Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse


Substance abuse causes changes to the brain that can actually prevent the user from seeing the resulting negative consequences. Early detection is vital in preventing long term damage to brain function, physical health and relationships. However, recognizing the signs of addiction can be challenging, especially when it comes to teenagers. It’s important to remember that many of the signs of drug abuse can also be explained by other changes in a person’s life or just natural teenage behavior. If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be addicted to drugs, here are some signs to be looking for:

Recognizing Your Own Drug Abuse

The effects of substance abuse may vary from person to person, but one thing stays the same across the board, and that’s the increasing and irrational need for more. Normal everyday concerns such as work, family, friends and hobbies become secondary to the need for more of the drug. Irreparable damage can be caused due to this impaired judgment. The Mayo Clinic offers these signs for recognizing your own addiction:

  • Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly -- this can be daily or even several times a day
  • Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
  • Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
  • Spending money on the drug even though you can't afford it
  • Doing things to obtain the drug that you normally wouldn't do, such as stealing
  • Feeling that you need the drug to deal with your problems
  • Driving or doing other risky activities when you're under the influence of the drug
  • Focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug

Recognizing Drug Abuse in a Loved One

Pay attention to drastic and sudden changes in behavior or mood, especially if your loved one jumps very quickly from extreme highs to extreme lows. This may manifest in he or she being excessively energetic, restless or talkative often with an inability to sleep, or he or she may be unusually calm, apathetic, depressed and “spaced out” with long periods of deep sleep. Moods may also quickly jump from irritability and anger to happiness and cheer. Pay attention to these extremes. If they aren’t related to drug abuse, they could be an indication of another problem.

Unexpected changes in clothing or grooming habits could be an indication of drug use. If a person is suddenly always wearing long sleeves and seems careful about exposes his or her arms, this could be an indication of needle track marks and scarring at injection sites. Also personal hygiene and grooming habits may be neglected as the drug user’s priorities shift to the constant need for the drug and his or her mind becomes clouded and distorted by the chemicals.

Suspected drug paraphernalia such as unexplained pipes, roach clips, syringes, unusual containers or wrappers and drug apparatus, including pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, eye drops, butane lighters or makeshift smoking devices.

Pay attention to specific physical and health issues associated with drug abuse. These are generally associated with the method of drug consumption. Drugs that are snorted may cause chronic sinus infections, nosebleeds or runny and sniffly nose. Drugs that are smoked may cause an excessive cough or bronchitis including coughing up mucus or blood. Meth users may have severe dental problems and tooth decay, and injected drugs will leave track marks along the injection site. Other drug use may be associated with red or glassy eyes or sudden weight loss or weight gain. These are only some of the physical signs of drug abuse. For more detailed information see Traditional Drugs of Abuse (hyper link) for a list of symptoms associated with specific drugs.

Psychological and cognitive indicators of drug abuse may include paranoia, delusions, temporary psychosis, hallucinations, lowered threshold for violence, abnormally slow movements, slow speech or reaction time, confusion and disorientation.

Withdrawal from family members and a lack of interest in once important things such as hobbies, sports, and other favorite activities may be an indication of addiction.

Erratic sleep cycles and unusual sleep patterns such as being up at night and sleeping during the day may be a result of chemical shifts due to drug use and the highs and lows of drug induced states.

Recognizing Drug Abuse in a Teenager

It’s not always easy for parents to indentify when their children are using drugs because many of the signs and symptoms of drug abuse are also associated with normal teenage behavior. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to sleep for long periods of time, be subject to dramatic mood swings or even binge eat. These are sometimes simply functions of the teenager’s changing body. However, that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t be concerned about these behaviors. Always stay alert to changes in your teens, especially when they make dramatic shifts in their normal patterns coupled with multiple warning signs of addiction. Here are some warning signs that your child may be using drugs suggested by the Mayo Clinic:

Problems at school. Frequently missing classes or missing school, a sudden disinterest in school or school activities, and a drop in grades may be indicators of drug use.

Physical health issues. Lack of energy and motivation may indicate your child is using certain drugs.

Neglected appearance. Adolescents are generally concerned about how they look. A lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks may be a warning sign of drug use.

Changes in behavior. Teenagers enjoy privacy, but exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering their rooms or knowing where they go with their friends might indicate drug use. Also, drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends may be linked to drug use.

Spending money. Sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation for its use may be a sign of drug use. You may also discover money stolen from previously safe places at home. Items may disappear from your home because they're being sold to support a drug habit.


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