How to Identify the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse and Addiction

According to a study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2013, more than 22 million Americans needed treatment for substance and alcohol abuse that year. However, only 2.5 million actually received treatment for their addiction. That means that nearly nine percent of Americans are experiencing addiction, but too few are receiving the help they need.

It is important that people have the ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse. This is the first step in addressing the problem—recognizing that it exists. Symptoms of drug abuse and addiction vary based on individuals and types of drugs, but some general signs to look for include the following.

General Signs and Symptoms

  • Sudden changes in mood and attitude
  • Decrease in attention to personal hygiene
  • Bloodshot, red, glazed eyes
  • Weight change (loss or gain)
  • Lethargy, lack of energy or motivation
  • Poor performance at work or school (absence, disinterest, failing)
  • Changes in social network




  • Isolation, frequent desire to be alone
  • Loss of interest in normal preferred activities
  • Financial problems
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Depression
  • Bursts of energy, talking faster than usual
  • Criminal activity

These are all symptoms generally associated with drug addiction. You may spot one, a few, or even all of these in someone you know or love. As you can see, drug abuse impacts many different areas of life. Below are the areas of life impacted by drug abuse and addiction, as well as a more comprehensive list of common drugs and their symptoms.

Physical Impacts and Symptoms

Drug abuse and addiction have a devastating impact on the body from without and within. Not everyone feels the same physical symptoms from drug addiction and abuse, but everyone is affected in some way.

Externally, there are noticeable changes that occur as a result of drug abuse and addiction. The user often has bloodshot or glassy eyes. Sudden weight gain or loss is a common result, since overeating or under-eating occur. Drug addiction often causes a lack of effort regarding personal hygiene, resulting in unkempt appearance.

Drug use can also affect the body’s reflexes and habits. You may notice tremors, slurred speech, or confusion. On the other hand, you could see bursts of energy accompanied by fast talking, to the point of making little sense. Sleeping is often disrupted, causing the user to fall asleep at strange times.

Internally, a person’s chemical makeup is being changed, causing the dependency upon the drug and/or alcohol. The body begins to rely on the drug for any number of perceived physical needs—sleep, rest, calm, energy, alertness. Recreational drug use causes the release of dopamine in the brain, which results in feelings of pleasure, and the body will seek to repeat this experience.

Emotional Impacts and Symptoms

Drug addiction produces noticeable emotional symptoms as well. Drug use is often accompanied by periods of depression and sadness, even leading to suicidal thoughts and tendencies.

Another symptom is paranoia, anxiety, or constant fear with no clear reason. A person might also be given to sudden, angry outbursts, or extreme lethargy or disinterest. However, when the drug is in the system, you may see hyperactivity or extreme excitement.

Above all, what you will notice are emotional impulses that are contrary to the norm for that person. If you suspect drug use, a major symptom is simply that a person no longer acts like his or herself.

Relational Impacts and Symptoms

Drug abuse impacts a person’s social network as well. This can be an especially telling sign with teenagers, who are statistically among the highest abusers of drugs. Because the drug addiction so drastically alters people’s emotional and physical state, it will necessarily impact their relationships with others.

One noticeable symptom is that people’s social sphere changes somewhat suddenly. Perhaps you notice that your teen quits a sports team, loses interest in her friends, or even drops her friends in favor of totally new friendships.

This symptom isn’t only found in teenagers, though. Anyone who is experiencing the effects of drug abuse will be inclined to avoid those who might try and intervene, looking to establish relationships with those who will not impede their ability to continue using.

Often, though, this will simply lead a person to abandon relationships altogether, seeking solitude instead. If you notice that someone you love is withdrawing and avoiding interaction with others, this can be a telltale sign of addiction.

Professional Impacts and Symptoms

As you can imagine, drug abuse can, and often does, have a serious professional impact.

For those in school or in the workplace, some signs might include:

  • Frequent tardiness or absences.
  • Poor performance on school work or assignments.
  • Falling asleep during class or at your desk.
  • Inability to focus.
  • Little interest in the task at hand.
  • Ultimately, job loss or expulsion.

