Signs & Symptoms of Drug & Alcohol Addiction

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of drug addiction. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Drug Addiction

Learn about drug addiction and substance abuse

Substance abuse can be defined as an excessive use of substances in order to experience mood-altering and mind-altering results. When drugs are used in excess, they cause a direct activation on the brain’s reward system that is so powerful that it inhibits one’s ability to focus on things that they would normally be focused on, which can ultimately result in significant disturbances within the person’s everyday life. Following prolonged use, individuals will typically develop a dependence on their substance of choice as a result of the chemical disturbances that occur in their brains as a direct result of the substance use. Because of these disturbances, an addict’s ability to cease his or her use is compromised.

Some of the most common substances that are abused include alcohol, marijuana, narcotics and opiates (including prescription pain killers and heroin), stimulants (including cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription amphetamines like Adderall), hallucinogens (including ecstasy, LSD, and PCP), and central nervous system depressants and downers (including tranquilizers, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates).

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for drug addiction

There is not any one specific cause that has been identified as the sole reason why some individuals develop addictions to substances, but rather it is believed to be a combination of various factors working together. These factors are described briefly in the following:

Genetic: Studies have shown that addictions to substances tend to cluster in families, which therefore leads to the conclusion that there is a strong genetic link in the development of drug and/or alcohol abuse and addiction. People who have first-degree relatives (such as biological parents or siblings) who have struggled with an addiction to any type of substance are at a heightened risk for developing an addiction as well.

Physical: The chemical composition of drugs and alcohol act on the brain’s communication system and causes disturbances in the way that cells would normally process information. The longer that someone abuses a substance, the more likely it is that the drugs will cause lasting damage in the composition of this communication system, leading to physical dependence.

Environmental: Many addiction specialists and professionals in the field of mental health believe that environmental factors can play a role in whether or not a person will develop an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. For example, individuals who experience chronic stress in their everyday lives may find that using drugs provides them with a sense of relief. Additionally, people who have been physically and/or sexually abused may develop a dependence to substances because it helps to numb them from the memories of the negative experiences they have suffered through.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of substance abuse problems
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor self-control
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Peer pressure
  • High levels of stress
  • Suffering from physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse or neglect
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Exposure violence and/or crime
  • Living in a chaotic home environment

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of drug addiction

The signs and symptoms that may indicate that a person has a problem with abusing substances will vary greatly depending on the type of drug being abused, the frequency of the abuse, and the length of time that the person has been abusing it. Examples of different symptoms that may infer that a person is abusing drugs can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Change in peer groups
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Random periods of extreme lethargy
  • Random periods of extreme hyperactivity
  • Social isolation
  • Participating in reckless behaviors
  • Disturbances within one’s personal relationships
  • Excessively rapid or excessively slowed speech

Physical symptoms:

  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Distorted vision
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Diarrhea
  • Impaired coordination

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Altered states of perception
  • Disorientation
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Memory impairment
  • Paranoia

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Fluctuations in mood
  • Excessive irritability
  • Excessive agitation
  • Heightened levels of anxiety
  • Heightened levels of depression
  • Declined interest in things one was once interested in
  • Suicidal ideation


Effects of drug addiction

As was stated when discussing the signs and symptoms, the long-term effects that substance abuse will inflict on a person will vary depending on the type of substance being used, as well as the length and frequency of the use. The most common effects that result from drug and/or alcohol abuse can include:

  • Decline in one’s overall mental health
  • Malnutrition
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Collapsed veins
  • Irreversible cognitive impairments
  • Memory loss
  • Contraction of viruses like HIV/AIDS
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Stroke
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Unintentional overdose
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Drug addiction and co-occurring disorders

Many individuals who struggle with chemical dependency are also suffering from additional mental health concerns. Some of the most common disorders that are known to co-occur with substance abuse may include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Abuse of multiple substances

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of drug withdrawal and overdose

Whenever individuals suddenly stop using a substance that their bodies have become addicted to or dependent upon, they will most likely suffer from unpleasant symptoms during the withdrawal period. Depending on the substance that has been used, the withdrawal symptoms will range in severity from mild to very severe. The following are some examples of various effects that withdrawal can inflict on a person:

  • Intense cravings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Shakes
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia

Sadly, it is not uncommon for those who are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol to overdose on the substance that they are using. As the length of time that a person uses a substance increases, the higher his or her tolerance becomes. As a result, many individuals find that they need to steadily increase the amount that they use in order to receive the same pleasurable effects. This increase in use can lead to a person taking more than his or her body can handle, resulting in an overdose.

Like withdrawal, the overdose symptoms will vary depending on the drug that is being used. Some examples of signs that a person has overdosed may include:

  • Erratic breathing
  • Chills or profuse sweating
  • Acute psychotic behavior
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Passing out
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Sudden heart failure

Overdosing on any substance should be viewed as a medical emergency and treatment should be sought immediately in order to prevent fatalities.

My severe depression had taken over my life. I’m so thankful for San Juan Capestrano Hospital for giving me the strength to start living my life again to the fullest.

– Luis S.