Substance Abuse Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Often times the signs of drug addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of drug addiction.

Understanding Substance Abuse

Learn about drug addiction and substance abuse

The continued misuse of alcohol, prescription medications, illegal drugs, or other toxic substances, despite the development of negative consequences that occur as a result, is considered substance abuse. Substance abuse can cause many dangerous and serious side effects for not only the user, but their family as well. If drug and/or alcohol use continues eventually a person will start to notice the presence of some adverse cognitive, behavioral, and physiological symptoms. In addition to alcohol, some of the most commonly abused drugs include:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Stimulants
  • Depressants
  • Hallucinogens
  • Opioids

No matter which substance an individual is abusing, if not properly treated, the abuse will only get worse and has the ability to lead to an addiction, which will only create more negative effects in a person’s life. Fortunately, there are many treatment options for substance abuse to help individuals get past their addictions.


Drug addiction statistics

In 2012, an estimated 24 million Americans over the age of 12 have used or abused drugs. That number represents just over 9% of the United States population and researchers are expecting that number to increase.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for drug addiction

The specific cause of why a person would develop a substance abuse problem has yet to be isolated by researchers. However, studies have shown that there are a number of factors that can make a person more susceptible to developing a problem with drugs or alcohol. The most commonly named factors include:

Genetic: It has been reported many times that those who come from families with a history of substance abuse are at a greater risk for abusing drugs and alcohol themselves. This does not mean that if someone has a mother who is a drug addict is destined to be a drug addict themselves, it just means that they are more vulnerable of becoming an addict should he or she decide to use drugs at some point in his or her life.

Physical:  When an individual abuses drugs or alcohol, changes in the chemistry of the brain are going to occur. More specifically, the chemicals in the brain that are responsible for communicating pain, processing information, and regulating mood are all affected by long-term substance use. If there are these disturbances in normal brain functioning that cause an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, it often leads to the development of an addiction.

Environmental: Finally, many environmental factors have been known to play a role in the development of a substance use disorder. For example, those who have been the victims of abuse, neglect or, other forms of victimization often turn to substance use as a way to cope with the distressing emotions they are experiencing.

Risk Factors: The subsequent examples of risk factors have been attributed to those who develop a substance use disorder:

  • Being male
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Presence of mental health problems
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Low self-esteem
  • Exposure to substance use
  • Stressful home environment
  • Lack of proper parenting
  • Peer pressure
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Access to drugs and/or alcohol
  • Lacking effective coping skills
  • Exposure to violence
  • Being the victim of abuse, neglect, or crime

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of drug addiction

The signs and symptoms that arise as the result of substance use are going to depend upon the drug being used, as well as a number of other individualized characteristics. If you are worried that you or a loved one may have a substance abuse problem here are some common signs and symptoms to look out for:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Multiple absences from work or school
  • When present, not fulfilling responsibilities at work or school
  • Disciplinary actions at school
  • Facing problems with the legal system
  • Stealing money to support his or her habit
  • Constantly asking for money
  • Physical violence against other people or property
  • Gives up activities they used to enjoy
  • Has a new group of friends
  • Is secretive
  • Prefers to be left alone
  • Engaging in risky behavior
  • Lack of impulse control

Physical symptoms:

  • Muscle tension
  • Has hangovers on a regular basis
  • Rapid or slowed speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Tremors
  • Slurred speech
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Lack of focus or concentration
  • Forgetfulness
  • Impaired memory
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Altered state of perception

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Aggressiveness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Personality changes
  • Decreased motivation


Effects of drug addiction

Substance abuse problem can have both short-term and long-term effects on a person’s life. However, the exact effects a person will experience will depend upon the substance that is being abused, the length of abuse, and a number of other individual factors. Some of these short and long-term effects may include:

  • Addiction or physical dependence on drugs / alcohol
  • Development of  another mental health disorder
  • Decline in overall mental health
  • Contraction of a communicable disease such as HIV
  • More likely to be involved in accidents
  • Marital problems
  • Decline in work performance or loss of job
  • Problems at school
  • Legal ramifications
  • Financial problems
  • Memory loss
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Decline in quality and quantity of interpersonal relationships
  • Homelessness
  • Malnutrition
  • Collapsed veins
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Coma
  • Brain damage
  • Psychotic behavior
  • Overdose
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Drug addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is common for those with substance abuse problems to have another mental health disorder. In some cases the substance abuse is an attempt to help manage the symptoms of an untreated mental illness. Some of the common disorders that occur alongside substance abuse disorder include:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dementia

Withdrawal and Overdose

Learn about drug withdrawal and overdose

Withdrawal is your body’s way of reacting to the lack of chemicals that is has become dependent upon after a prolonged period of use. The severity of withdrawal symptoms is going to be determined upon how severe your substance abuse was. The following is a list of symptoms that are most commonly experienced during withdrawal:

  • Body tremors
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Agitation
  • Intense cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chills
  • Muscle tension
  • Bone pain
  • Clammy skin
  • Paleness
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

If the body receives a level of drugs that it is not able to tolerate, it will lead to an overdose. Depending on the substance being used, the overdose symptoms can somewhat vary. However, an overdose is a medical emergency and treatment should be sought immediately. Some common signs of an overdose include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Chills
  • Changes in skin tone
  • Slowed pulse
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Psychotic behaviors
  • Shallow breathing
  • Profuse sweating
  • Fever
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Death
What Past Clients Say

I came here during the worst time of my life. I had so much anxiety coming in but the girls in the admissions area were so pleasant and answered all my questions. The hospital was clean and staff were friendly and helpful on the unit. The medicine they gave me helped so much, and I finally feel like myself again. If you’re willing to participate and go to all the groups, you will get something out of the program. I went right from inpatient to their day program for a week afterwards, and that helped me stay focused too.

– Alumni
Most Insurances Accepted

We accept all major insurances, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medicare, most Medicaids, and TRICARE.  Please contact us for insurance verification and to learn more about treatment at MeadowWood Behavioral Health.

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