Symptoms & Signs of Drug Use
What is addiction?
Recognising the symptoms and signs of addiction can sometimes be difficult at first. Let’s firstly look at addiction. Addiction is an urge to use habit-forming drugs (like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin). Addiction is associated with tolerance (increasing drug usage as a result of a body’s diminished response to the drug) and the symptoms that appear upon quitting drug use (withdrawal symptoms).
Long-term drug use changes the brain, making it difficult to quit, even if the user wants to do so. Addiction is a complex disease, and quitting drugs often requires more than good intentions and determination. 1 The best approach to avoiding addiction is to stop using drugs before they become addictive. However, in order to learn how to avoid drug abuse, it is necessary to first understand how it all begins.
How do drug dependence and addiction start?
Addiction develops gradually. The majority of evidence suggests that adolescence is a high-risk period for the start of drug abuse, with drug use being highest among young people aged 18 to 25.2
Teenagers may experiment with prescription or over-the-counter drugs to endear themselves to their peers or to experience something new and perhaps euphoric (a feeling of pleasure). As innocent as the term “recreational drug use” seems, the consequences may be much more serious later on in life, as it can frequently lead to drug misuse and addiction.3
Many people begin using medications prescribed by a doctor or given to them by friends to relieve pain from injuries or to treat sleeplessness. However, because opiates and other prescribed drugs may cause euphoria, or a mild “buzz” many people continue to use them, developing drug addiction.3
Long-term use of drugs can change the way the normal brain works, how people look, and the way they feel and react. Without understanding the signs of addiction, it can be difficult to recognize a drug use disorder.
Diagnosis of addiction
Drug abuse is often diagnosed by a family doctor, psychiatrist, or professional mental healthcare provider. Diagnosis results are influenced by the drug abused, the period of drug use, frequency of use, and time since last use.
Many forms of drug addiction have similar signs and symptoms that family members or friends might identify easily. Upon recognizing the symptoms of drug use, healthcare providers can help diagnose and treat possible addiction.
Common signs of drug use
Drug abuse leads to the development of physical symptoms; some of them are obvious, while others are subtle:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Change in pupil size:
- Larger pupil size (cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, and ketamine)
- Smaller pupil size (opiates and heroin)
- Change in appetite
- Irregular sleep pattern
- Changes in body weight
- Inadequate personal hygiene
- Extreme tiredness
Drug-induced changes in the brain can lead to behavioral changes in drug users, such as:
- Poor performance at work or school
- Secretive or suspicious behavior
- A sudden change in friends and activities
Drug use can cause changes in the psychological profile of a user. This may lead to a change in the way a person thinks and reacts, including signs like:
- Unexpected changes in personality or attitude
- Mood swings
- Angry outbursts
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Lack of motivation
Common signs of drug dependence by type
Marijuana and other cannabis-containing substances
Marijuana is the most widely used substance in the United States, with 48.2 million people using it at least once in 2019.4
Signs of recent marijuana use include:
- Feeling ‘high’ (euphoria)
- A heightened sense of sight, hearing, and taste
- Dry mouth
- Red eyes
- Difficulty focusing or remembering
- Food cravings
Stimulants (cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy)
Stimulants are often misused to feel high or to boost performance.
Signs of recent use of stimulants include:
- Feeling of excess confidence
- Improved alertness
- Dilated pupils
- Delusions and hallucinations
- Rise in blood pressure (BP) and body temperature
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Impaired judgment
Hallucinogens (LSD, PCP, magic mushrooms)
Hallucinogens may have different effects on people depending on the drug used. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine are the most commonly used hallucinogens (PCP).
Recent use of hallucinogens shows the following symptoms:
- LSD: Hallucinations, tremors (involuntary and rhythmic shaking), impulsive behavior, and high BP
- PCP: A feeling of being disconnected from the body and surroundings, hallucinations, difficulty in coordinated movements, violent behavior, reduced pain sensation, reduced tolerance to loud noises, and difficulty in speaking
Opioids (including heroin)
These drugs are painkillers that are derived from opium or produced in laboratories.
Recent opioid use causes the following signs and symptoms in users:
- Reduced pain sensitivity
- Slurred speech
- Declined cognitive functions like attention and memory
- Constricted pupils
How to help someone who is struggling with addiction
Drug users frequently deny that their drug use is harmful and are hesitant to seek treatment. Recognizing that there is a problem is the first step toward rehabilitation, which frequently takes immense courage and strength.
An intervention should be carefully planned and can be carried out by family and friends in collaboration with a healthcare provider or experts, such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
Addiction and drug use can be prevented or reduced through prevention initiatives undertaken by families, schools, communities, and the media. Education and outreach are among the actions available to help people understand the consequences of drug use.
Some addiction treatment options
Detox is the process of cleansing alcohol or other addictive substances from the user’s body in a safe environment. Detox is used to safely manage withdrawal symptoms when someone quits using addictive drugs or alcohol. Depending on the patient, detox could be paired with other treatment options. 5
Behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT can help you understand unhealthy behavioral patterns while also educating the patient on how to detect triggers and develop coping strategies. CBT can also be coupled with other treatment strategies. CBT helps people in drug use disorder recovery to find connections between their thoughts, feelings, and actions and to become more aware of how these things impact their recovery.6
Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
MET is used to teach people in recovery how to overcome negative beliefs and behaviors associated with their addiction. This treatment is commonly used to treat patients in drug addiction recovery who have co-occurring conditions such as bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).7
Treatment with medication
Medication, when coupled with behavioral treatment, can play an important role in addiction rehabilitation. Certain drugs can help with cravings and mood improvement. The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) recently authorized lofexidine to help individuals undergoing opioid addiction treatment minimize cravings and withdrawal symptoms.8
Drug use is one of the biggest problems the world is facing today. In 2020, there were 91,799 drug overdose fatalities in the United States.9 Furthermore, recent changes in cannabis regulations will increase its accessibility to the U.S. population. As a result, there will be an increase in the number of drug-induced intoxications in a relatively younger population.
To prevent young people from becoming addicted to drugs, there must be a strong push to educate them about drug use and its potential consequences. Efforts should be made at home and in schools, in the community, and in the media to control the use of drugs. Healthcare providers should exercise caution when prescribing drugs that have the potential to cause addiction. However, the most important aspect of ensuring those who need to get support are not stigmatised and are able to reach to friends and loved ones for support.
Pharmaceutical research coupled with ongoing education efforts will hopefully help to prevent individuals from abusing drugs and help those who need help access rehabilitation and the support they deserve.