Signs and Symptoms

Drug addiction is defined as compulsive use of a substance, even when the person faces serious consequences for that use. Given this definition, it might seem as though an addiction would be easy to spot, and it certainly is easy to spot addictions in some people.

However, there are some people who manage to keep their addictions shielded from view for months or even for years. This doesn’t mean that they have the addiction under control, but it does mean that the addictions might grow stronger since they’re not being tackled head on.

The earlier that addictions are addressed, the better.

Drugs can do persistent damage to the body and the brain, and that damage grows more and more profound the longer that the addiction is allowed to move forward. Family members and friends who stay on the alert for signs of addiction in those they love may be best able to speak up when they see an addiction forming, and they may be in good position to ensure that the people they love get the help they’ll need to recover.

Brain Changes

Drugs are extremely powerful, and they work by adjusting the chemical levels in the brain. Some encourage the brain to release more chemicals. Others encourage the brain to allow chemicals to stay potent, when they should be eroding.

Over time, these adjustments move from being minor blips in an otherwise healthy brain to being the normal state of affairs for the brain. The adjustments might become so persistent that the person who uses drugs no longer feels pleasure when taking the drugs.

According to a study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, about half of cocaine addicts studied reported symptoms of paranoid psychosis when they were given cocaine. This is far from pleasurable, yet people still took the drug.

People who experiment with drugs may do so because they find the drugs to be pleasant, but people who are addicted to drugs may end up taking the drugs because they need them, not because they want them.

These brain changes may also allow the drug use to move from something the addict controls to something the addict has no control over. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people who are addicted to drugs have changes in parts of their brains that deal with regulating behavior and determining the value of an action. These persistent changes make it difficult for addicted people to make good decisions that will benefit them in the long run, and the changes also make it difficult for addicted people to resist temptations.

They simply cannot control specific parts of their activities, due to their addictions.

These changes are, obviously, quite difficult for family members and friends to see. After all, the average home doesn’t contain a brain scanner, and most people don’t ask the people they love to submit to tests of planning or memory. However, it’s important to understand that these changes have taken place, and they are real.

Simply telling someone with an addiction to stop using is really not realistic.

Given the damage that addictions can cause, addicted people cannot simply choose to stop using and then make that decision stick. Often, they’ll need help in order to change their behaviors and overcome the damage.

Emotional Changes

Some personality changes associated with addiction are relatively easy for family members to spot.

For example, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, people with addictions experience intense states of happiness or pleasure when they are on drugs, and then intense low moods when the drugs wear off. Over time, as the brain moves between these two extremes, the happy states become harder to obtain, while the low moods seem to deepen and lengthen.

This chemical change can cause the addict to seem:

  • Fatigued
  • Unmotivated
  • Deeply depressed
  • Irritable
  • Angry
  • More susceptible to pain

People who live with an addict might feel as though the person is in a constant state of despair, complaining about physical pain while seeming unable to do anything in order to make that pain go away. The person might seem hopeless and helpless in the face of the pain, and even using drugs doesn’t seem to help.

Some specific drugs of abuse can also cause emotional changes that are frightening and hard to overlook.

According to a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, people who abuse cocaine may develop intense anger, and they may have difficulty controlling their impulses, so they may strike out with violence when they feel angry. A person who was once placid and calm might seem intensely angry, and difficult to control much of the time.

Physical Changes

Addictions can be hard on the brain, and that damage may be hard to spot, but they can also cause physical symptoms that are relatively easy for almost anyone to see.

People who are addicted may be under the influence much, if not all, of the time, so the physical signs of intoxication may be a dead giveaway that people have a problem with their drug use. The physical symptoms of addiction can differ radically, depending on the drugs the person is using. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are common symptoms associated with specific drugs of abuse:

  • Marijuana: red eyes, increased appetite, slowed reactions, decreased concentration
  • Barbiturates: drowsiness, slurred speech, slow breathing, dizziness
  • Methamphetamine: rapid speech, restlessness, nasal congestion, insomnia, weight loss
  • Hallucinogens: rapid heart rate, tremors, hallucinations
  • Narcotic painkillers and/or heroin: sedation, confusion, slow breathing

Some physical symptoms of drug use and addiction are caused by the method the person uses to take drugs. People who inject drugs, for example, may have needle marks on their arms and legs, and those needle marks may even become infected and painful. People who snort drugs may develop chronic bloody noses or sniffles. Those who smoke drugs may develop hacking coughs that don’t seem to abate. They may also smell like the drugs they smoke.

Behavioral Changes

Addictions take time to form, and they require attention in order to stay alive and viable. As a result, people who are addicted may spend a significant portion of each and every day in nurturing their addictions.

Signs of these behavioral changes include:

  • An increased need for privacy
  • Frequent absences from work or school
  • Inattentiveness to family obligations
  • Sudden absences after stressful conversations

Addictions can also be quite expensive, and people who are addicted may resort to stealing in order to gain money for the drugs they need. They may also ask for money from their family members or friends, or they may sell off their possessions at a rapid rate, and be completely unable to produce the money that they gained from the sale. Some people who are addicted fabricate elaborate stories involving theft, in order to cover up the fact that they’ve sold off their possessions to pay for drugs.

Over time, as people lose interest in work and they engage in criminal behavior to pay for drugs, they may lose their jobs.

According to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, the link between unemployment and addiction is complex.

For some people, their addiction-related behaviors lead to unemployment. For others, becoming unemployed leads to addiction. For still others, an emerging addiction leads to unemployment, which makes the addiction stronger. People who lose their jobs due to unexplained circumstances should be closely monitored for addiction.

How to Help

People who are addicted to drugs may respond with anger when they’re confronted with the evidence of their abuse. Small conversations that were meant to be helpful can become angry, screaming confrontations that are hard for everyone to handle.

Sometimes, instead of talking on a one-on-one basis in an unscripted manner, it’s best to hold a structured intervention. This gives the family members time to determine just what they’d like to say, and it allows them to choose a time to speak to the addict when that person is unlikely to be high on drugs. These conversations may still be difficult, and the addict may still be upset when the talk is through, but the conversations are likely to do more good when they are approached in a structured and reasonable manner. When presented with overwhelming evidence of the addiction, perhaps the person will finally choose to accept help.

If you’d like help planning an intervention for your loved one, contact us today. We are here 24/7 to take your calls.