When a person is an alcoholic or is dependent on drugs, he/she is considered to have a substance use disorder. The recent work of scientists and doctors has found that substance dependency is a disease, like asthma or diabetes.1 A person's dependence on alcohol or drugs is due to a variety of factors, including genetics, a person's environment, psychological traits, stress levels, how early he/she began using, and how long the person has been using drugs or alcohol in an unhealthy manner.1
Dr. Kathleen Brady, professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of Southern Carolina says, addiction "does not develop overnight for any individual and that generally there's a series of steps that individuals go through from experimentation and occasional use through the actual loss of control of use."2
Substance abuse: using an illegal substance or using a legal substance in the wrong way.
Substance addiction: Addiction begins as abuse, but is when a person has no control over whether or not he or she uses it. Addiction can be psychological, physical, or both.3
Specific symptoms are different depending on the type of drug the user has become dependent on. However, there are several major signs that all addicts display and are basic indicators that the person has a problem with substance use. These are:1
- Continued used of drugs or alcohol despite experiencing negative consequences of this heavy use.
- Often, a user places blame for his/her addiction on other people instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. This is known as denial.
- If users stop taking drugs or alcohol, they may go through withdrawal symptoms. No matter if alcohol or drugs are consumed, it is more than likely that the person will experience physical withdrawals and symptoms, including nausea, sweating, shakiness, and extreme anxiety or depression.
- The users' tolerance for the drug/alcohol will increasingly go up in order for them to achieve a satisfactory high.
- In the early absence of drugs or alcohol, there are intense cravings, and a person will feel the need to get the substance to curb the craving. If he/she doesn't get this, it will cause anxiety and irritation.
- Loss of control by doing drugs or drinking. If you or your loved one experience one or more of these signs, it may be an indicator that there is a problem with substance abuse and/or addiction.
If you or your loved one display one of the characteristics below, it does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with drug or alcohol addiction. However, these are indicators that need to be monitored and may contribute to the diagnosis of a problem.
Physical Signs of Substance Abuse:4
- Loss of appetite, increase in appetite, changes in eating habits and subsequent weight gain or loss
- Slow, staggered walk; poor physical coordination
- Inability to sleep, insomnia
- Red, watery eyes; pupils larger or smaller than usual
- Cold, sweaty palms; shaky hands
- Puffy face
- Smell of substance on breath, body or clothes
- Extreme hyperactivity; excessive talkativeness
- Runny nose; hacking cough
- Needle marks on lower arm, leg or bottom of feet
- Nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating
- Irregular heartbeat
Behavioral/Psychological Signs of Substance Abuse:4
- Change in overall attitude/personality with no other identifiable cause
- Changes in friends; new hang-outs
- Change in activities or hobbies
- Drop in school or work performance
- Difficulty paying attention
- General lack of motivation, energy, self-esteem
- Sudden oversensitivity, temper tantrums, resentful behavior
- Moodiness, irritability, nervousness
- Silliness or giddiness
- Excessive need for privacy; unreachable
- Secretive or suspicious behavior
- Chronic dishonestly
- Unexplained need for money, steeling money or items
If a person displays any one of these signs or symptoms, it does not necessarily mean he/she has a problem with drug or alcohol addiction. However, many of these signs can be indicators of a problem with substance abuse disorder.
2) “The Science of Relapse.” Addiction. HBO. Date Downloaded: June 22, 2010.
3) “Dealing with Addiction.” TeensHealth. Date downloaded: June 22, 2010.
4) “Signs and Symptoms of Drug Use.” American Council for Drug Education. Date downloaded: June 23, 2010.