These symptoms become even more dangerous if a person’s job involves driving, security, or caring for others. A delivery driver might be in an accident, a security officer may have let something slip, or a nurse may have given the wrong dose of medication, all because of drug abuse.

Common Drugs and Their Symptoms

Although the following list is not comprehensive, it will give you a sense of the recognizable signs of more commonly abused drugs and symptoms. For more details about these and other drugs, as well as treatment options, visit Drug Treatment Finder Center.


Alcohol addiction is one of the most common addictions due to the fact that the substance is especially easy to access. One of the biggest challenges of battling alcohol abuse is that alcohol is legal in most countries, and regular drinking, or even heavy drinking, is often socially acceptable and goes unnoticed.

Symptoms of alcohol addiction include:

  • Memory loss or blackouts
  • Drinking regardless of time of day or how much has already been consumed
  • Going without alcohol causes sweating, shaking, and nausea
  • Skipping normal activities to drink
  • Attempting to hide drinking activities
  • Drinking in spite of potential health risks or harm to relationships, career, and livelihood
  • Relying on alcohol for stress-relief

Illegal Drugs

Common illegal drugs include cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana (although marijuana is becoming far easier to access with legalization in several states). These symptoms vary some from drug to drug. Here are a few symptoms that might alert you to abuse of these substances:

Cocaine Heroin
  • Agitation or undue enthusiasm
  • Hyperactivity
  • Frequent colds, sniffing, or nosebleeds
  • Development of muscle tics
  • Lack of inhibition
  • Changes in ability to concentrate or focus on tasks
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Regular fatigue and grogginess
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Dry mouth
  • Pupils become mitotic/constricted
  • Frequently itchy skin
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Slower than normal breathing
  • Slower than normal heart rate
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Bruising around needle entry points
Meth Marijuana
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Hyperactivity
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss
  • Increased alertness
  • Hypertension
  • Insomnia
  • Heightened risk of heart attack, heart rate abnormalities
  • Temporary periods of memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly


Benzodiazepines are prescribed medications, typically used to suppress seizures or anxiety. Sometimes referred to as “benzos,” these drugs are depressants, meaning that they cause brain activity to slow, disrupting the seizure or heightened level of anxiety. Some commonly known benzodiazepines are Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan. Symptoms of abuse of or addiction to these medications include:

  • Drowsiness or even sedation
  • Disorientation
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Weakened muscles
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Judgment impairment

Opiate Painkillers

Prescription opioids are among the most abused drugs today. These prescription painkillers are derived from the sap of the opium poppy (or mimic its effects), and are highly addictive. They are often prescribed for chronic pain, postoperative pain management, and severe lung problems. Because they are prescribed so freely by many physicians, they are often easy to come by.

Common opiate painkillers include codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl.

Common symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness or sedation
  • Feeling euphoric
  • Lethargy
  • Paranoia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slowed breathing

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are drugs intended to aid in the management of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Stimulants cause heightened brain activity, which enables alertness, attention, and focus.

This is incredibly helpful for those suffering from the aforementioned disorders, but is an alluring temptation for those who think a little help focusing will help them get through. Often, one time turns into many times, taking this drug use to abuse and then addiction.

Commonly known prescription stimulants include Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta. These are in the same drug class as cocaine and meth. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fevers
  • Seizures
  • In worst case scenarios, heart attack

Sleeping Pills

Sleep aids, prescribed for the purpose of managing insomnia, are similar to benzodiazepines in their effect. They are highly addictive, and pose a serious danger if overdosed. Common sleep aids include Ambien and Lunesta. Symptoms include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Tingling in limbs
  • Stomach pain/gas/diarrhea/heartburn
  • Headaches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Difficulty remembering things

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of drug abuse or addiction or are concerned for a family member who is, don’t wait to act. You can learn more about drug abuse and addiction, treatment options, and rehab centers near you by visiting Drug Treatment Center Finder.


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