Symptoms of Substance Abuse

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Symptoms of Substance Abuse

It is not always easy to recognize symptoms of substance abuse, and it can be difficult to imagine a loved one struggling with addiction.

It is important, however, to address these symptoms as soon as possible to show kindness and support for your loved one, encouraging them to seek professional treatment to understand and recover from their addiction. Sometimes, the addicted individual may not even recognize their habits as addiction, especially if they are using prescription medications.

Depending on the substance, different symptoms may appear. For example, abuse of stimulants may lead to erratic and anxious behavior, while depressants like opioids or alcohol may lead to excessive sleeping, a loss of interest in hobbies, or social interactions.

Substance abuse is typically linked to an increase in risk-taking, such as unprotected sex, driving under the influence, or engaging in illicit behaviors.

Noticeable changes in mood or behavior are some of the dominant symptoms of substance abuse. Deceptive or secretive habits may develop, or they may show an increased or desperate interest in obtaining more of the substance. Developments in depression, anxiety, and mood swings are most common and may lead to suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

Depending on the extent or length of the addiction, changes in the body may also be noticeable.

A loss of body fat often happens with chronic drug use, as the body attempts to recover from the effects of the drugs, and nutritional quality declines either in how it is absorbed or due to changes in eating habits and appetite. This loss of nutrition may leave the face and arms sallow and thin. Dark circles may appear under the eyes as well, due to lack of sleep.

Identifiable marks may also be present for certain types of drugs, such as track marks along the inside of the arm or a chronic runny nose. Stumbling, forgetfulness, unusual tolerance to pain, incoherent speech, and loss of motivation may also be characteristics that come with frequent drug use.

How to Help Someone in Need

If you suspect that a loved one is struggling with symptoms of substance abuse, it is important to ensure that they have the support they need. This might be lending an ear and listening to them talk about their struggle, or it might be helping them find the treatment methods that work for them.

It is important that when helping someone struggling with substance abuse that you do not further enable their addiction, as this can fuel a stronger addiction or push them into a deeper stage of addiction where they might seek out their substance through deception or illicit activities.

The best way to help someone in need is to encourage them to seek professional treatment. Even if they are in denial about the addiction, this gentle encouragement can help them see that there is a problem and that they have a safe space to explore the possibility.

Shaming, guilting, or pressuring them into treatment will only cause them to resent the treatment method and be resistant to change or to accept the reality of the addiction. This type of negative feedback can be easy to fall into but may be detrimental to the individual’s acceptance of their substance abuse and may cause their denial to strengthen.

In some cases, the individual may be fully aware of their addiction but disinterested in quitting the substance. In these cases, it can help to better understand why they chose the substance in the first place, and why they return to it.

Filling these emotional needs without the substance will be an important part of recovery, and one-on-one professional counseling can be a useful treatment method, even if it leads to ongoing therapy to help them process and heal from emotional wounds or difficult memories at the source of the addiction.

What are the Three Most Common Forms of Substance Abuse?

According to recent surveys, while most Americans have tried some form of drugs during their lifetime, few considered themselves to be addicted to them, even if they were dependent because these substances were not “hard” enough to be considered a drug.

It is important to understand that, while it is readily available for purchase, nicotine and alcohol are both drugs that can be abused and are somewhat addictive. These substances should not be disregarded because of their wide availability.

1. Drinking

The number one addictive vice for many individuals is drinking. It is often called a social lubricant, or liquid courage, allowing people to feel more comfortable in social situations and removing inhibitions. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous way to think about alcohol, as it can easily become a crutch that you can become dependent on, in an increasing number of situations.

2. Smoking

Smoking is the second most common form of substance abuse, with many becoming addicted to either nicotine or marijuana.

3. Injection

Heroin and methamphetamine are highly addictive, and most commonly injected as it provides quick access to the bloodstream and can provide a rush of dopamine that the user feels strong cravings for whenever they are not using the substance.

These three forms of substance abuse make up the three most common forms of substance abuse, with painkillers, hallucinogens, and steroid use following close behind.

What Substances are Commonly Abused?

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance as it is readily available and accessible. Individuals over the age of 21 can purchase alcohol virtually unrestricted, while those under the legal age to purchase can often find it readily available through businesses that fail to ID buyers, creating false ID cards, or from stealing alcohol from individuals who can purchase it legally.

After alcohol, a large amount of drug abuse also starts within the home with relatives of those on prescription drugs.

Especially if these individuals are curious about drug use, they may resort to taking a family members’ prescription drugs to access the substance. (1) This misuse can lead to a larger addiction, especially if the substance becomes unavailable and they begin to go through withdrawals.

