics drugs are a range of drugs that have been developed to create similar effects to banned drugs. These new psychoactive substances are being developed quickly, trying to stay ahead of the law. They are also called ‘legal highs’, although in most cases they are not legal.

Because they are not regulated or tested and change constantly there is not a lot of information about their effects and side-effects. You cannot be sure what you are taking or how it will affect you.

Examples include:

Our priorities

Our National Drug Strategy identifies a number of drug types that cause the most harm in Australia. These include:

  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • cannabis
  • methamphetamines (e.g. MDMA) and other stimulants such as cocaine
  • new psychoactive substances – synthetic drugs
  • opioids, including heroin
  • the non-medical use of prescription drugs.

Find out what we’re doing about drugs.

Date last updated:

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