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Substance abuse is a common issue that affects people from all walks of life. Defined as a dependence on using a substance to the point where it could be detrimental to your health, the sufferer often has no control over their situation. 

In this article, we’ll be looking into the general signs of substance abuse that cover all types of addiction, so that you can approach the topic sensitively and accurately with yourself or your loved one. 


How can I look for signs of addiction? 

Addictive substances include alcohol, tobacco and nicotine, household inhalants, prescription medication, illicit drugs and more. Illicit drugs can include, but aren’t limited to, cocaine, heroin, MDMA and methamphetamines. If you’re concerned that someone in your life could potentially be dealing with substance abuse, there are several signs of addiction you can look out for. 

Despite the signs of substance abuse varying depending on the specific addiction, there are key elements you can look for if you are concerned about a loved one. Changes in a person’s behaviour is a good starting point, particularly if a person is behaving in a manner that is completely out of character. Outward changes in their physical appearance will also indicate poor health, both mentally and physically. 


What are the risk factors in addiction?

Addiction of any kind does not discriminate. Regardless of a person’s age, sex, background or financial standing, anyone can become addicted to a substance. Despite this, there are a number of risk factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing problems with addiction.

A history of addiction

If a person has a family history of addiction, there is likely a genetic predisposition involved. You are more likely to develop problems with substance use if you have an immediate relative with a drug or alcohol disorder. On a similar level, difficult family situations such as a lack of parental supervision or a poor relationship with parents and siblings are often risk factors for addiction.

Mental health struggles 

Mental health struggles can also increase a person’s chances of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Substances are commonly used by patients with depression, ADHD or PTSD as a way of dealing with complex emotions associated with their disorders – however substance abuse will always make the problem worse.

Peer pressure

For young people especially, peer pressure is a factor in beginning to use substances. Similarly, using drugs and alcohol at an early age can affect the brain’s development, making the user more likely to progress to an addictive disorder.

Recreational drug use 

Recreational use of highly addictive substances such as stimulants, painkillers or cocaine may lead to the faster development of addiction than lesser substances. However, casually taking ‘lighter’ drugs can also act as a gateway for substance abuse.


Spotting the signs of alcohol abuse

Alcohol addiction – most frequently referred to as alcoholism – is a disorder where the user has an uncontrollable desire to drink. A person living with alcoholism will take part in harmful drinking at a level that will negatively affect their health and responsibilities.

If you believe a loved one is developing an unhealthy relationship with their drinking, it’s important to look out for the signs that someone is an alcoholic.


Physical signs of alcoholism

The physical symptoms of alcoholism will be noticeable even during the early stages of the disorder. As a starting point, you will notice the person being drunk on a regular basis, with the obvious signs including slurred speech, impaired coordination and poor decision making.

Often, if a regular user feels sick after drinking, they will use alcohol to get rid of the nausea. Blacking out regularly is also associated with alcohol abuse. Those showing signs of alcohol abuse will also often choose to drink over eating regular meals. 

As the addiction develops, the person will noticeably decline in their appearance due to burgeoning health problems. More than 60 medical conditions develop with alcohol as a risk factor, including heart and blood pressure issues and liver and kidney damage.


Behavioural signs that someone is an alcoholic

You will also begin to notice significant behavioural differences when the person is drunk as opposed to how they normally act when they are sober. The person is much more likely to participate in dangerous or risky behaviours, such as drunk driving.

A person showing symptoms of alcohol abuse will also be very secretive about their drinking. Alongside drinking beyond moderation on a regular basis – where moderation is defined as seven drinks a week – the person is also likely to drink alone and at erratic times, such as first thing in the morning. They will give up passions and interests to drink, and will be evidently unable to stop.

More key signs that someone is an alcoholic include developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression as a consequence of their drinking. Depending on the level of alcohol consumed, the person may also experience insomnia.


Knowing the signs of drug addiction

As with alcohol addiction, drug dependence is a disorder that impairs the user’s ability to control their intake of a specific substance, legal or otherwise. A person who is addicted to drugs will be aware of the harm the substance has on their body but will be unable to stop.

If you think a loved one may be struggling with substance abuse, there are a number of signs of drug addiction you can look out for.


Physical signs of drug addiction

If you suspect that someone you know is abusing drugs, you will notice significant alterations in their appearance. The hallmark signs of drug use include changes in a person’s eyes – you should pay close attention to the size of their pupils and whether they’re excessively over- or under-dilated. Bloodshot, red eyes are also telltale signs of addiction.

Someone living with drug addiction will also look recognisably different in their skin. This includes having an unusual level of puffiness in their face and changes in their complexion that make them look either overly flushed or washed-out. Abusing drugs will often affect a person’s weight. Depending on the specific substance, a user will have their appetite either suppressed or accelerated – meaning they will experience drastic changes to their weight.

When looking for signs someone is on drugs at that present moment, keep an eye on whether the person is slurring their speech or constantly sniffling. They may also be itching persistently or impulsively tugging on their sleeves. 

Consistent fatigue is also something to consider, especially as drug abuse alters the hormones responsible for rest and wakefulness. Someone regularly using drugs will be erratic in their sleeping habits in comparison to their usual schedule. This is the case for both stimulant and depressant users.


Behavioural signs someone is on drugs 

As many substances impair a person’s ability to handle their emotions effectively, you may notice a drug user dealing with extreme mood swings. A person abusing drugs will also become increasingly erratic in their behaviour due to the stark contrast between a high and the withdrawal phase. Co-occurring mental health disorders can also be amplified by drug use.

Due to the fact that substance abuse is an experience that comes with a lot of social stigma, the user will often appear ashamed and paranoid about their situation and therefore become reclusive. When confronted about their use, the person will often be hostile and defensive in an attempt to hide their addiction. 

A frequent drug user will often prioritise using their chosen substance above everything else, meaning that their usual interests will begin to wane. This is particularly apparent if a person becomes unenthusiastic about the people or hobbies they’re usually passionate about.


What are the long-term signs of addiction?

The signs of addiction explained above tend to present themselves in the early stages of a person’s addiction, however it’s important to remember that addiction often takes over a person’s life if left untreated. From untreated addiction stems a variety of potential long-term effects that will increase in severity the longer they are ignored.

The personal and psychological consequences of addiction are life-changing. Many patients experience strained or broken relationships as a result of their behaviour, including family breakdown. Long-term mental health problems are also common, with suicidal thoughts and behaviours being reported by many of those struggling with addiction.

The patient may also be affected financially by job loss and unemployment if they are struggling day-to-day. This can lead to legal problems or homelessness.

Similarly, physical health consequences of addiction become more prevalent over time and can result in death if left untreated.


For long-term addicts, the following health complications can arise:

  • Liver damage
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • High blood pressure 
  • Increased stroke risk
  • Ulcers
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased cancer risks
  • Various heart problems
  • Issues in the brain
  • Kidney failure
  • Gout


You’ve seen signs of substance abuse: what now?

If you believe that yourself or a loved one may be exhibiting signs of addiction, it’s important to seek out help. At Claimont, our compassionate team of healthcare professionals can help you receive the help and support you need to get through the recovery process. 

From home detox services to home visits from our clinical team, we will always endeavour to find the treatment that works best for your circumstances. To privately speak to one of our consultants about how we can help you, contact us today.