Anyone in the household currently taking potentially addictive or recreational prescription drugs must keep them in a safe and secure space that other family members cannot reach. Medications like Adderall, opioids, Xanax, or other pain and anxiety medications should be locked away. Medication safes are an easy way to keep these pills safe from curious hands.

“A significant part of the drug crisis can be traced back to our homes, where prescription drugs are found and misused by other family members and friends, often adolescents and older teens.”

– Forbes

Likewise, many adults find that they become addicted to prescription drugs, especially pain killers, after surgery or if they have a medical need for it and are put on the medication for a substantial amount of time.

These medications are considered highly addictive and are becoming more restricted in being prescribed by doctors, but unfortunately, it does not stop the legitimate medical use of these medications, either so they are still in regulation.

Taking these medications on a prescription basis can create the illusion that substance abuse is not a real risk, as dependency can be difficult to discern when there is a medical need in the beginning. However, cravings and changes in mood can make it difficult to abandon the drug, a sign of dependency that could evolve into addiction.

Warning Signs of Commonly Misused Drugs

Many commonly abused drugs come with unique symptoms, making them easy to identify if you know what to look for. Depending on how long the abuse has been going on, and how frequent the use is, different side effects may not be as noticeable as others.

A lack of sleep, track marks on the arms, disinterest in social activities or hobbies, and loss of appetite leading to fat loss are common for injectable drugs like heroin.

Dilated pupils, bloodshot eyes, and increased appetite are common for abuse of marijuana.

Frequent nosebleeds and a chronic runny nose can be indicative of cocaine and other common party drugs that are snorted.

Slurred speech, loss of coordination, and forgetfulness are common signs of alcohol abuse or abuse of certain prescription drugs. (2)

“The most commonly abused prescription drugs, such as Xanax, OxyContin, and Vicodin, now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.”

– Huffpost

Hallucinations, incoherent speech, and loss of coordination are common symptoms of toxic or hallucinogenic drugs.

Unusual and abrupt changes in the individual’s hygiene, weight, or behavior are all common symptoms of substance abuse that should be addressed if noticed. Mood swings are common when going through withdrawals or coming onto a substance, and increased irritability can accompany cravings for the substance.

Because drugs modify the signals in the brain, it can also lead to unusual physical symptoms like unusual aches and pains during sobriety or drastic changes in appetite. Drug and alcohol abuse may also trigger episodes of depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. If the individual struggles with these chronic illnesses already, it may strengthen the severity of episodes, leading to worsening suicidal thoughts or actions.

Recognizing Unhealthy Drug Use in Family Members

Recognizing drug use in family members can be difficult, as you may not want to admit the reality of the situation. Furthermore, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish whether they are struggling with a mental illness or if they are using drugs, as the signs can be similar. Still, it is important to show support for your family member, however, they may be struggling.

Drug abuse, if left unchecked, can not only affect the family member but their relationship with those around them. Mood swings, irresistible cravings, erratic and secretive behavior, and increased risk-taking can all be dangerous to individuals around the substance-addicted individual. These are all signs that the individual is engaging in illicit drug use.

Likewise, alcoholism may appear in subtle ways at first, such as a habit to have a drink every night, or every time they go out. Drinking may become more frequent, until they feel like they cannot function when sober.

Even if drugs or alcohol are affecting their social or work life negatively, it can be difficult for an individual to stop once addicted. These symptoms of substance abuse should be addressed once recognized, and the individual should seek professional help.

Sometimes substance abuse is not a problem yet, but they are unintentionally becoming dependent on a substance. In this scenario, it can help to make them aware of the situation so that they can self-regulate and decrease their dependence on the substance to avoid addiction. Certain genetic factors can increase their risk for addiction as well, as tolerance for cravings can lower.

Establishing a dialogue with your family member will help you address the problems you see and help them work through the problem and can make them more receptive to receiving professional help as well, especially if they are in denial about the dependency or addiction. It is important to open the dialogue from a place of kindness and concern, rather than anger or disappointment.

What Causes Substance Abuse?

There are many things that can cause substance abuse, and it is often a combination of many different circumstances that lead to the individual trying the substance as a crutch and becoming dependent on it.

For example, someone going through an emotionally upsetting time may turn to alcohol to drown out the feelings and hide from the problem, but it will not allow them to process the emotional wound and heal from the experience. Instead, they continue using alcohol as the upsetting feelings return in sobriety, and it quickly becomes a dependency.

Other drugs like pain killers may also provide a rewarding sensation of being free of aches and pains, especially in individuals who are getting older or have a chronic condition. (3) This escape from aches and pains can become euphoric, and it can be easy for the user to begin believing that they cannot function without the drugs.

“More older adults are becoming addicted to powerful pain pills like OxyContin and Percocet to drown out the aches and pains of aging.”

