Substance use disorder — once called drug dependence — is classified as the patterned usage of psychoactive substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs. The regular use of these substances can threaten the health and well-being of everyone involved. Abuse of alcohol or drugs can create physical and psychogenic disorders, depending upon the nature and frequency of consumption. These risks are the reason most parts of the world classify substance use as a criminal offense. Despite this, the abuse of drugs and alcohol is widespread, and detection can be challenging. The following are the most common signs of substance use disorder and can help you determine if someone you know has an addiction.
An increase in impulsive behavior is a common effect of substance use disorder. Actions and decisions can become reckless and lack normal consideration. Several theories attempt to explain this reaction, the most popular being a drug-induced change in the prefrontal cortex. This can impair inhibitory control resulting in an increase in impulsive behavior. For those who have suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex from drugs and alcohol, this lack of impulse control may lead to an increase in extravagant purchases, reckless investments, risky sexual behavior, and a higher probability of criminal activity.
Behavioral changes are another common symptom. Changes in fundamental behaviors, such as punctuality and performance, can have a significant impact on an individual's career or schooling. Compulsive lying, making unreasonable demands, and secretive behavior may be exhibited by people with substance use disorder. These actions adversely affect personal relationships, resulting in increased isolation leading to feelings of paranoia and resentment toward friends and family, increasing emotional sensitivity and causing the individual to withdraw further. Altered speech patterns are often the most obvious change in behavior. Slowed and slurred speech is usually related to the use of alcohol and depressant drugs. Drugs that stimulate the central nervous system, or "uppers", generally cause speech patterns that are more rapid than normal.
Many people who use drugs or alcohol excessively may find themselves suffering from altered sleeping patterns. While some may find it difficult to sleep, having developed mild to moderate insomnia, others may sleep too much or experience drowsiness during waking hours. Often the psychological anomalies produced by drug abuse, such as depression or anxiety, trigger extreme changes in normal sleep patterns. Substance use disorder can also affect mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, by reducing the efficacy of treatments and intensifying symptoms. The common result of these interactions is further disruption in sleep patterns.
Changes in social habits can be another warning sign of substance use disorder. Some individuals may withdraw from friends and family while others may become exceedingly social. Those who withdraw will often cancel regular social engagements, ignore communications from people they know, or disappear for extended periods of time. Increases in social activity include developing superficial relationships with people outside their normal social circle, often others with substance use disorder. Uncharacteristic aggression and violence can accompany these social changes, leading to the destruction of healthy relationships with friends and family.
Misuse of drugs or alcohol can also be identified through physical ailments. Long-term, excessive alcohol use can result in flushed skin, broken facial capillaries, trembling, and reddened eyes. Those with the disorder may fall victim to bouts of diarrhea and are more likely to get alcohol poisoning. Drug use can cause facial swelling, cold or sweaty palms, irregular heartbeat, excessive sweating, nausea, and vomiting. Changes in appetite can result in extreme weight fluctuations, and people with drug dependencies often have a distinct body and breath odors. Troubles with coordination can result in sluggish movement, or people may experience hyperactivity. The type and severity of physical ailments depend on the substance.
When people with substance use disorder are not under the influence, they may exhibit symptoms of withdrawal, which can begin after just a few hours without exposure to the substance of choice. Paranoia, anxiety, depression, and agitation are a few of the early signs that detoxification may be taking place. Physical symptoms such as shaking and trembling are common during early withdrawal and can progress to more serious issues like vomiting, stomach pains, headaches, and extreme fatigue. The severity of the symptoms is dependent on the substance and the level of dependency. For those withdrawing from long-term use, or from certain substances such as heroin or opiates, professional intervention and medical monitoring are often necessary.
The consumption of drugs or alcohol can result in temporary or permanent memory loss. Heavy alcohol use is known to cause individuals to blackout or experience temporary anterograde amnesia. This is often limited to times when blood alcohol content is elevated. High levels of alcohol interfere with the formation and storage of new memories. Over time, regular alcohol use can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a more long-term amnesiac condition that can be caused by thiamine deficiency. This condition is rarely reversible and must be treated aggressively to minimize its impact on quality of life. The extended use of drugs will also have a negative impact on memory function, the severity of which depends on the type of drug and frequency of use.
Poor hygiene can also be an indication of drug or alcohol abuse. As the addiction takes hold, hygienic necessities become less of a priority, and the user may begin to neglect self-care. Basic routines such as bathing and brushing one's teeth may be reduced in frequency or avoided altogether in extreme cases. Failure to brush hair, shave, trim nails, and carry out other standard grooming tasks can result in a dirty, unkempt appearance. These signs can also point to mental health disorders but can be indicative of substance use disorder when combined with other symptoms.
Maintaining a steady supply of an addictive substance comes with a hefty financial burden associated with them, and it often increases with time. Eventually, many people with substance use disorder run out of disposable income and may lose their jobs and assets as they spend more of their money on drugs or alcohol and spend more time under the influence. A regular need for money to cover undisclosed expenses can sometimes point to a substance use disorder.
Some people are able to manage occasional recreational use of drugs and alcohol. However, the time of day and frequency of use can be an indication that there is a problem. Regular substance abuse causes the user's body to become tolerant to whatever substance he or she is taking. This leads to "chasing the high" or increasing the quantity used to obtain the same feeling that inspired the addiction in the beginning. Frequency of use will also begin to increase as users attempt to maintain their altered state and avoid symptoms of withdrawal. Commonly, this leads to regular use in the morning to ward off detox symptoms triggered by the lack of the substance overnight. Repeated morning use can indicate a substance use disorder.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.