Drug Abuse Signs and Symptoms

by Jake Colton

Drug Abuse and Addiction


Are you struggling with a drug problem that’s spiraled out of control? If so, you may feel isolated, helpless, and ashamed. Or perhaps you’re worried about a friend or family member’s drug use. In either case, you’re not alone. Addiction is a problem that many people face.
The good news is that you or your loved one can get better. There is hope—no matter how bad the substance abuse problem and no matter how powerless you feel. Learning about the nature of addiction—how it develops, what it looks like, and why it has such a powerful hold—will give you a better understanding of the problem and how to deal with it.

  • Understanding addiction
  • Effects of drug abuse and addiction
  • Signs and symptoms
  • Warning signs
  • Drug addiction and denial
  • Getting help for drug abuse and addiction
  • When a loved one has a drug problem

Addiction is a complex disorder characterized by compulsive drug use. People who are addicted feel an overwhelming, uncontrollable need for drugs or alcohol, even in the face of negative consequences. This self-destructive behavior can be hard to understand. Why continue doing something that’s hurting you? Why is it so hard to stop?

The answer lies in brain. Repeated drug use alters the brain—causing long-lasting changes to the way it looks and functions. These brain changes interfere with your ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control your behavior, and feel normal without drugs. These changes are also responsible, in large part, for the drug cravings and compulsion to use that make addiction so powerful.

How addiction develops
The path to drug addiction starts with experimentation. You or your loved one may have tried drugs out of curiosity, because friends were doing it, or in an effort to erase another problem. At first, the substance seems to solve the problem or make life better, so you use the drug more and more.

But as the addiction progresses, getting and using the drug becomes more and more important and your ability to stop using is compromised. What begins as a voluntary choice turns into a physical and psychological need. The good news is that drug addiction is treatable. With treatment and support, you can counteract the disruptive effects of addiction and regain control of your life.

Common Myths of Addiction

Using drugs as an escape: A short-term fix with long-term consequences
Many people use drugs in order to escape physical and emotional discomfort. Maybe you started drinking to numb feelings of depression, smoking pot to deal with stress at home or school, relying on cocaine to boost your energy and confidence, using sleeping pills to cope with panic attacks, or taking prescription painkillers to relieve chronic back pain.

Why do some drug users become addicted, while others don’t?

As with many other conditions and diseases, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person. Your genes, age when you started taking drugs, and family and social environment all play a role in addiction. Risk factors that increase your vulnerability include:

  • Family history of addiction
  • Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences in childhood
  • Mental disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Early use of drugs

Definition of drug abuse and drug addiction

Common signs and symptoms of drug abuse

You’re neglecting your responsibilities at school, work, or home (e.g. flunking classes, skipping work, neglecting your children) because of your drug use.
You’re using drugs under dangerous conditions or taking risks while high, such as driving while on drugs, using dirty needles, or having unprotected sex.
Your drug use is getting you into legal trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, or stealing to support a drug habit.
Your drug use is causing problems in your relationships, such as fights with your partner or family members, an unhappy boss, or the loss of old friends.

Common signs and symptoms of drug addiction
  • You’ve built up a drug tolerance.You need to use more of the drug to experience the same effects you used to with smaller amounts. You take drugs to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms.
  • If you go too long without drugs, you experience symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety.
  • You’ve lost control over your drug use. You often do drugs or use more than you planned, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t. You may want to stop using, but you feel powerless.
  • Your life revolves around drug use. You spend a lot of time using and thinking about drugs, figuring out how to get them, and recovering from the drug’s effects.
  • You’ve abandoned activities you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your drug use.
  • You continue to use drugs, despite knowing it’s hurting you. It’s causing major problems in your life—blackouts, infections, mood swings, depression, paranoia—but you use anyway.
What drugs are most commonly abused and what are the signs and symptoms?

Almost all drugs have the potential for addiction and abuse, from caffeine to prescription medication. However, the majority of non-alcohol related addictions are due to a short list of drugs including sleeping pills, painkillers, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin.

Warning signs that a friend or family member is abusing drugs
Drug abusers often try to conceal their symptoms and downplay their problem. If you’re worried that a friend or family member might be abusing drugs, look for the following warning signs:

Physical warning signs of drug abuse

Bloodshot eyes or pupils that are larger or smaller than usual.
Changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
Deterioration of physical appearance and personal grooming habits.
Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination.

Behavioral signs of drug abuse

Drop in attendance and performance at work or school.
Unexplained need for money or financial problems. May borrow or steal to get it.
Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors.
Sudden change in friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies.
Frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities).

Psychological warning signs of drug abuse

Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
Sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts.
Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation, or giddiness.
Lack of motivation; appears lethargic or “spaced out.”
Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid, with no reason.

Warning Signs of Teen Drug Use

There are many warning signs of drug use and abuse in teenagers. The challenge for parents is to distinguish between the normal, sometimes volatile, ups and downs of the teen years and the red flags of substance abuse.
Being secretive about friends, possessions, and activities.
New interest in clothing, music, and other items that highlight drug use.
Demanding more privacy; locking doors; avoiding eye contact; sneaking around.
Skipping class; declining grades; suddenly getting into trouble at school.
Missing money, valuables, or prescriptions.
Acting uncharacteristically isolated, withdrawn, or depressed.
Using incense, perfume, or air freshener to hide the smell of smoke or drugs.
Using eyedrops to mask bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils.

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