Substance Abuse & Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Substance abuse, or drug abuse, is defined as an overindulgence in, excessive use of, or the development of a dependence on addictive substances. When drugs are taken in excess, they cause a direct activation of the brain’s reward system, which is responsible for the production of memories and the reinforcement of behaviors. The ingestion of drugs in large quantities produces such an intense activation of the reward system that it overpowers one’s ability to focus on the normal aspects of everyday life and instead become overly consumed by the desire to use their drug of choice.

Some people may find it difficult to understand why a person would subject himself or herself to the dangers that drug intoxication can cause. Such people may feel that a person should “just stop” using and be done with it. But it is not as simple as that. Substance abuse and dependence is an illness that stems from complications in the chemical makeup of an individual’s brain. Drug use changes the brain, thus inhibiting the user’s ability to immediately stop the behavior entirely without help.

There are a wide variety of drugs that are used by a vast amount of the world’s population. Depending on the type of drug that one uses, the effects that result from the use will vary. The most commonly recognized types of drugs that people are known to abuse include the following:

Marijuana (also commonly referred to as “weed” or “pot”) is the most predominantly abused drug in the United States. For some people, using marijuana causes them to experience feelings of euphoria and intense relaxation. It can also impair memory, which can be beneficial in people who are suffering from recurrent unwanted thoughts. Pot has also been known to distort one’s reality, which is enticing to some individuals who enjoy escaping from the stresses of their own reality.

Narcotics and opiates can include a variety of different substances, including heroin, prescription painkillers, and opium. These types of substances can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected. The use of these drugs causes the user to experience feelings of euphoria, well-being, the numbing of any pain, an increased sense of self-confidence, and ultimate relaxation.

Simulants can include methamphetamine (meth), amphetamine (uppers, such as Adderall), and cocaine. When using these substances, people are provided with a sense of increased energy, mental acuity, and euphoria. These substances can be taken through the act of snorting, injecting intravenously, smoking, or swallowing.

Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs, which may also be referred to as psychedelics, include substances such as PCP, LSD, ecstasy, and ketamine, among others. When people use these substances, they experience changes in their sensory perceptions and thought patterns. These substances can be ingested by swallowing, smoking, or chewing.

Inhalants can involve chemical substances such as gasoline or glue, aerosols such as spray paint, gasses like propane, nitrous oxide, and nitrates. These chemicals cause an individual to become intoxicated when they are sniffed or inhaled. The process of inhaling these substances is commonly known as “huffing.”

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants and downers refer to drugs that work towards slowing down a person’s central nervous system. These types of drugs can cause the user to feel extreme relaxation and sedation. Examples of these types of downers can include various tranquilizers, barbiturates, GHB, Rohypnol, and benzodiazepines.

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Statistics

In 2012, it was estimated that 23.9 million Americans 12 years of age and older had used an illicit drug or abused any type of psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, a stimulant, or a tranquilizer). This equates to 9.2% of the population, and these numbers continue to grow.

The seemingly most dangerous way in which a person can use drugs is to inject it intravenously. It has been reported that in 120 countries worldwide there has been an increase in amount of HIV/AIDS infections being transmitted through the use of shared needles.

Causes and Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There is not one specific cause or factor that can be attributed to the risk level of how likely a person is to develop an addiction to substances. The causes that lie in the development of an addiction vary from person to person and include the influence of multiple factors, including:

Genetic: Combined with outside environmental influences, inherited genes are responsible for approximately half of one’s vulnerability to developing a drug addiction. Addiction tends to run in families; in other words, people who have a first-degree relative (such as a biological parent or sibling) that has struggled with addiction are more likely to develop an addiction to substances as well.

Physical: The chemicals that drugs are composed of act on the brain’s communication system and cause a disturbance in the way that nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. The longer that people abuse substances, the more likely it is that the drugs will cause longer lasting damage to the composition of this communication system, reducing its natural flow and leading to the development of a physical dependence on the substance.

Environmental: Certain environmental factors can play a role in one’s development of an addiction to drugs. People who have a lot of stress in their life may find using drugs to be a sense of relief from the chaos they feel surrounds them. People who have been physically and/or sexually abused may also be at risk for developing dependence to substances. Living in an environment where one is exposed to violence, where drugs are readily available, and  where one is surrounded by peers who also use substances can all have an impact on a person’s susceptibility to develop a drug addiction.

