Substance Abuse Symptoms & Warning Signs

Understanding Addiction

Learn about drug & alcohol addiction

Substance abuse is the general term that includes the abuse of both legal and illegal substances, including prescription medications, alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. This term can be used to refer to a one-time event or a continued pattern of abuse. Those who participate in substance abuse often find themselves dependent on the substances that they have been abusing. From a clinical standpoint, this occurrence is referred to as developing a substance use disorder. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), substance use disorders are characterized as compulsive behavioral patterns that are connected to the abuse of one or more substances.

Substance abuse and substance use disorders can cause extreme damage and chaos within the lives of individuals, families, and communities throughout the country. In addition to having a destructive impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of those who partake in this behavior, substance abuse is also connected to crime, family discord, financial stress, and a number of other sociological consequences.

When an individual develops a substance use disorder, he or she might not be able to defeat his or her pathological need to abuse a specific substance without the help of a trained professional. The good news, however, is that there are specialized treatment programs available that are proven effective in helping individuals overcome chemical dependency and make the changes needed to help them live happy, healthy lives.


Statistics on substance abuse & addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that between 80% and 90% of all adults within the country have partaken in substance abuse at least one time in their lives. In the United States, the top most commonly abused psychoactive substances are alcohol, marijuana, and prescription medications. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that over 20 million Americans are currently battling with substance use disorder, however less than 15% of these individuals will obtain the treatment they need.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for substance abuse

The chances that an individual will participate in substance abuse or become diagnosed with substance use disorder can be impacted by a number of causes and risk factors, including:

Genetic: Many studies show that genetics play a significant role in the development of substance use disorders. Those with a family history of substance abuse are placed at a greater risk for developing a substance use disorder, as are those who have specific inherited traits such as novelty seeking and impulsive personalities.

Environmental: Attitudes defined by culture and the abuse of specific substances can serve as environmental factors for the development of certain substance use disorders. Other environmental factors include high levels of stress, poverty, trauma, and hanging out with individuals who participate in substance abuse.

Risk Factors:

  • Living in poverty
  • Low educational achievement
  • Having a novelty seeking personality
  • Being impulsive
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Associating with individuals who partake in substance abuse
  • Having easy access to substances of abuse
  • Having an aggressive nature
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Age (early exposure to substance abuse increases the likelihood of problems within an individual’s life)

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of substance abuse

Those who participate in substance abuse or who have developed substance use disorder will show a number of symptoms. Below are some of the most common symptoms that will signify if an individual is abusing one or more substances:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Using substances even when it is dangerous to do so, such as when driving a car
  • Unexplained absences from work or other responsibilities
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Behaving in a hyperactive manner
  • Deceptiveness about whereabouts, acquaintances, and actions
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at work or at home
  • Possessing drug paraphernalia
  • Spending a great deal of time acquiring, using, or recovering from the use of a substance

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid, slowed, slurred, or otherwise abnormal speech patterns
  • Bloodshot and/or watery eyes
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Frequent headaches and nosebleeds
  • Dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Dramatic change in appetite
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Sores, scabs, abscesses, and other skin problems

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Racing thoughts
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Suicidal ideation

Psychosocial symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Mood swings


Effects of substance abuse

Substance abuse can dramatically impact an individual’s life in a number of ways, including:

  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Increased propensity for colds, flu, and similar problems
  • Damage to virtually all major organs
  • Exposure to hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Financial problems
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Development or worsening of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Increased risk of developing certain cancers
  • Diminished performance at work
  • Family discord, marital strife, separation, and divorce
  • Damaged or destroyed interpersonal relationships
  • Job loss and unemployment

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