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Warning Signs of Drug Addiction

The early recognition of the developing warning signs of drug use, abuse, and addiction may help some avoid addiction's adverse consequences.

For some, drug addiction starts with recreational substance use or experimentation among friends, colleagues, family and/or other social settings. And although not everyone who uses drugs will become addicted, some substances carry a higher risk of dependence and addiction than others.

According to the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 138 million Americans aged 12 and older have used illicit drugs in their lifetime.1 However, some may not recognize that their use has become a problem or choose not to seek treatment until it’s too late. The NSDUH reports an estimated 20.4 million Americans aged 12 and older suffered from a substance use disorder (SUD).1 In that same year, approximately 71,300 Americans died of a drug overdose according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).2

It’s evident that drug abuse and addiction are serious problems in the United States. However, early recognition of the developing signs of problematic drug use may help some to avoid addiction and its adverse consequences. At any point, treatment can help, and may just save a life.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, what addiction treatment entails, and how individuals can successfully work toward recovery from substance use disorders.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

The warning signs of addiction can vary from person to person; however, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines the criteria used by treatment professionals to diagnose substance use disorders in people struggling with problematic substance use. While such diagnoses are most commonly made by medical or mental health professionals, it may be helpful to know which warning signs to look for early on.

Some of the characteristic signs, symptoms, and behavioral changes that may be exhibited in people with a substance use disorder include:3,4

  • A persistent desire or failed efforts to reduce drug use.
  • Spending a significant amount of time and money seeking drugs, doing drugs, and recovering from their effects.
  • Craving drugs after not using them for a short period of time.
  • Choosing drugs over commitments to your career, education, relationships, or previously enjoyed recreational activities.
  • Continuing to use drugs in dangerous situations (i.e., driving a car).
  • Building a tolerance to the drug (needing a higher dose to achieve the desired effect).
  • Developing symptoms of withdrawal when drug use slows or stops; or, requiring additional drug use to diminish withdrawal symptoms.

Anyone who meets at least 2 of the DSM’s 11 criteria within the same 12-month period may be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.4

Myths About Drug Addiction

Unfortunately, there are many harmful myths and stereotypes about individuals who struggle with addiction that contribute to the stigma that may prevent people from seeking the treatment they need.

Below are some of the most prevalent and enduring myths about drug addiction:

MYTH: Addiction is a choice.
FACT: One of the more common and damaging myths is that compulsive drug use is a result of personal choice or that addiction is indicative of a character flaw, whether than substance use disorders actually being chronic brain diseases.5,6

Addiction may be accompanied by certain brain changes that strongly reinforce the continued acquisition and use of the drug in question.7 These changes can impact the structure and neurochemical functioning of the brain in ways that promote compulsive and/or uncontrollable drug use.7 Because of this, while the option to begin using drugs is a choice, addiction takes hold as a person is no longer able to stop using drugs even if they want to.

MYTH: It’s easy to tell if someone is addicted to drugs.
FACT: People may have some preconceived notions about what drug addiction looks like, based on what they’ve seen portrayed in movies, TV, or elsewhere in the media. In reality, however, drug addiction affects people of all ethnicities, genders, socio-economic statuses, and upbringings.1

Individuals struggling with addiction may not always appear “out of control” or be honest about how much and how often they are using drugs. Additionally, some people addicted to drugs are still able to maintain their careers, relationships, and daily obligations giving the illusion of a healthy lifestyle. In these instances, being able to detect any of the more subtle signs of addiction could make a big difference in a friend or loved one receiving the support and encouragement they need to seek help.

MYTH: People addicted to drugs just lack the willpower to get clean.
FACT: Another harmful myth about addiction is that individuals abusing illicit substances are too lazy or simply don’t want to quit. However, there are a variety of reasons why people have difficulty giving up drugs, including:

  • Mental factors. First, there may be significant mental obstacles between someone and their sobriety: the brain changes that accompany addiction development can make it more likely that an individual is no longer in control of their use.7,8 Because it is a brain disorder that involves functional changes to brain circuits, those changes may last long after drug use has stopped.8 Long-term recovery often requires extensive therapy to unlearn behaviors and replace them with positive coping mechanisms.8 Further complicating matters is the prevalence of co-occurring mental disorders in individuals with substance use disorders. Approximately half the people with substance use disorder will also suffer from another mental illness during their lifetime and vice versa.9 Mental health issues that are themselves not well managed could potentially substance use and worsen the course of addiction progression.
  • Social stigma. There is a stigma and other societal factors associated with addiction that may prevent someone from seeking treatment. Individuals with substance use disorders may be ashamed of their problem and therefore choose to conceal their addiction from their loved ones or employer.10 Although such stigma may not be the only concern for individuals seeking treatment, it can play a factor in someone choosing to seek help.10
  • Economic factors. Finally, many people suffering from substance use disorders may have difficulty affording treatment. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, health insurance providers must provide coverage for addiction treatment services. These plans must provide cover inpatient behavioral health services, behavioral health care and addiction treatment. Yet, because addiction treatment is expensive, those without insurance may not be able to pay out-of-pocket.

MYTH: Drug treatment must be voluntary.
FACT: Some people believe that in order to successfully get clean, someone has to want drug treatment. Yet, research has shown that that is not always the case. Often, people seek treatment for their drug addiction due to pressure from their loved ones or because of a court order.7 Studies show that people in treatment that feel pressure to remain in recovery do comparatively better than those who do not, regardless of why they entered rehabilitation in the first place.7

Treating Drug Addiction

If you or someone you care about has tried unsuccessfully to quit using drugs on their own, it may be time to seek professional help and addiction rehabilitation. Initially, the thought of treatment can be scary and overwhelming when you’re unsure of what to expect and whether it will be successful or not. But the good news is, no matter how severe the problem, with ongoing treatment and continued recovery efforts, recovery is possible.

Regardless of your specific situation, there is no single treatment or method for quitting drugs that will work for everyone. Effective treatment is tailored to the individual and addresses all of the patient’s needs, not just their addiction.8

Many people complete a period of detoxification and withdrawal management before continuing on with a rehabilitation program. Depending on your needs, you may undergo medical detox in a hospital setting where you are monitored for 24-hours-a-day to minimize the risk of unpleasant or life-threatening complications.14

Following successful detox, you may be encouraged to continue working toward recovery with the help of rehabilitation program. Addiction treatment falls into two main categories: inpatient or outpatient.15 Some programs offer varying levels of both residential and outpatient options, including partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient treatment. It is common for patients to start in relatively more intensive levels of care and gradually “step-down” to less intensive treatment before completing rehabilitation.16

Regardless of setting, most substance rehabilitation programs will provide behavioral therapy and counseling delivered in both private and group sessions. Medications may also be prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms and treat any co-occurring mental health issues for certain types of substance addiction and individual addiction-related issues.15

Research has shown that rehabilitation treatment can be very effective in helping individuals maintain a life of sobriety.17 According to research, most people who get treatment and remain in it for an adequate amount of time stop using drugs, reduce their criminal activity, and improve their social, occupational, and psychological functioning.18

Getting Treatment for Drug Addiction

Sometimes taking the first step to sobriety is the hardest. If you are interested in learning more about drug or alcohol rehabilitation treatment for yourself or a loved one, consider reaching out to American Addiction Centers (AAC).

AlcoholRehab.com is operated by AAC, a nationwide provider of addiction treatment centers. Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to answer questions about treatment, our approach to recovery, what to expect within our facilities and see if your insurance covers treatment with us.

Call our hotline to discuss your options today! There is no obligation to make any decisions; we are here for you and look forward to helping you get the help you deserve.