Learn the top ten signs of drug addiction so you can help your loved one seek the necessary treatment.
10 Signs of Drug Addiction
Drug addiction can lead to serious consequences for both the individual using drugs and those around them.1 When left untreated, substance misuse can affect families and children, households, and communities.2 People experiencing the signs of addiction may benefit from support in seeking addiction treatment services.3
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Before you begin to identify signs of addiction, experts advise becoming familiar with an accurate definition of addiction.4,5 Portrayals of addiction in popular culture often conflict with clinical perspectives. This can make identifying the signs of addiction a challenge, especially for those without professional training.
To start, the term “addiction” is not a clinical diagnosis.4 The word “addiction” serves as a generic term for a substance use disorder (SUD) that occurs when a person misuses addictive substances. The signs and symptoms of different SUDs share similarities, even though the drugs themselves can have unique effects on the people who use them.5
SUDs include varying diagnoses that can contribute to signs of addiction. Whether a person qualifies for a SUD diagnosis depends on several factors related to their substance use.4 Addiction from this perspective involves several distinct, yet related, dimensions, including:4
- The substance a person takes and how they use it
- Problems caused by drug use
- How the body adapts to the substances used
- How a person becomes dependent on drugs
- Changes to a person’s cognitive, or mental, functioning
- Medical or health problems caused by drug use
- Ability to alter or stop drug use without external assistance
Before assuming that someone you know shows signs of addiction, it’s important to understand that symptoms of certain health conditions can resemble the symptoms of a SUD.5 For example, some symptoms of diabetes and certain neurological disorders can resemble alcohol intoxication or withdrawal.5
Furthermore, some people may experience signs of addiction like drug tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal when taking medications as prescribed. These symptoms alone do not indicate that a person engages in substance misuse or has an addiction.
Only a thorough assessment by a qualified substance use treatment provider can offer a diagnosis of SUDs based on confirmed signs of drug addiction. If you would like support in connecting with a treatment provider or program, call 800-934-1582(Who Answers?) .
10 Signs of Drug Addiction
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describes signs of addiction and symptoms of SUDs.5 These symptoms can range from mild to severe in their intensity. Some signs of addiction may appear mild when a person first begins to misuse drugs and worsen as their substance misuse continues.
1. Substance Use
The amount, frequency, and regularity of substance use are important signs of addiction.4 Consider how much and what kind of substances your loved one uses. Have you noticed an increase in their drug or alcohol use over time? Does your loved one use substances at a steady rate, or do they engage in misuse occasionally?4
Answering these questions can be challenging if your loved one has taken steps to hide their drug use, which can happen as the amount and frequency of substance use increases.4
The intoxicating effects of drugs depend on the type of substance used.5 These signs of drug addiction can change from one substance to another.
For example, alcohol and caffeine can both lead to “intoxication” in different ways when consumed in excessive amounts.5 The effects of alcohol intoxication can lead to severe health and behavioral problems like impaired judgment, aggression, socially or situationally inappropriate behavior, and potential overdose. Caffeine intoxication can lead to nervousness, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disturbance. Even though using either substance can lead to intoxication, caffeine intoxication obviously does not have the same level of risk as alcohol intoxication.
Other substances with intoxicating effects include:5
These substances represent broad categories of different drugs.5 Specific drugs in each category may have different effects on a person’s mind and body. Hallucinogens, for example, include PCP, LSD, and salvia. While each of these drugs may cause problems when misused, the time it takes for a person to experience and recover from their effects will differ depending on the type of substance.
With continued use, a person’s body adapts to the effects of an intoxicating substance.4 Tolerance occurs when a substance becomes less effective progressively the longer a person continues to use that substance.
Tolerance can cause a person to need larger amounts of drugs or alcohol over time to get the same effect, such as pain relief or intoxication, that they once achieved at lower doses.5 Tolerance can also develop shortly after starting a pattern of consuming a substance, such as alcohol.4 An increase in the amount and frequency of a person’s substance use can indicate the development of drug tolerance.
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Dependence refers to the way that a person’s body, mind, and behavior may change over time in response to their substance use.4 As a person adjusts to the effects of drugs or alcohol, their ability to function without these substances may decline. When dependence forms, a person may struggle to function when they attempt to discontinue or reduce their substance use. For example, they may have trouble sleeping, feel intense anxiety symptoms, or experience clinical withdrawal symptoms.4,5
Dependence and withdrawal can occur when taking medications such as opioids, stimulants, benzodiazepines, or sedatives as prescribed.5,6 This means that a person who uses medications appropriately may display symptoms of dependence and withdrawal, even though they do not have an addiction. For this reason, doctors typically do not write long-term prescriptions of these medications or stop these medications without first gradually reducing the dose.
