Signs of Drug Addiction

The signs of drug addiction include being out of control with drug use, spending an inordinate amount of time or money on drug use, using in spite of the problems or harm it causes, and developing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Early signs of drug abuse are not always easy to see, in others or in oneself, but recognizing when drug use is starting to get out of control and become problematic is important. Treating mild substance use disorders is easier than treating drug addiction. But, with dedication to an individualized and professional treatment plan it is possible to overcome addiction.

Drug addiction is a very serious behavioral disorder that is characterized by becoming dependent on a substance. There are many signs and symptoms that a person may exhibit when struggling with addiction. They can manifest in various ways depending on the individual, the severity of the addiction, and the type of drug or drugs being misused.

In general and for most people, drug addiction is characterized by being out of control with drug use, being unable to stop, and continuing to use drugs in spite of problems it causes.

These problems can vary depending on the individual but may include fights with loved ones, declining performance at school, legal problems, financial problems, physical health issues, exacerbated mental illness, and more.

Drug addiction is problematic in many ways, with consequences that may even include death, but it is also treatable. Someone struggling with drugs needs to be diagnosed and to participate in an ongoing treatment plan.

Drug Abuse vs. Drug Addiction


The term drug addiction generally refers to a state in which someone is fully dependent on a drug and cannot stop using without help. This can include psychological dependence as well as a physical need for the drug due to the changes it has caused in the brain. Drug abuse refers to problematic substance use that has not necessarily progressed to addiction.

Today, professionals in addiction call these behavioral health conditions substance use disorders rather than abuse and addiction. A substance use disorder may be mild, moderate, or severe. When mild or moderate, it may mean that a person is abusing drugs but is not yet dependent or fully addicted. When classified as severe, it means a person is dependent and has an addiction. Substance use disorders are diagnosed according to eleven criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Signs of Drug Abuse


Simply using drugs does not mean that a person is addicted, but any misuse of illicit drugs or abuse of prescription drugs is considered problematic and is often referred to as drug abuse. Abusing drugs is problematic, because it can cause serious consequences and put a person at risk for developing an addiction. Signs that someone is abusing drugs can vary by individual, but may include:

  • Using drugs to cope with negative emotions, such as depression or anxiety
  • Using drugs to make social connections and overcome social anxiety
  • Going from using drugs socially to using them alone
  • Relying on drugs more and more often
  • Letting responsibilities slip
  • Changing behaviors, such as fighting with family more or skipping activities just to use drugs
  • Getting in trouble because of drug use
  • Spending a lot of money, more than one can really afford, on drug use
  • Starting to have physical health problems caused by drugs, such as not sleeping enough or gaining weight
  • Experiencing personality or mood changes when using drugs

Diagnostic Signs of Drug Addiction


The signs of substance use disorders are listed in the DSM-5 and are used to make an official diagnosis of a disorder that is mild, moderate, or severe. Exhibiting just two or three of these 11 symptoms qualifies an individual as having a mild substance use disorder—what was previously called substance abuse. Moderate substance use disorder is diagnosed if someone has four or five symptoms. With six or more symptoms diagnosis is severe substance use disorder, or addiction:

  1. Using the drug more often, for longer, or in higher doses than intended
  2. Wanting to stop or slow down drug use but being unable to do so successfully
  3. Spending a significant amount of time using drugs, trying to get drugs, or recovering from the effects of drug use
  4. Experiencing cravings, or strong urges, to use a drug
  5. Having problems at work, home, or school because of drug use
  6. Continuing to use drugs even knowing that the behavior is causing social problems and relationship issues
  7. Giving up or reducing previously enjoyable activities because of drug use
  8. Repeatedly using drugs in situations that are risky or dangerous
  9. Continuing to use drugs knowing that it is causing physical or psychological health problems
  10. Experiencing tolerance, a diminished effect of using the same amount of a drug, or needing to use more of a drug over time to get the desired effect
  11. Experiencing withdrawal, symptoms caused by stopping use of a drug, or continuing to use a drug to avoid withdrawal

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Recognizing Signs of Addiction in Others


Loved ones, such as family members or friends, who are misusing drugs or who have become addicted may try to hide the signs. They may be successful at it, too, but eventually the issues that addiction causes will rise to the surface and become impossible to ignore. These are some warning signs that someone may be struggling with drug use:

  • They are performing poorly at work or school, missing time, or getting into trouble, when previously they were doing well.
  • This person may begin to neglect personal hygiene, chores around the house, or overall appearance.
  • They may start to have money problems, asking for money without saying why it is needed, or even stealing money or items that could be sold.
  • Look for physical health issues that can’t be explained by other causes, such as fatigue, weight gain or loss, poor sleep habits, or being sick often.
  • Any behaviors that are unusual or different for someone, and that can’t be explained by any other factors, should be cause for concern. These may include changing mood or attitude, being secretive, or having a new group of friends.
  • They may seem to be intoxicated often, which, depending on the drug, may cause euphoria, poor coordination, slurred words, slow reaction times, and other unusual behaviors.
  • There may be legal problems associated with drug use, such as getting caught in possession of drugs, getting into fights, or driving under the influence.

Signs by Type of Drug


The general signs of drug addiction are the same no matter what type of substance a person is using. However, there are some specific symptoms that different types of drugs can cause. Knowing these can help someone recognize drug abuse earlier in a family member or friend. Signs of marijuana use include:

  • Euphoria
  • High blood pressure and heart rate
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased appetite and overeating
  • Delayed reaction times and poor coordination
  • Paranoia

Opioids, including heroin and prescription narcotics, cause:

  • Euphoria
  • Slurred speech
  • Small pupils
  • Poor coordination
  • Lack of awareness of surroundings
  • Memory problems
  • Drowsiness or sedation
  • Confusion
  • Runny nose or needle marks depending on how the drug is used

Signs of misuse of benzodiazepines and barbiturates include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Mood changes
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Slowed breathing
  • Dizziness and falls
  • Involuntary eye movements

Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine cause:

  • Euphoria and exhilaration
  • A sense of inflated confidence
  • Rapid speech
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Confusion, delusions, paranoia
  • Increased heart rate and body temperature
  • Poor judgment
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia

Drug Addiction is Treatable


Recognizing signs of drug addiction is important because it is treatable. Drug use can be fatal, but the earlier it is recognized, diagnosed as a substance use disorder, and treated, the better the outcome. Treatment is often best done in a residential setting where patients can stay in a safe environment and focus on therapy and other types of treatment. Those with milder substance use disorders or with strong family support at home can benefit from treatment on an outpatient basis.

It is crucial to recognize drug addiction, to get it diagnosed, and to get it treated. When individuals who struggle with drug use commit to long-term treatment, and stick with it even after a residential stay is complete, have a good prognosis. Relapse is not uncommon, but even with this possibility, a person can learn to live with this chronic illness, to stop destructive behaviors, and to function normally again.