Risk Factors:

The more risk factors that a person is subject to, the more likely he or she is to develop an addiction to drugs. The following are some examples of risk factors that can be attributed to the onset of substance abuse and subsequent addiction:

  • Poor self-control / poor impulse control
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Poor socioeconomic status
  • History of aggressive behaviors
  • Exposure to violence
  • Exposure to some form of trauma
  • Poor life skills
  • Peer pressure
  • The level of availability that the person has to obtaining the drug

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

The signs and symptoms of drug abuse will vary depending on the type of drug being used, the length of time that the abuse of the substance has been occurring, and the frequency of the abuse, amongst others. The following are a few examples of the different signs or symptoms that may be a warning sign that a loved one is abusing substances. The examples have been broken down for each drug mentioned.

Marijuana:

  • Random periods of extreme lethargy
  • Impaired reaction time
  • Sudden, extensive bouts of coughing
  • Increased appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty obtaining and retaining new information
  • Distorted sensory perception

Opiates:

  • Variable concentration
  • Fluctuations in mood
  • Increased irritability
  • Family discord
  • Relationship disturbances
  • Social isolation

Stimulants:

  • Rapid speech
  • Increased activity / hyper behavior
  • Participating in risk behaviors
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Dramatic mood swings

Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs:

  • Insomnia
  • Disorientation
  • Altered states of perception
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

Inhalants:

  • Loss of inhibition
  • Loss of memory
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired motor coordination

Depressants and downers:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Drowsiness or increased fatigue
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Lowered inhibitions

Effects of Substance Abuse

The long-term effects of substance abuse will vary depending on the type of substance that a person is using, the length of time that the person has been using, the frequency of the use, one’s individual genetic makeup, and the presence of other health conditions. The most common effects that result from the abuse of various drugs can include:

Marijuana:

  • Decline in mental health
  • Increasing risk of developing cancer
  • Frequent infections of the respiratory system

Opiates and narcotic drugs:

  • Addiction
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Mood swings
  • Hypotension
  • Collapsed veins
  • Constipation
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Abscesses in the injection site
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulants:

  • Addiction
  • Malnutrition
  • Insomnia
  • Nasal perforation
  • Severe dental problems (e.g. “meth mouth”)
  • Heart attack
  • Cardiac and cardiovascular complications
  • Stroke
  • Seizures

Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs:

  • Liver damage
  • Violent, erratic behaviors
  • Cardiac complications
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Memory loss
  • Continuing, unwanted hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Breaks from reality
  • Flashbacks

Inhalants:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Delusions
  • Memory impairment
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Damage to cardiovascular and nervous systems
  • Coma
  • Seizures

Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants and downers:

  • Addiction
  • Amnesia
  • Hypotension
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Consequences of participating in various risk-taking behaviors
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Every substance can lead to the presence of unpleasant symptoms during the withdrawal period when a person stops using or reduces the amount in which they are using. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild, moderate, severe, to  very severe depending on the type of drug. If not properly monitored, some withdrawals can result in death.

Marijuana Withdrawal:

  • Loss of concentration
  • Headaches
  • Agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares and night sweats
  • Vivid dreams
  • Anger

Opiate Withdrawal:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Tremors and muscular spasms
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Chills and sweating
  • Irritability, agitation, and restlessness
  • Hypertension
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Opiate Overdose:

  • Miosis (constricted pupils)
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Depression of the central nervous system
  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased, erratic, or sometimes absence of respiration rate
  • Hypotension
  • Slowed, erratic, or stopped heart rate
  • Coma

Stimulant Withdrawal:

  • Intense cravings
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Tremors and chills
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Muscle pain
  • Psychosis

Stimulant Overdose:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Erratic breathing
  • Chills and profuse sweating
  • Paralysis
  • Heart attack
  • Extreme anxiety and panic
  • Extreme agitation, aggression, and restlessness
  • Passing out or “blacking” out
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Hallucinations
  • Hyperthermia
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Intense paranoia

Hallucinogenic and Dissociative Withdrawal:

  • Cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Suicide

Hallucinogenic and Dissociative Overdose:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Acute psychotic behavior
  • Breaks from reality
  • Self-injury
  • Suicide attempts

Inhalant Withdrawal:

  • Dizziness
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Intense cravings

Inhalant Overdose:

  • Sudden heart failure
  • Cardiac failure
  • Coma
  • Hypoxia
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome

CNS Depressants Withdrawal:

  • Appetite loss
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Headaches
  • Seizures

CNS Depressants Overdose:

  • Lack of muscularly coordination
  • Respiratory depression
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Blurred vision
  • Hypotension
  • Amnesia
  • Coma
  • Increased risk of death when combined with alcohol

Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who struggle with drug abuse and addiction also suffer from various different mental disorders. Some of the most commonly co-occurring disorders can include:

  • Polysubstance abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

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