Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Addiction

Understanding the signs and symptoms of addiction can help you or a loved one make a decision about treatment. Every experience with addiction is different, and if you or a loved one are struggling, we are here to help.

Understanding Addiction

Learn about addiction and substance abuse

Simply defined, substance abuse is a pattern of harmful use of any substance for mood-altering purposes. The misuse of substances such as alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription medications can change how the mind and body work and in many instances leads to addiction. Individuals who have become addicted to alcohol or drugs will continue to use these substances despite the adverse cognitive, negative, behavioral, and psychological symptoms that occur. This chronic, often relapsing brain disease causes compulsive drug seeking and use, which can affect performance at school or work, cause relationship difficulties, and lead to run-ins with the law. Common drugs that are abused include alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, tobacco, and other known or unknown substances.

If you are worried about your own or a loved one’s substance abuse, it is important to know that help is available. Through detoxification, appropriate treatment methods, and continued support individuals can overcome their substance abuse problems and lead a drug free life.


Addiction statistics

In 2012, an estimated 24 million Americans over the age of 12 have used or abused drugs. That number represents just over 9% of the United States population and researchers are expecting that number to increase.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for addiction

The specific cause of why a person would develop a substance abuse problem has yet to be determined by researchers. However, while use does not automatically lead to addiction, studies have shown that there are a number of factors that can make a person more susceptible to developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The most common factors include:

Genetic: Addiction is often referred to as a family disease because hereditary factors can determine who will be at greater risk for developing an addiction. Those with a family history of substance abuse and addiction are at a higher risk than those who do not have the same background.

Physical: Changes in brain chemistry are known to occur in those who abuse drugs and alcohol. More specifically, the chemicals in the brain that communicate pain, process information, and regulate mood are proven to be affected with prolonged substance use. Disturbances in normal brain functioning and the imbalance of vital chemicals can often lead to physical and psychological dependence.

Environmental: Environmental influences have been shown to play an essential role in whether or not a person develops a substance abuse disorder. For example, since drugs or alcohol provide an individual with a sense of relief and escape from the outside world, those who live, work, or attend school in a stressful environment are at risk of abusing substances.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Exposure to substance use
  • Peer pressure
  • Stressful home environment
  • Lack of parenting / parental attachment
  • Being male
  • Preexisting mental illness
  • Undiagnosed mental illness
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Lacking effective coping skills
  • Exposure to violence
  • Being the victim of abuse, neglect, or crime
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Access to drugs and/or alcohol

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of addiction

There are a number of symptoms that can be indicative of substance abuse. Most signs and symptoms will depend upon the substance that is being abused, length of abuse, and personal factors. The signs and symptoms that are commonly associated with a substance abuse disorder may include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Problems with the legal system
  • Changes in personality
  • Decline in grades or quality of work
  • Sudden change in friends
  • Physical violence against other people or property
  • Impaired coordination
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Engaging in risky behavior
  • Unexplained need for money
  • Being secretive
  • Rapid or slowed speech
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Change in eating habits

Physical symptoms:

  • Lack of hygiene
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Muscle tension
  • Tremors
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Memory impairment
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Altered state of perception

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Aggression
  • Helplessness and hopelessness
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in personality
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Decreased motivation
  • Anxiety


Effects of addiction

The effects of a substance abuse problem, if not properly addressed and treated can have many long-term effects on a person’s life. Depending on the substance being abused, the following effects can occur in someone abusing drugs and/or alcohol:

  • Addiction or physical dependence on drugs / alcohol
  • Decline in overall mental health
  • Decline in quality and quantity of interpersonal relationships
  • Loss of employment
  • Homelessness
  • Coma
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Contracting an infectious disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Collapsed veins
  • Overdose
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Addiction and co-occurring disorders

Having another mental illness in addition to a substance abuse problem is common among drug and alcohol users. The subsequent mental disorders are often diagnosed in people with a substance abuse disorder:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Adjustment disorder

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of withdrawal & overdose

After prolonged drug or alcohol use, an individual’s body will become physically and psychologically dependent on drugs or alcohol. Therefore, when a person stops his or her drug use, the effects of withdrawal can quickly appear. The listed effects have be known to occur when someone is withdrawing from drugs or alcohol:

  • Psychosis
  • Clammy skin
  • Paleness
  • Depressed mood
  • Panic
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Chills
  • Agitation
  • Intense cravings
  • Anxious feelings
  • Muscle tension
  • Bone pain

Overdose is an extreme side effect of abusing drugs or alcohol. Depending on the substance being used, the overdose symptoms can somewhat vary. However, an overdose is a serious and requires immediate medical attention. The following symptoms may indicate an overdose:

  • Chills
  • Changes in skin tone
  • Slowed pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Shallow breathing
  • Profuse sweating
  • Fever
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Psychotic behaviors
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Death