Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication. Substances such as alcohol, marijuana and nicotine also are considered drugs. When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.
Drug addiction can start with experimental use of a recreational drug in social situations, and, for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. For others, particularly with opioids, drug addiction begins with exposure to prescribed medications, or receiving medications from a friend or relative who has been prescribed the medication.
The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction more quickly than others.
Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:
- Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — daily or even several times a day
- Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
- Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
- Taking larger amounts of the drug over a longer period of time than you intended
- Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
- Spending money on the drug, even though you can’t afford it
- Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
- Continuing to use the drug, even though you know it’s causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
- Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
- Driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the drug
- Spending a good deal of time getting the drug, using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
- Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug
Recognizing unhealthy drug use in family members
Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug use. Possible indications that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:
- Problems at school or work — frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance
- Physical health issues — lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, or red eyes
- Neglected appearance — lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks
- Changes in behavior — exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering his or her room or being secretive about where he or she goes with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends
- Money issues — sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they’re being sold to support drug use
Marijuana, hashish and other cannabis-containing substances
People use cannabis by smoking, eating or inhaling a vaporized form of the drug. Cannabis often precedes or is used along with other substances, such as alcohol or illegal drugs, and is often the first drug tried.
Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:
- A sense of euphoria or feeling “high”
- A heightened sense of visual, auditory and taste perception
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Red eyes
- Dry mouth
- Decreased coordination
Meth, cocaine and other stimulants
Stimulants include amphetamines, meth (methamphetamine), cocaine, methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, others) and amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (Adderall, Adderall XR, others). They are often used and misused in search of a “high,” or to boost energy, to improve performance at work or school, or to lose weight or control appetite.
Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:
- Feeling of exhilaration and excess confidence
- Increased alertness
- Behavior changes or aggression
- Rapid or rambling speech
- Irritability, anxiety or paranoia
- Nausea or vomiting with weight loss
- Impaired judgment
Club drugs are commonly used at clubs, concerts and parties. Examples include ecstasy or molly (MDMA), gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol (also called roofie) and ketamine. These drugs are not all in the same category, but they share some similar effects and dangers, including long-term harmful effects.
Because GHB and flunitrazepam can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, confusion and memory loss, the potential for sexual misconduct or sexual assault is associated with the use of these drugs.
Signs and symptoms of use of club drugs can include:
- Dilated pupils
- Chills and sweating
- Involuntary shaking (tremors)
- Muscle cramping and teeth clenching
- Heightened or altered sense of sight, sound and taste
- Memory problems or loss of memory
- Reduced consciousness
Signs and symptoms of inhalant use vary, depending on the substance. Some commonly inhaled substances include glue, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt tip marker fluid, gasoline, cleaning fluids and household aerosol products. Due to the toxic nature of these substances, users may develop brain damage or sudden death.
Signs and symptoms of use can include:
- Possessing an inhalant substance without a reasonable explanation
- Nausea or vomiting
- Involuntary eye movements
- Appearing intoxicated with slurred speech, slow movements and poor coordination
- Lingering odor of inhalant material
- Rash around the nose and mouth
Opioids are narcotic, painkilling drugs produced from opium or made synthetically. This class of drugs includes, among others, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone and oxycodone.
Signs and symptoms of narcotic use and dependence can include:
- Reduced sense of pain
- Agitation, drowsiness or sedation
- Slurred speech
- Lack of awareness or inattention to surrounding people and things
- Runny nose or nose sores (if snorting drugs)
When to see a doctor
If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, get help. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances for a long-term recovery. Talk with your primary doctor or see a mental health professional, such as a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
Make an appointment to see a doctor if:
- You can’t stop using a drug
- You continue using the drug despite the harm it causes
- Your drug use has led to unsafe behavior, such as sharing needles or unprotected sex
- You think you may be having withdrawal symptoms after stopping drug use
If you’re not ready to approach a doctor, help lines or hotlines may be a good place to learn about treatment. You can find these lines listed on the internet or in the phone book.
When to seek emergency help
Seek emergency help if you or someone you know has taken a drug and:
- May have overdosed
- Shows changes in consciousness
- Has trouble breathing
- Has seizures or convulsions
- Has signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure
- Has any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug
Staging an intervention
People struggling with addiction usually deny that their drug use is problematic and are reluctant to seek treatment. An intervention presents a loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.
An intervention should be carefully planned and may be done by family and friends in consultation with a doctor or professional such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or directed by an intervention professional. It involves family and friends and sometimes co-workers, clergy or others who care about the person struggling with addiction.
During the intervention, these people gather together to have a direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment.