Teens using drugs at a house partyNot everyone who uses drugs or alcohol has a substance abuse problem. However, of the 9.4 percent of Americans who use illicit drugs, over a quarter (2.6 percent) experience drug abuse or dependence, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Understanding the signs and symptoms of drug addiction to see if you, or a loved one, have a problem is the first step towards getting help.

When does someone become addicted?

Drug use becomes a problem when it starts interfering with your daily life or when it causes distress. This might take the form of:

  • Using drugs in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than was originally intended
  • Unsuccessfully trying to cut down on drug use despite persistent desire or effort to do so
  • Spending a great deal of time trying to get ahold of drugs, use drugs, or recover from their effects
  • Failing to fulfill important obligations at work, school, or home because of drug use
  • Continuing to use drugs despite them causing or worsening social, interpersonal, physical, or psychological problems
  • Reducing or giving up important social, work, or recreational activities in order to use drugs
  • Using drugs in situations where they might be physically dangerous, such as while driving
  • Tolerance, in which higher doses of drugs are needed to achieve the same effects
  • Withdrawal, which causes a cluster of unpleasant symptoms when not using drugs

Common signs of drug abuse/addiction

The key to identifying developing drug addiction is to look for new changes in your loved one’s life. Changes aren’t necessarily a sign of drug use – teenagers may be going through a perfectly normal moody phase, a new source of stress may have appeared in the person’s life, or they may have developed a mental or physical illness. However, when signs of addiction appear together, there’s a good chance that something is going on, and it’s worth your time to find out more.

  • Behavioral signs
    • Personality shifts with no apparent cause
    • Changes in hobbies or activities
    • Loss of interest in family activities
    • Shifts in social circles, such as spending less time with old friends and more time with new friends, particularly if the new friends are known drug users
    • Neglect of personal hygiene habits
    • Loss of motivation, self-esteem, or energy
    • Sudden drop in grades or work performance
    • Being late for or skipping work or school
    • Repeated dishonesty or deceit
    • Suspicious or secretive behavior
    • Frequently being unreachable
    • Excessive desire for privacy at strange times
    • Forgetfulness and difficult paying attention
    • Unexplained temper tantrums or oversensitivity
    • Unexplained giddiness, bounciness, or silliness
    • Unexplained nervousness, moodiness, or irritability
    • Unexplained scrapes, scratches, or injuries
    • Paranoia
    • Car accidents
    • Possession of a fake ID card
    • Possession of drug paraphernalia
    • Unexplained need for money
    • Financial irresponsibility
    • Stealing money or prescription pills (such as painkillers, tranquilizers, or stimulants)
  • Physical signs
    • Insomnia, or inability to sleep
    • Hypersomnia, or oversleeping
    • Being awake at usual times
    • Irregular or racing heartbeat
    • Cold or sweaty palms
    • Tremors or shakiness in the hands or feet
    • Slowed or swaying walk
    • Loss of physical coordination
    • Runny nose or cough
    • Red or watery eyes
    • Pupils that are larger or smaller than normal
    • Flushing or paleness
    • Frequently rubbing the nose
    • Grinding teeth
    • Uncharacteristic sluggishness, laziness, hyperactivity, or talkativeness
    • Strange odors on breath or clothes

Signs of drug abuse/addiction by drug

  • Red, bloodshot eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Unexplained cough
  • Scent of sweet smoke in clothing
  • Scent of cigarettes, cloves, or incense in clothing (used to mask the marijuana smell)
  • Talking too loudly
  • Inappropriate or excessive laughter
  • Sleepiness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Eating excessively or at unusual times, particularly sweet or salty food
  • Weight gain
  • Bizarre behavior, including inappropriate affection, aggression, or paranoia
  • Excessive self-absorption or focus on objects
  • Difficulty interacting with others
  • Mood swings or confusion
  • Dilated or irregular pupils
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  • Hyperactivity or excessive talking
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Giddiness or euphoria
  • Flushed skin
  • Grinding teeth
  • Dry mouth
  • Sore jaw
  • Dilated pupils
  • Skipping meals or sleep
  • Sudden episodes of depression or paranoia
  • Weight loss
  • Needle marks in arms, legs, or feet
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants to cover needle marks
  • Sleeping during the day
  • Sniffling or coughing
  • Sweating or clammy skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of bowel movement regularity
  • Constricted pupils that do not respond to direct light
  • Missing prescription painkiller pills
  • Difficulty seeing
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Rashes around the mouth or nose
  • Impaired memory
  • Drowsiness
  • Clumsiness
  • Irritability or anxiety
  • Unusual number of spray cans or cream charging cylinders in the trash
  • Similar symptoms as alcohol intoxication, without the smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Missing prescription pills

What do I do next?

  • If you suspect that someone you love is addicted to drugs, then it’s time to get help. Here are some tips to keep in mind when discussing drug addiction and treatment with a loved one:

    • Remember that addiction is a mental illness
      Their drug use may have started as infrequent or occasional, but once it’s gotten out of control, willpower alone isn’t enough to fix the problem. The drugs have caused major changes in their brain, and they need professional help. Blaming them for this problem won’t give them any motivation to get clean that they don’t have already, and it may promote feelings of shame or guilt that further feed addiction.
    • Be nonjudgmental
      Make sure they know that you love them and are here to support them. Most people who try to recover from addiction don’t succeed on the first try, reports SAMHSA. It’s normal to cycle through relapse and recovery several times before entering long-term remission, and your loved one needs your help every step of the way. Relapse is not a failure, just part of the process.
    • Understand their situation
      Why have they started using drugs? It may be because of stress, to self-medicate a mental illness, or to fit in with a new peer group. Knowing their motivations for using drugs can help you figure out how best to help them quit.
    • Make sure you’re ready
      Before talking to your loved one about their addiction, make sure you’ve taken the time to work your way through your own feelings on the topic. This conversation isn’t about you – it’s about them. If you are going to work with others to stage a group intervention, such as family, friends, clergy, or mental health professionals, then work with them beforehand to plan what each person will say. Decide what consequences, if any, you will impose if they do not get help. Research treatment options and contact treatment centers to make sure your loved one can begin treatment soon if they agree to get help, so that you have concrete solutions to present.

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    • Time your conversation
      A good time to discuss treatment with your loved one is right after they have experienced concrete consequences of their drug use, such as getting injured, getting a DUI, losing a job, or experiencing a breakup. This can help illustrate why their drug use is a problem and help convince them that it’s time to quit. However, you do want to be careful not to make your loved one feel like you’re hitting them when they are down.
    • Be constructive and concrete
      Present treatment as an opportunity for help and improvement, rather than as a criticism or punishment. Keep a positive, non-confrontational tone – you’re here for them. Try not to make hurtful comments or personal attacks, but instead focus on specific examples of how their drug use has caused problems.
    • Follow through on consequences
      Although it may be painful to watch your loved one suffer, if they won’t agree to treatment, then it may be time to start imposing consequences. Giving them a safety net can enable their drug use. Follow through on any consequences you propose, and be firm.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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