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Substance Abuse Symptoms: Signs of Drug Use

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Many people don’t realize the warning signs of alcohol and drug abuse. Often, the problem continues to spiral downward until someone reaches rock bottom and enters treatment. The first step in helping your loved one is recognizing if they have a problem — and that begins with knowing what substance abuse looks like.

Evidence-based intervention methods combined with an understanding of risk factors can be used to help your loved one recognize their problem and take steps toward recovery. It is important not to let fear or embarrassment prevent you from talking about drug use with your loved one; it could save their life. Red flags include changes in friends, personality, activities, appearance, habits, performance at school or work, or any combination of the above. If you see any of these red flags in someone you care about —regardless of their age—it’s time to intervene before their alcohol or drug abuse gets worse.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is the misuse or overuse of a substance that negatively affects your health or daily life. For example, taking too many painkillers or drinking alcohol every day are considered behavioral signs of drug abuse and alcohol abuse. A lot of times, people use substances for what they think is a good reason, like to ease pain or stress. But if they use it too much, misuse it, or combine it with something else, they can become addicted. Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to a substance use disorder, which includes both physical and behavioral symptoms. If you have a substance use disorder, you may need treatment to help you stop using drugs or alcohol.

Why Do People Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?

  • They experience a traumatic event or stressful situation – People who have experienced stressful events such as the death of a loved one, divorce, and loss of a job are at a higher risk of abusing substances.
  • They have experienced depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue – Those who have experienced depression or another mental health issue may turn to substances as a way to try and feel better.
  • They have a genetic predisposition – Some people are more likely to become addicted to substances due to their genetic makeup. If family members have a history of alcoholism and drug dependence, you have a greater risk of developing an alcohol or drug problem.
  • They have other people in their lives who are addicts – If someone you are close to is addicted to a substance, you are more likely to abuse substances as well.
  • They are in an environment where substances are present – If you spend time around people who abuse substances, there’s a greater chance you will abuse them as well.

Which Substances Are Most Common?

Drugs and alcohol are the two most common substances of abuse. Drugs are usually illegal, synthetic substances that produce a psychoactive (mind-altering) effect when someone takes them. They include marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and other substances. At the moment, the highly addictive drug fentanyl is the biggest culprit behind the United States’ opioid epidemic. Because there are many different types of drugs, it can be tricky to find the telltale signs and symptoms of drug abuse. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in the United States. It’s available legally to those 21 or older, and people misuse it all the time. Alcohol abuse is easy to miss because alcohol can be a part of daily life in many cultures. In addition to alcohol and drugs, there are a number of other substances that can be misused, including prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, inhalants, and even certain supplements.

Why Family Members Should Know the Psychological and Physical Signs of Drug Use

When something tragic like a fatal overdose happens, we are left with questions and not enough answers. Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? How can we make sure it doesn’t happen again? These are all questions that come to mind when dealing with the loss of a loved one due to substance abuse. If you know someone who struggles with substance abuse, or if you find that someone close to you does, you need to be aware of the signs of substance abuse so that you can help them get the support they need as soon as possible. In this article, we give an overview of what substance abuse is, why people turn to drugs or alcohol, what the different types of substances are, and what red flags to look out for if you think someone is struggling with substance abuse.

Signs of Substance Abuse

  • Mood changes – Mood swings are normal, but if someone you know is alternating between extreme lows and highs, they may be abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Increased social withdrawal – If someone you know who used to be the life of the party suddenly stops hanging out with friends or doesn’t want to go out, they may be abusing substances.
  • Physical changes – Physical changes such as sudden weight loss or gain, sleep issues, poor hygiene, and sores or infections where they shouldn’t be are all signs of substance abuse.
  • Rapid changes in spending habits – If someone you know who always has a stable job and a steady income starts to blow through money quickly and make strange purchases, they may be spending their money on drugs or alcohol.

Red Flags for Drug Addiction and Alcohol Dependence

If you notice a few of these signs in someone you know, it’s worth talking to them about it. If you notice a lot of these signs, it’s important to speak up. Substance abuse is a disease, but it can be treated.

  • They’ve tried to quit, but can’t – If someone has tried and failed to quit using drugs or alcohol, they may have a substance use disorder.
  • They use more than they initially intended to – If someone initially intended to use drugs or alcohol once but ends up doing it every day, they may have a substance use disorder.
  • They have cravings – If someone has a strong urge to use drugs or alcohol that’s hard to control, they may have a substance use disorder.
  • They experience withdrawal – If someone experiences withdrawal symptoms when they don’t use drugs or alcohol (like having a bad mood, feeling intense cravings, or feeling sick), they may have a substance use disorder.

Physical Signs of Substance Abuse

When someone is abusing a substance, they put a great deal of strain on their body. Repeated substance abuse can lead to serious health issues, ranging from liver damage and heart damage to brain damage. If you notice any of the following in your loved one, it could be a sign that they’re abusing substances.

