How Can I Tell if Someone I Know is on Drugs?

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Drug abuse is a common problem in the United States. In 2017, 19.7 million American adults battled a substance use disorder (SUD).

Drug abuse impacts people from all walks of life. Many individuals who abuse drugs developed the habit after being prescribed prescription drugs to treat a medical ailment. 

Man with face on table next to pile of drugs

Many individuals who develop substance use disorders struggle with mental illness. About half of all individuals with mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder (or vice versa).

Regardless of the reason why a person starts taking drugs, tolerance, increased use patterns, physical dependence, and addiction can develop.

Some drugs carry a higher risk of dependence and addiction than others. It’s essential to identify the common signs of substance abuse early on, so intervention can occur before addiction takes hold.

Behavioral Signs of Drug Use

Drug use changes the brain and can cause behavioral changes. The most common behavioral signs of drug abuse include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of interest in formerly pleasurable activities
  • A decline in attendance or performance at work or school
  • Seeming withdrawn or inactive
  • Secretive behavior
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating habits or a loss of appetite
  • Drastic changes in relationships
  • Issues with financial management or spending more money than usual
  • Defensiveness when asked about substance use
  • Absence from school or work
  • Inability to explain reasons for doing something
  • Frequent accidents or injuries
  • Engaging in risky sexual behavior

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Physical Signs of Drug Use

Drugs can change the user’s physical appearance. Some of the most common physical symptoms of drug use include:

  • Poor hygiene 
  • Bloodshot or red eyes 
  • Pupils larger or smaller than normal
  • Seizures
  • Poor skin tone
  • Appearing tired or run down
  • Impaired coordination
  • Unusual odor on breath, body, or clothing
  • Weight loss or weight gain

Psychological Signs of Drug Use 

When someone misuses drugs, they may experience changes in their feelings, affecting their behavior. Some common psychological signs include:

  • A negative change in personality or attitude
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty with cognition or thinking
  • Memory loss

Effects & Risks of Commonly Abused Drugs

Heroin

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive opioid drug made from morphine, which comes from poppy plants. This drug looks like a white or brown powder or sometimes a black sticky substance. Heroin can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked.

Heroin is a depressant that slows down certain brain and nervous system functions. It affects heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

Heroin use causes the following side effects:

  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy feeling in extremities 
  • Short-lived state of euphoria followed by drowsiness
  • Slowed heart rate, breathing, movement, and brain activity
  • Decreased appetite, thirst, reflexes, and sexual desire

Heroin use can lead to dangerous consequences, including:

  • Damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain
  • Contracting Hepatitis or HIV
  • Blood poisoning
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Death

If someone is using heroin, the signs to look for include:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Sleepiness
  • Slow movement
  • “Track marks” or needle marks on arms
  • Severe itching
  • “Nodding” or going in and out of consciousness
  • Withdrawal symptoms including insomnia, sweating, nausea, and goosebumps

Meth

Methamphetamine (meth) is an illegal, highly addictive stimulant drug. Meth appears as a white, odorless powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol.

Meth has one of the highest global rates of misuse. Over 14 million people (5.4 percent of the population) have tried meth at least once.

Methamphetamine is very similar to amphetamines; prescription drugs used to treat medical conditions like ADHD. However, the side effects of taking meth last longer and are often more toxic. 

Meth use can cause the following side effects:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature)

Meth use can lead to dangerous consequences, including:

  • Depression
  • Permanent psychological problems
  • Brain damage
  • Liver damage
  • Fatal lung and kidney disorders
  • Stroke or heart problems
  • Death

If someone is using meth, the common physical signs to look for include:

  • Excessive itching or scratching
  • Skin sores on arms and face
  • Burns on lips or fingers
  • Nervousness, restlessness, or inability to sit still
  • Rotten teeth or gums
  • Appearing sick or ill
  • Twitching, jerking movements (loss of motor skill)
  • Paranoia
  • Aggression or violence
  • Excessive sweating even in cold temperatures
  • Rapid, irrational, and slurred speech
  • Teeth grinding
  • Runny or bloody nose
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Poor personal hygiene 
  • Extreme or bizarre behavior

Cocaine

Cocaine is an illegal, highly addictive stimulant drug made from the coca plant. Cocaine appears as a fine, white powder. Cocaine can be snorted or rubbed into the gums. It may also be injected into the bloodstream.

Side effects of cocaine use include:

  • Brief but intense feelings of euphoria
  • Stimulation of the central nervous system (CNS)
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Tremors
  • Vertigo
  • Muscle twitches
  • Increase in pulse, body temperature, blood pressure, and respiratory rate
  • Extreme excitability or anxiety
  • Sleeplessness and chronic fatigue

Dangers:

  • Bleeding and damage to nasal passages
  • Paranoid psychosis, hallucinations, and mental abnormalities
  • Impaired driving ability
  • Abdominal pain and nausea
  • Malnourishment
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Seizures
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Death caused by heart or respiratory failure

If someone is using cocaine, the signs to look for include:

  • Increased talkativeness
  • Hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch
  • Dilated pupils
  • Mood swings
  • Overconfidence
  • Overexcitement
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Ability to perform physical and intellectual tasks quickly or more slowly than usual 

Signs Your Loved One Has a Drug Problem (When to Seek Help)

If you suspect your loved one uses drugs, an early invention is essential to ensure the most robust chances of successful recovery. Friends and family members can choose to stage an intervention once signs of drug use are apparent. They may want to seek a professional interventionist’s advice who can guide them for the best results.

An intervention can be a way to show love and support while also setting boundaries around addictive behaviors. Repeatedly offering help in social support, information on drug treatment facilities or treatment programs, and other methods to get sober may prompt the person to accept help.

Drug Addiction Treatment Options

Many treatment options are available for drug addiction. Different types of treatment options include an inpatient program, outpatient program, or partial hospitalization. Some drug abuse treatment centers cater to specific types of drug addiction. The best drug treatment for an individual will depend on the severity of their addiction, the specific drug or drugs abused, their living situation, and their overall health. Treatment should include both medical detox and therapy to address the underlying issues related to substance abuse.

Find Help For Your Addiction

You don’t have to overcome your addiction alone. Professional guidance and support is available. Begin a life of recovery by reaching out to a specialist today.

Resources +

“2017 NSDUH Annual National Report: CBHSQ Data.” SAMHSA.gov, www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report

NIDA. "Addiction and Health." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Jul. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/addiction-health.

NIDA. "Cocaine DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Jul. 2018, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine.

NIDA. "Drug Misuse and Addiction." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Jul. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-misuse-addiction

NIDA. "Heroin DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 21 Nov. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin.

NIDA. "Mental Health Effects." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 15 Jun. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/health-consequences-drug-misuse/mental-health-effects Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.

NIDA. "Overview." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 20 Jul. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/overview.

NIDA. "Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 28 May. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness.

NIDA. "What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11 Jun. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use

NIDA. "What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 28 May. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-heroin-use

NIDA. "What are the immediate (short-term) effects of methamphetamine misuse?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8 Apr. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-methamphetamine-misuse

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Drugs and Alcohol. www.bot.ca.gov/licensees/sign_symp.pdf

“Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000949.htm

“Warning Signs of Drug Abuse.” Tennessee State Government - TN.gov, www.tn.gov/behavioral-health/substance-abuse-services/treatment---recovery/treatment---recovery/prescription-for-success/warning-signs-of-drug-abuse.html

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