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How to recognize the signs of drugs and alcohol abuse

According to Mayo Clinic, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behaviour and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug, medication or alcohol. And when you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes. As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug or alcohol to get high, and soon you may need it to feel good and make it through the day.

Drug and alcohol abuse can have serious consequences, including significant health problems and damage to relationships with family, friends and colleagues. If you are concerned about your drug or alcohol abuse, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Remember, alcohol and drug abuse are treatable, and more options are available today than ever before.

What are the warning signs?

Substance or alcohol abuse affects all kinds of people, from preteens to the elderly, in every income level and occupation. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug and alcohol use.

Drug addiction symptoms or behaviours include, among others:

  • Feeling that you have to use drugs or alcohol while you are doing other activities – on a daily basis
  • Friends, family members, or your employer have expressed concerns about your use of drugs or alcohol
  • Continuing to use alcohol or drugs, even though you know they have a negative effect on any of the following areas of your life:
    • Relationships with family members and others
    • Work responsibilities
    • Physical and mental health
    • Recreational activities
    • Finances, such as spending money on purchasing alcohol or drugs even though you can’t afford it
    • Your legal situation, including charges of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or even stealing

Behavioural warning signs of drug or alcohol abuse can also include:

  • Significant changes in your personality when you are using drugs or alcohol. You become extremely sad, extremely happy, irritable, and you don’t care about what is happening in your life
  • Doing things that you normally wouldn’t such as embarrassing yourself or others, becoming aggressive or violent toward yourself or others, withdrawing from people or missing work regularly
  • Seeking out activities that will include drug and alcohol use
  • Blackouts or “spaced out”. Trouble remembering periods when you’ve been drinking (the so-called “blackouts”)
  • Increased tolerance for drugs or alcohol. It’s getting harder and harder for you to stop drinking or using drugs once you start and you need more of the substance than you did before to get the same effect.

If you recognize any of the above signs, you or your loved one could have a drug- and/or an alcohol-abuse problem and may benefit from outside help.

Other indications

In addition to the kinds of personality and behaviour changes described above, a person who is abusing alcohol or drugs may experience symptoms that interfere with daily functioning.

  • In the case of alcohol or other depressants such as opiates or benzodiazepines, symptoms can include drowsiness, slurred speech, loss of coordination, lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, red eyes
  • In the case of stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines, symptoms can include insomnia and appetite loss, a sense of euphoria or feeling “high”, rapid or rambling speech, confusion, irritability, anxiety, or depression as the drug wears off

Keep in mind that symptoms like these do not necessarily indicate drug or alcohol abuse. They can be caused by a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including strokes, neurological diseases, and depression.

Getting help

If you or a loved one need help with treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, visit the Adfam website if you’re in the UK, or the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) if you’re in the US.

The information in this article isn’t meant to take the place of a formal drug or alcohol assessment, but it will help you decide whether you need outside help. Although this information is written primarily for people who are concerned about their alcohol or drug use, it can also help if you are worried about a family member or friend’s alcohol or drug use.

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