  • Inability to focus or concentrate – This can be caused by changes in the brain’s ability to process information. It’s a common side effect of long-term abuse of stimulants like meth, cocaine, or amphetamines.
  • Insomnia – Abusing substances like alcohol or opioids can cause you to have difficulty sleeping. It’s important to get enough sleep, because it’s when your body does a lot of its healing.
  • Dry mouth or nose – Long-term use of alcohol can cause your mouth to dry out or your nose to run. This is because the body isn’t able to produce enough saliva or tears.
  • Slurred speech – Alcohol and many other drugs affect a person’s ability to control their speech.
  • Constricted pupils or expanded pupils – Opioids, magic mushrooms, and many other drugs can cause changes in the appearance of a person’s eyes. Bloodshot eyes are also a common symptom.

Which Drugs Cause Sudden Weight Loss?

It is important to look out for the signs of a dramatically altered physical appearance. Many drugs cause sudden weight loss as a side effect. When someone is abusing a drug, their body is often unable to function properly. If you notice that your loved one has lost a significant amount of weight, or if they have become significantly thinner than usual within a relatively short amount of time, this could be a sign that they are abusing drugs. Abusing drugs like meth, heroin, or cocaine can cause sudden and significant weight loss. However, it is also good to keep in mind that some substances can cause weight gain as well. Either change can represent a major health problem.

Psychological Signs of Substance Abuse

The mental effects of substance abuse are often overlooked as signs of substance abuse. People tend to focus almost exclusively on the physical effects of substance abuse, but the mental effects are no less important.

  • Changes in behavior – Behavioral changes can wreak havoc in a person’s life. If you notice that someone who used to be the life of the party has become quieter and more reserved, or if someone who used to be reserved suddenly starts to be more social, these changes could be signs of substance abuse. These changes in a person’s behavior can lead to poor judgment, which can cause them to steal money when they have financial problems.
  • Changes in relationships – If you notice that someone who used to be very close with their family, co-workers, or friends seems to be drifting away from them, if they seem to be spending less time with their friends, or if they are being confrontational or hostile towards their loved ones, these changes could be signs of substance abuse.
  • Changes in hygiene – If you notice that someone who used to take pride in their appearance and hygiene has become noticeably unclean, or if someone who used to be clean and tidy has become smelly and unkept, these changes could be signs of substance abuse.
  • Sudden mood swings – When a person abuses illicit drugs, they are likely to experience dramatic ups and downs as they become intoxicated and go through withdrawal. These mood swings can dramatically alter behavior, leading to angry outbursts, drastic changes in personality, and a more depressed and worried state of mind in general.

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem. It’s estimated that around 5,700 teens in 2014 alone began misusing prescription drugs. There are several signs to look out for if you think someone you know is misusing prescription drugs. If your loved one is taking a prescription but seems to be taking more than prescribed, or if they are taking someone else’s prescription, these are signs that they are misusing their prescription. Prolonged use of prescription drugs can lead to drug addiction. If you notice that your loved one has become tolerant of the drug, or if they are taking larger doses of the drug than prescribed, this is another sign of prescription drug abuse. If your loved one is taking more than one type of prescription drug, if they are mixing different types of drugs together, or if they are taking the drug at different times than prescribed, these are also signs of prescription drug abuse.

What is Doctor Shopping?

Doctor shopping is when a person visits more than one doctor in order to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances like opioids or prescription stimulants. This is a serious red flag that someone is abusing prescription drugs. If you find out that your loved one has been visiting several doctors, you should talk to them about why. If you have good reason to believe that your loved one is doctor shopping, you need to approach them about it as soon as possible. Doctor shopping is a very serious crime. If you find out that your loved one is doctor shopping, you should get them help immediately. Doctor shopping is a form of insurance fraud, and it is a serious crime. If they find out, you may get into legal trouble and your health insurance provider may refuse to pay for any future medical treatments.

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal

Many substances cause withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them. If you notice that your loved one is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, this could be a sign that they are no longer consuming the substance. Drugs that cause withdrawal symptoms include opioids (like heroin and prescription painkillers), benzodiazepines (like Valium), methamphetamine, and alcohol. If your loved one has recently stopped consuming a substance and is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, they may be experiencing substance abuse. If you notice withdrawal symptoms in your loved one, you should talk to them about what is happening. If they are denying that anything is wrong, you should seek help for them as soon as possible.

Living a Drug-Free Life

Life is precious, and it can be taken away from us in an instant. Substance abuse is a serious problem, and it can happen to anyone. If you think someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to approach them about their problem as soon as possible. You can’t force someone to get help, but you can be there for them and support them through their journey to recovery. If you know someone who is struggling, offer them your support. If you are struggling yourself, don’t be ashamed to get help. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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