Substance abuse affects individuals from all ages and walks of life. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10% of people 12 and older have used substances within the past month [1]. Understanding the signs that could indicate substance use and abuse will help identify family members or significant others who may be affected.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Abuse of drugs and alcohol has physical, behavioral, and psychological warning signs that are often overlooked. If a loved one may be suspected of developing a problem with substance abuse, being aware of the following potential symptoms as recognizing these signs can help save their life [2].

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupils that appear too large or small
  • Change in appetite (eating more or less than usual)
  • Change in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little, or at strange times)
  • Neglect of personal grooming
  • Constant runny nose
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Tremors
  • Impaired coordination
  • Slow speech
  • Presence of strange odors
  • Unexplained injuries or bruises

Behavioral symptoms may include (but are not limited to):

  • Problems with relationships
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Legal trouble, including traffic tickets, fights, or driving under the influence
  • Neglecting responsibilities at school, work, and home
  • Frequent absences from work or school
  • Unexplained need for money and/or missing household funds
  • Reckless behavior, such as driving under the influence or unprotected sex

Psychological symptoms may include the presence of:

  • Fear, anxiety, and/or paranoia
  • Lack of motivation
  • Seeming “spaced out”
  • Unusual increased hyperactivity
  • Mood swings
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts

Children and adolescents who are abusing substances may have sudden changes in relationships, friends, and hang-outs in addition to these signs [3]. Parents should also be aware of a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, drop in grades, unexplained absences from school, glorification of musicians and other celebrities associated with drug use, and frequent use of eyedrops. Because many signs of substance use are a normal part of teenage development, such as mood swings and excessive sleeping, parents may overlook early signs of substance abuse in adolescents.

Resources for Family Members

Knowing how to proceed if a family member displays one or more of those signs is often tough. Talking to the person about these concerns in a nonjudgmental way is an important first step. Offering help and support while he or she is treating the addiction goes a long way in a successful rehabilitation. Avoiding blame placement and understand that addiction is a disease that can’t always be predicted.

If a loved one admits to substance abuse and is open to seeking help, it is important to encourage them to visit a doctor or mental health care provider. Substance abuse help lines can also be a great resource for those who are not ready to seek medical help for their addiction.

While substance abuse is a serious health issue, early treatment can limit its consequences and help a loved one return to a full and productive life. Recognizing these early signs and taking action can potentially save the life of a loved one.