– NY Times

In other cases, drugs may be a result of peer pressure as the user tries to fit in with a social group and find a sense of belonging. This fear of isolation or alienation can lead them to continue taking the drug and develop a dependency, especially if the substance is highly addictive.

Some substances are more addictive than others, and others are more pre-disposed to being addicted than others. They may be seeking to fulfill an unmet need and drugs provide the emotional high they are looking for. Alternatively, the user may be looking to escape a situation or feeling that they don’t want to face on their own, and instead use drugs to hide from reality.

In any case, the cause of substance abuse can be as individual and unique as the person. No one treatment method will work the same for everyone, which is why it is important to find a rehabilitation center that works with the individual to help treat them in a way that meets their needs.

How is Drug Abuse Diagnosed?

Once symptoms of substance abuse become evident, it will be necessary to obtain a diagnosis from a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or drug counselor to pursue treatment.

While blood or urine tests may be utilized in assessing the levels of a certain drug in the body, they cannot be used in diagnosing an addiction or chronic abuse. These behaviors must be confirmed by assessing the individual’s behaviors and dependency on the drug.

Diagnosing an addiction can be a difficult process, especially if the individual is in denial of the abuse. Unless the individual is open about their habits and is actively seeking help themselves, this can require a few sessions with a licensed professional to hash out an effective treatment plan.

Once diagnosed, addiction treatment specialists work with the individual to find a treatment plan that works for their needs. These treatment plans are often tailored to the individual’s needs.

It typically takes several adjustments to find the exact treatment method that works best for the person, however, as many variables come with treating addiction.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect the Brain?

Different substances affect the brain in different ways, but the one thing that these drugs have in common is that they overstimulate the d­­­­­­opamine receptors and interact with what is considered to be the reward center of the brain.

Certain drugs that release too much dopamine into the system – or prevent the normal cycling of dopamine through the brain – can cause a euphoric state, often followed by a hangover-like state that leaves the brain with too little dopamine.

This cycle can cause addiction because the brain sends a signal that results in a craving for that substance again, as it is looking for the rewarding or pleasurable feelings that are now associated with the drug. Even readily available drugs, like alcohol and nicotine, can have this effect.

Due to the addictive nature of many drugs, this feeling of need can become much more urgent, or result in cravings that become unbearable. The tendency for the brain to desire a repeat of that same experience is a natural phenomenon that reminds us to do things for our basic survival, like eating.

Many drugs, however, are toxic to the system and may result in neurons dying. Still, however, the brain sends signals to cause cravings and desire for the substance. Over time and with frequent use, however, a tolerance can build as the brain adjusts to the rushes of dopamine the drug creates.

This becomes the new normal for the brain, and the feeling of the dopamine rush becomes more difficult to achieve, leading to increased usage or higher dosages. This creates a dangerous cycle that can quickly lead to overdoses, as the brain craves higher dosages or more frequent usage despite the body becoming overloaded. Even with substances that are not toxic in small doses, the larger and more frequent usage can quickly exceed safe limits.

Can Substance Abuse be Treated?

Yes, substance abuse can be treated, but it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone has different needs for their treatment program and may react differently to certain medications, treatment methods, or environments.

Furthermore, depending on the abused substance, the addiction can affect the individual in different ways, meaning that not every treatment will be effective for all types of substance abuse. For example, someone addicted to alcohol or stimulants might need different treatment methods and medical oversight than someone addicted to opioids or prescription medications, as the withdrawals are different, and it affects the body in different ways.

Ultimately, however, this is why addiction treatment is so easily tailored to the individual. Every person responds best when a treatment addresses their needs. Some people will respond best to group counseling and extended residence in a rehabilitation center, or they may need medicated treatment to help them withstand the cravings at home.

It can take a few tries to find the right treatment method, so it’s important not to get discouraged if nothing seems to be working; the key could be a different therapy group, a different medication, or a different combination of treatment methods. It just takes time to find the right treatments for the individual.

Another critical aspect of substance abuse is social support during recovery. For some people, group counseling can fill this role, but for others that have close contact with family members or friends during recovery, it is important that steps towards sobriety are celebrated and that they can be emotionally vulnerable and open with loved ones if needed.

Red River Treatment Center

It’s time for substance abuse to be treated with the legitimacy and seriousness that it deserves, bringing to light a new era in addiction treatment. Recovery is made easy with Red River Treatment Center, located in Pineville.

We partner with our patients to provide them with tailored support and recovery, using top-of-the-line therapy and management strategies to encourage a healthy, long-term recovery from addiction.


1. Forbes, Prescription Drugs in the Home…,

2. Huffpost, The Unlikely Force Driving Teen Prescription Drug Addiction: Parents?,

3. NY Times, Prescription Drug Abuse Among Older Adults is Harder to Detect,