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Drug Addiction: Signs of Substance Abuse

Drug addiction occurs when the repeated use of an addictive substance produces certain brain changes in a region known as the pleasure center. Even without developing full-blown addiction, regular drug users can develop both clear and relatively subtle indications of substance abuse. Let’s look at some of the potential signs of substance abuse in both adults and teenagers.

Drug Addiction vs. Abuse

Every time you consume an addictive drug, this substance changes the chemical balance inside your pleasure center. In fact, the alteration of chemical levels in this brain area is responsible for the euphoria that often motivates inappropriate drug intake. Over time, your brain will get used to the changes in its chemical makeup. When this adjustment occurs, you must take more of a given drug to feel “high.” At a certain point, your brain will consider a drug-altered state as normal instead of an exception to the rule. This tipping point is the onset of addiction.

The term drug abuse is used in a couple of ways. First, it describes any illicit/illegal or inappropriate consumption of a street drug or a mind-altering medication. Doctors and addiction specialists also use the term more specifically to describe a pattern of excessive drug or medication intake that sets the stage for the eventual development of drug addiction.

Signs of Substance Abuse

There are a broad range of outward signs that may point to the presence of serious substance abuse. Things to look for include:

  • A level of substance intake that frequently leads to clear intoxication
  • Recurring intake of a substance in a setting that presents an obvious danger to the user or other people
  • Reliance on substance use as a main or favored recreational activity
  • Frequent intake of a mind-altering street drug
  • Excessive consumption of a mind-altering medication
  • Association with a social group that uses drugs
  • Job loss as a result of substance use
  • Job absences that stem from substance use
  • Repeated intake of any combination of mind-altering substances (including alcohol)
  • Reliance on substance use for stress relief
  • Intentional hiding of substance use from others
  • Relationship problems caused by substance use
  • Concern from loved ones regarding your level of substance intake
  • Anger or defensiveness when confronted with issues of substance use
  • Social isolation that appears to stem from substance intake
  • Spending money earmarked for bills or other financial obligations on substance use
  • Recurring involvement in substance-related behavior that could result in arrest
  • Recurring run-ins with the law as a result of substance use or substance-related behavior

Signs in Teenagers

The signs of substance abuse in teenagers may differ substantially from the signs associated with adults. Parents should look for a number of potential issues, including:

Behavioral Changes

  • Unusual moodiness
  • Withdrawal from family activities
  • Unusual involvement in risky behaviors (e.g., speeding or unprotected sex)
  • Declining levels of personal motivation
  • Unusual sluggishness or clumsiness
  • Unusual sleepiness or sleeplessness
  • Unexplained disappearances
  • Unexplained depressed or sullen moods
  • Unusual use of lies and excuses

Changes in Appearance

  • Declining personal hygiene
  • Declining concern over personal appearance
  • Physical signs of drug use (e.g., track marks or fingertip burns)
  • Unexplained bruises, scratches or abrasions

Changes in Typical Habits

  • Unusual locking of bedroom or bathroom doors
  • Sudden frequent use of breath fresheners, mints or gum
  • Unusual food binges (i.e., the “munchies”)
  • Unusual attempts to hide incoming or outgoing phone calls
  • Unexplained or sudden requests for money
  • Unusual avoidance of eye contact
  • An unusual tendency to stay out late at night

Health-Related Changes

  • Unexplained or frequent illness
  • Unexplained changes in body weight
  • Unexplained runny nose or nosebleeds
  • Unexplained sweatiness
  • Increased involvement in accidents

Problems at School or Work

  • Declining grades
  • Declining involvement in afterschool activities
  • Skipping school
  • Reports of concern from teachers or bosses
  • Obvious intoxication while working or in class

Other Possible Signs

  • Unexplained disappearance of medications or alcohol in your household
  • Unexplained disappearance of cash or expensive items
  • Odd smells in your vehicle or your teen’s vehicle
  • The discovery of drug paraphernalia (e.g., lighters, rolling papers or pipes)


National Institute on Drug Abuse: DrugFacts – Understanding Drug Use and Addiction

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the San Fernando Valley, Inc.: Substance Abuse Symptoms Checklist

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: Is Your Teen Using? Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: Brain and Addiction:

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