Substance Abuse Signs & Symptoms

Not everyone experiences substance abuse the same way. Understanding the signs, symptoms and effects of addiction is an important step toward recovery for your child.

Understanding Substance Abuse

Learn about substance abuse

When a person continuously uses drugs and/or alcohol despite adverse effects that occur as a direct result of that use, that individual is likely battling a substance abuse problem. In addition to alcohol, a person with such a problem may abuse cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs, marijuana, synthetic marijuana, methamphetamine, or other substances that have the potential of causing a great deal of harm to a person’s life. Substance abuse often precedes addiction and dependence, yet should still be treated as a serious problem that requires care in order to prevent additional adversities from occurring.

Those who are chronic abusers of drugs and/or alcohol often have increased interaction with law enforcement, experience academic struggles, and have more frequent conflict among peers and loved ones. Youth who are battling chemical dependency concerns can greatly benefit from treatment for substance abusing behaviors as mental health care can identify and treat any co-occurring disorders that could be present, instill skills needed for abstaining from substances, and provide the tools needed to cope with stress in a healthy manner.


Substance abuse statistics

The prevalence rate of substance abuse among young people in the United States is estimated to be around nine percent for youth over the age of twelve. This percentage accounts for those young people who have used or abused drugs or alcohol at some point in life. Unfortunately, researchers are expecting this number to increase.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for substance abuse

The development of a substance abuse problem is believed to be influenced primarily by a person’s genes and environment. In addition to other risk factors, the following explains why and how an individual can come to abuse drugs and/or alcohol:

Genetic: Among addiction experts in the field, it is a widely accepted notion that a person can have a genetic predisposition to substance abuse. This conclusion was made after it was discovered that substance abuse, addiction, and dependence is commonly found among individuals who share similar genes. Therefore, a person with a first-degree family member with a substance abuse problem has an increased risk for abusing substances at some point in life as well.

Environmental: The onset of a substance abuse problem can be influenced by a number of environmental and circumstantial factors. Youth who lack parental involvement or supervision have an increased risk for experimenting with and eventually abusing drugs and/or alcohol. Additionally, young people who are the victims of trauma, abuse, neglect, bullying, or other forms of victimization have a high probability of developing a problem with substances as young people often lack the necessary tools for coping with these types of stressors.

Risk Factors:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Difficulty achieving academically
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Exposure to violence
  • Being the victim of a crime / abuse / neglect
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Lack of caregiver involvement
  • Poor parenting during formative years
  • Peer pressure
  • Exposure to chaos
  • Easy access to substances
  • Family history of chemical dependency or mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Lack of coping skills

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of addiction

The telltale signs that a person is abusing drugs and/or alcohol can be vast. Depending on the substance that is being abused, along with the longevity and severity of the abuse, the indicators of a chemical dependency problem can sometimes be observable to those closest to the person engaging in this type of behavior. The following behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms are those that infer a person is abusing drugs and/or alcohol; symptoms that could warrant therapeutic intervention in order to cease the individual’s use:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Poor coordination
  • Missing school
  • Not fulfilling roles or responsibilities
  • Increased conflict with others
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Change in peer group
  • Unwarranted outbursts of emotions
  • Hyperactivity
  • Lethargy
  • Declined participation in things that were once enjoyed
  • Engaging in risky behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Slurred speech
  • Headaches
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Presence of injection sites
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Hindered decision-making
  • Psychosis
  • Delayed thinking
  • Confusion
  • Poor concentration
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Inability to reason
  • Impaired memory
  • Detachment from reality

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Changes in temperament
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Increased anxiety


Effects of substance abuse

The extent of the effects of a substance abuse problem can be far-reaching across several areas of a person’s life. Carrying the potential to negatively impact an individual’s physical health, academic performance, occupational functioning, quality and quantity of interpersonal relationships, and overall wellbeing, the following effects are those that can, in fact, be avoided if a person seeks the necessary treatment to end his or her addiction:

  • Addiction
  • Dependence
  • Discord among friends and loved ones
  • Academic failure
  • Onset of a mental health condition
  • Exacerbation of symptoms associated with a mental health condition
  • Compromised immune system
  • Possibility of exposure to viruses, such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS
  • Homelessness
  • Interaction with law enforcement
  • Malnutrition
  • Memory loss
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Damage to the central nervous system
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Elevated risk for certain cancers
  • Damage to the heart
  • Heart failure
  • Hindered lung functioning
  • Stroke
  • Coma
  • Inability to acquire or maintain employment in adulthood
  • Overdose
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for abusers of substances to battle a mental health condition at the same time. Sometimes substance abuse can trigger the onset of symptoms or worsen symptoms of a preexisting mental illness. The listed disorders are those that are frequently diagnosed in those who are grappling with chemical dependency concerns:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Another substance use disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of withdrawal: Chronic abusers of substances are likely to experience physiological and psychological effects in the event that these individuals abruptly stop using their substance(s) of choice. These effects are referred to as withdrawal and are known to be unpleasant and painful. The following symptoms are examples of withdrawal and could require detoxification or other medical attention if they occur:

  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Intense cravings to use drugs and/or alcohol
  • Elevated levels of anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Chills
  • Tremors
  • Panic
  • Paranoia

Effects of overdose: Sadly, those who abuse drugs and/or alcohol remain at risk for overdose should substance-using behaviors occur more often and with increasing amounts of a given drug(s) or alcohol being used. Below are signs that infer a person is experiencing an overdose; signs that suggest medical intervention is needed quickly:

  • Heart failure
  • Chest pains
  • Labored / shallow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Blacking out
  • Stroke
  • Presence of psychotic symptoms
  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Heart attack

I give Southwood a big thanks — they were the help that I have been looking for. The staff was wonderful!

– Former client