An estimated 21.5 million adults in the United States (people who were at least 12 years old) struggled with drug and/or alcohol addiction in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Addiction is classified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a brain disease involving circuitry related to motivation, memory, and reward. Compulsive behaviors, interpersonal relationship difficulties, and dysfunctional emotional responses are components of addiction.
The standard tool used by professionals to diagnose mental health issues, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (currently the DSM-5), replaces the word addiction with substance use disorder. As published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the DSM-5lists four main groupings of symptoms for a substance use disorder: social impairment, risky use, pharmacological components, and impaired control. These can be further broken down into physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of addiction, as the disease impacts virtually all aspect of a person’s life and disrupts loved ones and family members as well.
Physical Symptoms of Addiction
The regular use of substances that are mind-altering, such as alcohol and illicit drugs, leads to chemical changes in the brain. Many of these substances disrupt normal movement of the brain’s natural messengers, or neurotransmitters, that are responsible for helping to regulate moods, stress, and energy levels; control impulses; and related to learning, sleep, and memory functions. Levels of dopamine, serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), and norepinephrine are often impacted by drug and alcohol abuse.
As NIDA reports, drugs of abuse interfere with the brain’s natural communication system. Elevated levels of many of these chemical messengers cause a burst of euphoria – the “high” that is experienced with drug abuse. Chronic drug abuse can cause the brain and body to become tolerant to the drug’s effects, and a person will need to increase the dosage, and potentially the frequency of doses, in order to keep feeling the effects. Regular disruption of these chemicals can cause the brain to rely on the drug in order to produce and transmit the chemicals. Dependence is formed, and significant drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms can occur when the drugs are not present.
Drug withdrawal symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle aches
- Bone and joint pain
- Dilated pupils
- Irregular heart rate
- High or low blood pressure
- Difficulties breathing
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Runny nose
- Dry mouth
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
- Short-term memory issues
- Mood swings
- Trouble feeling pleasure
In some cases, as with alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioid drugs, withdrawal symptoms can be intense and even potentially dangerous and life-threatening. Medical detox provides the safest method to process these substances out of the body while minimizing the possible side effects. Drug dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal are physical signs of addiction, but these can be present even in someone who does not suffer from addiction. In order for addiction to be diagnosed, other behavioral signs must also be present.
When a person battles addiction, there are often additional outward physical signs of addiction, since these harmful chemicals can wreak havoc on a person’s health.
A weakened immune system due to chronic drug exposure may lead to frequent illness and poor physical health. Drug use, and particularly injection drug use, can expose a person to diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, Oxford Journals warns, and problematic drug use is often considered a risk factor for sexually transmitted and infectious diseases.
Malnutrition and fluctuations in weight and appetite are additional indicators of frequent drug use and possible addiction, as are changes in sleep patterns. Skin sores, infections, and scarring or “track marks” can indicate regular injection drug abuse while irritation around the nose and frequent nosebleeds can indicate that a person is habitually snorting drugs. Chronic coughing and respiratory distress are physical signs of smoking and inhaling drugs regularly.
Someone who suffers from addiction likely neglects their personal hygiene and may appear disheveled, unclean, and unkempt on a regular basis. Accidents and injuries related to drug use and abuse may be common in someone who is struggling with addiction.
Psychological and Behavioral Signs of Addiction
Addiction leads to more than just physical problems; it brings many emotional, social, and behavioral ramifications as well. Erratic behaviors, intense mood swings, increased hostility, aggression, possible violent outbursts, and out-of-character actions can often be attributed to drug abuse, as individuals cycle between intoxication and the “crash” or letdown that occurs once the drug wears off. This can strain interpersonal relationships and lead to difficulties with coworkers, family members, friends, neighbors, teammates, and classmates.
A person who battles addiction may become obsessed with the drug and spend most of their time talking about it, thinking about it, or on drug forums. The majority of their time is spent trying to obtain the drug, using it, and then coming down, or recovering, from use. Finances may become strained as large amounts of money may go to purchasing more of the drug of choice, which may be obtained through criminal or illegal channels and actions, potentially leading to troubles with law enforcement and legal entanglements.
Increased secrecy, social withdrawal, and a lack of interest in activities that may have once been important are common signs of addiction and problematic drug use. Addiction indicates an inability to control drug use, meaning that a person may use drugs for longer, more often, and in larger doses than intended. Multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop using drugs are common in people battling addiction.
Addiction is a disease that interferes with a person’s ability to control their impulses and causes compulsive drug use, making it difficult for them to continue to function normally in everyday life. Someone suffering from addiction will continue to use drugs even though they know that using them will have many negative physical, emotional, and social consequences. Drugs are used in potentially dangerous situations, and risk-taking behaviors, questionable judgment and decisions, and unsafe sexual practices are typical signs of addiction. Someone struggling with addiction is not as productive at work or school, and attendance may be spotty. Grades are negatively impacted, and a person may lose their job as a result of addiction. Families are disrupted due to addiction, as someone battling addiction will often overlook and fail to fulfill familial obligations.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that addiction and mental illness are present in the same person at the same time very often. In 2014, nearly 8 million American adults suffered from co-occurring disorders. Drugs and addiction intensify mental health issues, and the reverse is also true. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal and self-harming thoughts and behaviors, shame, guilt, and a wide range of negative emotions are often emotional ramifications and complications of addiction.
Addiction is considered a relapsing and chronic disease that can be treated in a variety of ways. Someone who battles addiction may not wish to admit that a problem exists, and families and loved ones often play a vital role in providing the support and encouragement needed to obtain and follow through with treatment. Medical and mental health professionals, as well as substance abuse treatment providers and trained interventionists, can assist families in guiding a loved one to find the help they need for recovery.