Signs & Symptoms of Drug Addiction

The signs, symptoms, and effects of substance abuse can be different for every person impacted. Learning about substance abuse is one of the first steps towards getting better.

Understanding Addiction

Learn about addiction and substance abuse

Substance abuse is a general term that encompasses the misuse of legal and illegal drugs, including the improper use of prescribed medications, the overuse of legal substances such as alcohol, and the ingestion of illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Substance abuse can refer to both a one-time event, such as consuming alcohol to the point of impairment, and an ongoing behavior, such as the chronic abuse of pain medications. Individuals who engage in substance abuse often become dependent upon the drugs that they have been using. In clinical terms, this occurrence is known as developing a substance use disorder. The American Psychological Association describes substance use disorders as being characterized by pathological patterns of behaviors that are related to the use of a particular substance or substances.

Substance abuse and substance use disorders have wreaked incalculable damage on individuals, families, and communities throughout the United States and around the world. In addition to having a negative impact on the physical and psychological health of those who engage in the behavior, substance abuse is also associated with family discord, crime, financial damage, and a host of additional negative sociological repercussions.

When a person develops a substance use disorder, he or she may be incapable of overcoming the compulsion to abuse a particular drug without proper professional intervention. The good news is that specialized programming has proven to be effective in the effort to help men and women end their chemical dependence and make the lifestyle changes that allow them to live healthy, drug-free lives.


Substance abuse statistics

Data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that between 80 and 90 percent of adults in the United States have engaged in substance abuse at least once in their lives. In the United States, the three most commonly abused psychoactive substances are alcohol, marijuana, and prescription medications. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 20 million Americans are currently struggling with a substance use disorder, yet fewer than 15 percent of these individuals will get the treatment that they need.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for substance abuse

The likelihood that a person will engage in substance abuse or develop a substance use disorder can be influenced by a number of causes and risk factors, including the following:

Genetic: Studies suggest that genetics are responsible for as much as 60 percent of the risk variance for developing certain substance use disorders. Individuals who have a family history are at an increased risk for developing a substance use disorder, as are those who possess certain inheritable traits such as impulsivity and novelty seeking.

Environmental: Cultural attitudes regarding the use and abuse of certain substances can be a strong environmental influence on the development of certain substance use disorders. Other environmental influences may include being exposed to excessive stress, living in poverty, experiencing trauma, and associating with peers who engage in substance abuse.

Risk Factors: 

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Prior substance abuse
  • History of abuse, neglect, or other trauma
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Age (early exposure to substance abuse significantly increases the likelihood of problems throughout one’s life)
  • Early aggressiveness
  • Access to substances of abuse
  • Associating with individuals who engage in substance abuse
  • Impulsivity
  • Novelty seeking
  • Low educational achievement
  • Poverty

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of substance abuse

Individuals who engage in substance abuse or who have developed a substance use disorder may display a variety of symptoms depending upon a wide range of individual factors. The following are among the more common indicators that a person has been abusing alcohol or another drug:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Deceptiveness about whereabouts, acquaintances, and actions
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at work or at home
  • Spending a great deal of time acquiring, using, or recovering from the use of a substance
  • Unexplained absences from work or other responsibilities
  • Possessing drug paraphernalia
  • Behaving in a hyperactive manner
  • Using substances even when it is dangerous to do so, such as when driving a car
  • Withdrawal and isolation

Physical symptoms:

  • Rapid, slowed, slurred, or otherwise abnormal speech patterns
  • Bloodshot and/or watery eyes
  • Dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Dramatic change in appetite
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Sores, scabs, abscesses, and other skin problems
  • Profuse perspiration
  • Frequent headaches and nosebleeds
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Racing thoughts
  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Racing thoughts
  • Suicidal ideation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Depression


Effects of substance abuse

Substance abuse can negatively impact a person’s life in myriad ways, including the following:

  • Increased propensity for colds, flu, and similar problems
  • Damage to virtually all major organs
  • Exposure to hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Increased risk of developing certain cancers
  • Diminished performance at work
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Family discord, marital strife, separation, and divorce
  • Damaged or destroyed interpersonal relationships
  • Financial problems
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Development or worsening of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Substance abuse and co-occurring disorders

Individuals who develop a substance use disorder may also be at an increased risk for developing a host of co-occurring mental health disorders, including the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of withdrawal and overdose

Effects of substance abuse withdrawal: When a person has become dependent upon a drug, then stops or drastically reduces his or her use of that drug, he or she will likely experience several distressing withdrawal symptoms. Though specific symptoms will vary depending upon a range of factors, the following are common symptoms of withdrawal:

  • Strong cravings for the substance
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Profuse perspiration
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Pain in muscles and bones
  • Tics and tremors
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Depression
  • Seizure

Effects of substance abuse overdose: The signs and impact of overdose will vary depending upon several factors, including the type of substance, the amount taken, and the individual’s tolerance for that drug. However, the following are common signs that may indicate that a person has overdosed on a dangerous substance:

  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish tinge near lips and fingernails
  • Dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Slow, shallow, or labored breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Excessive drop or rise in blood pressure
  • Profound confusion or disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure
Marks of Quality Care
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)
  • Glasser Quality Organization
  • Pennsylvania Department of Drug & Alcohol Programs
  • PsychArmor