Dependence can evolve into signs of drug addiction when a person demonstrates certain behaviors related to their substance use. They may spend more time and energy obtaining drugs or take more medication than their doctor prescribed.4,7 In the case of prescription medications, this could manifest as a person running out of their prescription early or obtaining prescriptions for the same medication from more than one doctor.
Withdrawal occurs when a person attempts to reduce or stop using substances after physical dependence forms. Just as different substances can have distinct intoxicating effects, they also can cause different withdrawal symptoms.5
For example, a person experiencing alcohol withdrawal may experience tremors, agitation, hallucination, or seizures. A person experiencing opioid withdrawal may experience diarrhea, yawning, and fever. The presence of other mental or physical health conditions may complicate withdrawal symptoms.4,5
People experiencing addiction to certain substances may continue to use those drugs to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.5 This can lead to a cycle of continued misuse.
When it comes to narcotics, using opioids following a period of opioid withdrawal can increase a person’s risk of experiencing an overdose, another one of the many dangerous signs of addiction.6
6. Changes in Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior
Substance misuse can lead to concerning changes in mood and behavior.5 Alcohol can cause impaired judgment, which may lead to impulsive or high-risk behavior. Hallucinogens and stimulants can impact one’s perception of reality.
Irritable or depressed moods can occur when using different types of drugs and while recovering from their effects.5 Substance use can cause existing mental health concerns to grow more intense as well, leading to an increase of symptoms relating to one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.4,5
7. Problems in Different Areas of Life
Signs of addiction can surface in different areas of a person’s life. If a person’s psychological dependence drives them to illegally obtain and use drugs, they may be subject to legal consequences. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency maintains a list of illicit substances and the legal consequences for people who use them.7
Other areas of your loved one’s life that addiction can impact include.4,5
- Family relationships
- Financial health
- Obligations at home
- Participation in hobbies or other valued activities
8. Medical Problems
Health issues associated with addiction can vary depending on your loved one’s substance use and personal medical history.4,5 The misuse of substances alone can cause severe health issues.7 For example, individuals who take opioids or other substances by injection may acquire a blood-borne illness if they use nonsterile needles or are exposed to anyone else’s blood.4,5 People who engage in risk-taking behavior while intoxicated may do other things that put their health and well-being at risk.4,5 The compounding effects of health concerns and substance use can lead to even more issues.4
When a person regularly misuses substances, they may also neglect their physical health needs such as nutrition, treatment for non-drug-related disorders, and mental health symptoms.4 Signs of declining self-care associated with drug and alcohol use can serve as important signs of drug addiction.
9. Material Signs of Drug Addiction
Physical clues may be evident of substance misuse. Take note of any paraphernalia that you encounter, such as:
- Pill bottles for someone else’s prescriptions
- Baggies or containers used to store or transport substances
If you have concerns, ask questions. Taking an open, curious, and compassionate approach to discuss your concerns can foster supportive conversation. Prioritize safety and set firm limits to protect yourself, your family, and any other people who may be affected by your loved one’s substance use or addiction.
10. Motivation for Change
The willingness to stop misusing drugs can offer insight into your loved one’s relationship with substance use.4 One of the clinical criteria of a SUD is multiple attempts to discontinue substance use. Your loved one may need help from you, a professional treatment center, their peers, and their community to achieve initial sobriety.
Some people accept that they need help overcoming a substance use disorder and want support in changing their behavior. In other cases, people may not recognize their need for support or feel ready to admit they need treatment.
Transitioning to Treatment
Treatment for an addiction or substance use disorder can occur in different settings depending on your loved one’s signs of addiction and recovery needs.4 Some people may need elevated medical intervention to help them through the withdrawal process. Others may benefit from outpatient services to increase their motivation for treatment. At each stage of recovery, a treatment program should take an individualized approach in guiding your loved one to wellness.
Knowing when and how to offer support to someone showing signs of drug addiction can be challenging. Supporting someone through addiction recovery also means taking care of your own needs.3
If you need support in addressing your loved one’s signs of addiction, don’t wait to get help. Call 800-934-1582(Who Answers?) today and help them take the first step toward recovery.
- National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. Family-Centered Approach Modules. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Lipari, R. N., & Van Horn, S. L. (2017, August 24). Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders.
- Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2019). Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition).
- (2021, May 25). Opiate and opioid withdrawal. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- Drug Enforcement Administration Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section. (2020). Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide/2020 Edition. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration.