What are 3 warning signs that someone has a substance abuse problem?

If you’ve observed some of these addiction warning signs and symptoms of drug use in a friend or loved one, you might feel uncertain about addressing the issue. It can be difficult to communicate your concern, especially if you are worried it might result in a conflict. Still, it is crucial to reach out. Here are a few steps you can take to create an intervention plan:

  • Work with a professional interventionist. Their entire purpose is to help you plan an intervention in the best and safest way possible.
  • Invite close friends and family.
  • Plan and practice what you’ll say.

Once you’ve taken action and hosted an intervention, you can discuss your options. In most cases, you’ll have three to choose from:

  • Outpatient detox, where your friend or loved one can detox at home with professional help.
  • Inpatient detox, where your friend or loved one gets the help they need under round-the-clock supervision at a medical facility.
  • Medical detox, which is a medically supervised withdrawal program that can be carried out under outpatient or inpatient supervision.

Developing an addiction to a substance or behavior involves a combination of physical and psychological factors. Not everyone with an addiction displays the same signs and symptoms, but there are certain warning signs that can be used to detect addiction.

Signs of addiction

The signs of a substance addiction vary depending on the person, what substance they are abusing and what their particular patterns of use are. For example, not all people who struggle with an addiction abuse drugs or alcohol daily, and not all are physically dependent to the substance they abuse. This means there are no set 'common signs' of addiction as everyone will display different symptoms.

Problematic use

Some people may engage in periodic drug use or binge drinking and may still experience the same negative effects as a daily user. Continuing to use a substance after it has caused problems and consequences in one or more important areas of life is the hallmark warning sign for an addiction. Some of the areas of life where a person may experience consequences include: [1]

  • Physical health (i.e. interrupted sleep, sudden weight loss, lack of personal hygiene, or excessive drug use that impacts a person’s liver, heart, or brain)
  • Mental health (i.e. increased irritability, mood swings, impaired judgment, or feeling more anxious, depressed, or insecure)
  • Social relationships (i.e. more conflicts because of substance use, less social interaction, more isolation, etc.)
  • Vocational (i.e. skipping class, missing work, being late on projects or assignments, unable to focus or concentrate on a task, etc.)
  • Recreational (i.e. giving up hobbies or enjoyable social and leisure activities in order to use drugs or alcohol more)
  • Daily functioning (i.e. oversleeping, skipping hygiene routine, not taking care of basic responsibilities and tasks)
  • Financial (i.e. not being able to pay bills, maintain stable housing, or take care of expenses because of high cost of drug or alcohol habits)

These signs may be harder to spot in teens or young people. Read our guide for warning signs of substance abuse in teens.

Changes in mood & behavior

A person struggling with an addiction will often display changes in their mood and behavior. People closest to them may notice some of the following signs of addiction:

  • Drug paraphernalia (including pipes, rolled up notes, scales, etc.)
  • Collections of drugs hidden away, known as ‘stashes’, often in plastic bags and wraps of paper or tin foil
  • Secretive about parts of personal life
  • Withdrawal or social isolation
  • Increased irritability or moodiness
  • Trouble upholding commitments or responsibilities
  • Issues at home, work or in education
  • Absences without explanation
  • New social groups
  • Unstable finances or frequent requests to borrow money 
  • Staying up later than usual or sleeping in longer
  • Lapses in concentration or memory
  • Lack of motivation
  • Weight loss or changes in physical appearance

What are 3 warning signs that someone has a substance abuse problem?

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

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Diagnosing addiction

The criteria or symptoms of addiction are what doctors and medical professionals use to diagnose a person as having an addiction, dependence, or substance use disorder. 

Unlike warning signs, these criteria are the direct negative impacts that occur in a person's life through a substance or behavior abuse and can be quantified to gauge the level of the problem. However, a person who is experiencing any of these symptoms will often display some of the warning signs of addiction as a byproduct of their addiction. The 11 criteria for addiction, as outlined in the DSM-5, are as follows: [3]

  • Hazardous use that places the person or others at risk of injury or harm
  • Social or interpersonal problems and conflicts related to substance use
  • Neglected major responsibilities to abuse substances
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use
  • Developing a tolerance (needing more to get the desired effects)
  • Using larger amounts or for longer periods of time than intended
  • Repeated attempts to quit or control use and failing
  • Excessive time spent using, obtaining, or recovering from effects of use
  • Physical or psychological problems related to abuse
  • Activities replaced by substance abuse (i.e. leisure, social activities given up)
  • Cravings or strong urges to use

These criteria are measured on a spectrum of mild, moderate, and severe. Meeting 1-2 criteria is defined as mild, 3-5 moderate, and 6+ severe. Identifying the warning signs of addiction is possible, but a formal diagnosis can only be given by a licensed health or mental health professional during a clinical assessment.

Treating addiction

While it can be difficult for a person who has developed an addiction to stop using, there are many effective treatments that can help. People who engage in long-term treatment are more likely to achieve lasting sobriety, and less likely to relapse. Still, not all people who struggle with addiction are willing to get help. 

If you are concerned about a loved one who is showing signs of addiction, express your concern to them and encourage them to get a formal evaluation by a doctor or mental health professional. During this evaluation, they will receive a diagnosis and will also be provided with different treatment options that best meet their needs. In some instances, this will include inpatient care and medical detox while in others, treatment can be provided in an outpatient setting.

Final thoughts

While the warning signs for addiction are not the same for everyone, most people with an addiction to drugs or alcohol will display some changes in mood, behavior, or experience consequences as a result of their substance use. Knowing the signs and symptoms of addiction are important for early detection of an addictive disorder, but only a licensed professional can formally diagnose a substance use disorder. It’s important to schedule a formal assessment if you suspect you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

Drug addiction often starts with experimental substance use in social settings.

While virtually any substance can be abused, some drugs carry a higher risk of dependency and addiction than others. It’s important to identify instances of substance abuse early on, so intervention can occur before addiction takes hold.

There’s no question that substance use and abuse are widespread in the US. Per 2013-2015 data from NIDA’s National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 65.7 percent of individuals 12 and older used alcohol the prior year, 13.5 percent used marijuana or hashish, and 17.8 percent reported using illicit drugs. In their lifetime, 81 percent of those surveyed reported drinking alcohol, 44 percent said they smoked marijuana or hashish, and 48.8 percent had used illicit drugs. The longer one uses a substance, the harder it is to stop without experiencing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. As a result, recognizing the signs of drug use sooner rather than later is important.

There are common signs of habitual drug use across all substances as well as signs that are unique to the type of substance abused.

Signs & Symptoms of Drug Addiction

What are 3 warning signs that someone has a substance abuse problem?
If a person is abusing any drug, there are some of the general signs to look for. These include:

  • Difficulties at school, disinterest in school-related activities, and declining grades
  • Poor work performance, being chronically late to work, appearing tired and disinterested in work duties, and receiving poor performance reviews
  • Changes in physical appearance, such as wearing inappropriate or dirty clothing and a lack of interest in grooming
  • Altered behavior, such as an increased desire for privacy
  • Drastic changes in relationships
  • A noticeable lack of energy when performing daily activities
  • Spending more money than usual or requesting to borrow money
  • Issues with financial management, such as not paying bills on time
  • Changes in appetite, such as a decreased appetite and associated weight loss
  • Bloodshot eyes, poor skin tone, and appearing tired or run down
  • Defensiveness when asked about substance use

If you or your loved one are exhibiting signs of addiction but you don’t know where to turn, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. Our fully licensed team of medical providers and network of credentialed treatment facilities have helped thousands of people get back on their feet and lead a life in recovery. We offer best-in-class care for substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders, treating the whole patient and setting them up for a lifetime of success. Take the next step by contacting us today.

Use may become addiction when users continue to seek and use drugs or alcohol despite the negative impacts of using the substance.

While overall moodiness can simply be part of adolescence and the teen years, drug use is generally signified by more drastic changes in mood or behaviors in this age group. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), signs of drug use in adolescents include acting withdrawn, tired, depressed, or hostile.

Parents should take note when a child starts associating with a different group of peers, as changes in peer groups may be linked with substance use. An adolescent using drugs might also miss classes, skip school, or change their eating or sleeping habits. Parents can also listen for their kids using slang terms for certain drugs of abuse.

If drug use is suspected, prompt intervention is vital. Parents can get help from guidance counselors, primary care physicians, and drug abuse treatment providers.

What are 3 warning signs that someone has a substance abuse problem?
Alcohol is one of the most widely abused substances in the US. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in 2012, 17 million adults ages 18 and older had alcohol use disorder in the United States.

Both alcohol abuse and alcoholism come with a variety of signs and symptoms. Oftentimes, “functional alcoholics” may be able to hide or minimize these signs for some time; however, over time, it generally becomes harder and harder to hide the issue.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol abuse can cause blackouts and memory loss. A person may have flushed skin and broken capillaries, particularly in the face. With severe alcohol use disorder, the hands may tremble, and the voice may take on a huskier tone. Long-term abuse of alcohol can lead to chronic diarrhea and even vomiting blood.

When an individual suffering from alcohol use disorder stops drinking, they will experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, insomnia, and anxiety. There is the potential for serious withdrawal complications, including delirium tremens (DTs), a condition that can lead to hallucinations and life-threatening seizures. As a result, those who are addicted to alcohol should never attempt to stop drinking on their own; medical detox is required.

Other common signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Lack of control over how much one drinks and for how long
  • Preference to drink alone, in secret, or during odd times, such as the morning
  • Continuing to drink despite interpersonal, physical, and psychological problems related to it
  • Depression, irritability, and mood swings, plus a propensity to argue with friends and family members
  • Drinking to cope with problems, to relax, to sleep, or to improve mood

In addition to general signs of drug use, specific signs of abuse are associated with particular drugs. This information can help a person spot signs of abuse in a friend, family member, or coworker.


Marijuana and other cannabis-based products, such as edibles, may induce euphoria. They can cause heightened visual and auditory perceptions, but the user may also seem uncoordinated and forgetful. Since cannabis increases appetite, the person may eat more than usual. Reactions may be slower, and the user may also become paranoid and suspicious. Those who have smoked marijuana often appear with bloodshot eyes, droopy eyelids, and an overall relaxed or mellow demeanor.


A person on a stimulant may exhibit frequent behavior changes, aggression, or rapid or rambling speech. They may display dilated pupils, increased energy, and a fast breathing rate. In some cases, users may become paranoid or hostile. If users snort the drug, nasal congestion is a common sign of use. Snorting drugs like cocaine can damage the mucous membrane inside the nose.

Barbiturates and Benzodiazepines

These CNS depressants are often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Benzodiazepines include common medications, such as Valium and Xanax. Barbiturates are not used as much as they used to be; however, they are still sometimes employed to treat seizure disorders and during surgery. Barbiturates carry a higher risk of overdose than benzodiazepines. A person who abuses these drugs may appear uninhibited, dizzy, or depressed. They may experience blurry vision, balance issues, and overall confusion. They may also present with involuntary eye movements, known as nystagmus.


The signs of hallucinogen use vary depending on the specific hallucinogen in question. LSD may cause a person to act impulsively and experience hallucinations. They may claim to hear colors or see sounds, and in some cases, they may experience tremors. If a person has used PCP, they may be unable to feel pain and seem intolerant to loud noise. Someone who has used psilocybin, or “magic mushrooms,” may experience hallucinations, nausea, muscle twitching, and difficulty differentiating between hallucinations and reality. People on hallucinogens may appear drowsy, panicked, or at peace, depending on the type of “trip” they are having.


Opioids include both prescription painkillers, like Vicodin and OxyContin, and the illicit drug heroin. Signs of opioid abuse include overall sedation, memory issues, inability to concentrate, slowed reaction times, lethargy, and mood swings. Since opioids can slow the digestive system, users often experience constipation and other intestinal issues. When without the drug, users may become anxious and display flulike symptoms.

Club drugs

Ecstasy, ketamine, and GHB are common types of club drugs. Signs and symptoms of use include increased body temperature, poor coordination, dizziness, excessive sweating, clenched teeth, and slurred speech.

If drug use is suspected, early invention is essential to ensure the most robust chances of successful recovery. Friends and family members may choose to stage an intervention once signs of drug use are apparent; if so, a professional interventionist can guide the planning process and the execution of the event for best results.

Loved ones should also research comprehensive addiction treatment programs. Treatment should include both medical detox and therapy to address the underlying issues related to substance abuse.

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What are 3 warning signs that someone has a substance abuse problem?