Doctors currently diagnose addictions under a category known as “substance-related and addictive disorders.”
The main symptom of an addiction is a problematic pattern of use, which leads to clinically significant impairment or distress.
The specific symptoms vary according to the addictive disorder.
A person with a substance use disorder finds it difficult to control their use of a specific substance. They continue using a substance or engaging in addictive behavior, even though they might be aware of the harm it can cause or when clear evidence of harm is apparent.
Powerful cravings also characterize addiction. The individual may not be able to stop partaking of the addictive substance or behavior despite expressing a desire to quit.
The signs and symptoms of substance use disorder can vary with the individual, the substance or behavior they are overusing, their family history, and their personal circumstances.
The symptoms of addiction often lead to a ‘domino effect’ of adverse circumstances.
Substance use disorders have a range of psychological, physical, and social effects that can drastically reduce people’s quality of living.
While this article splits the symptoms into these three categories, the reality is less clear. Many of these symptoms overlap and can lead to one another.
An example of this overlap is when someone experiences the psychological effect of wanting to divert money from their regular food shop to purchasing a substance, and then not consuming enough nutrients.
Symptoms of addiction that cause mental disorders include the following.
- An inability to stop using: In many cases, such as a dependence on nicotine, alcohol, or other substances, a person will have made at least one serious but unsuccessful attempt to give up. This might also be physiological, as some substances, such as heroin, are chemically addictive and cause withdrawal symptoms if a person stops taking them.
- Use and abuse of substances continue despite health problems: The individual continues regularly taking the substance, even though they have developed related illnesses. For example, a smoker may continue smoking after the development of a lung or heart disease. They may or may not be aware of the health impact of the substance or behavior.
- Dealing with problems: A person with addiction commonly feels the need to take the drug or carry out the behavior to deal with their problems.
- Obsession: A person may become obsessed with a substance, spending more and more time and energy finding ways of getting their substance, and in some cases how they can use it.
- Taking risks: An individual with an addiction may take risks to obtain the substance or engage in the behavior, such as trading sex or stealing for illicit drugs, drug money, or the drugs themselves. While under the influence of some substances, a person with substance use disorder may engage in risky activities, such as fast and dangerous driving or violence.
- Taking an initial large dose: This is common with alcohol use disorder. The individual may rapidly consume large quantities of alcohol in order to feel the effects and feel good.
Using substances can lead to solitude and secrecy.
Substance use disorder can impact the way an individual socializes with and relates to other people.
- Sacrifices: A person with substance dependence might give up some activities that previously brought them joy. For example, a person with alcohol use disorder may turn down an invitation to go camping or spend a day on a boat if no alcohol is available. A person with nicotine dependence may decide not to meet up with friends if they plan to go to a smoke-free pub or restaurant.
- Dropping hobbies and activities: As an addiction progresses, the individual may stop partaking in pastimes they enjoy. People who are dependent on tobacco, for example, might find they can no longer physically cope with taking part in their favorite sport.
- Maintaining a good supply: People with substance use disorders will always make sure they have a good supply, even if they do not have much money. They may make sacrifices in their home budget to ensure the availability of the substance.
- Secrecy and solitude: In many cases, a person with a substance use disorder may use the substance alone or in secret.
- Denial: A significant number of people with substance use disorder are not aware that they have a problem. They might be aware of physical dependence on a substance but deny or refuse to accept the need to seek treatment, believing that they can quit “anytime” they want to.
- Excess consumption or abuse of substances: Some types of substance use disorders, such as alcohol or opiate use disorders, can lead an individual to consume unsafe amounts of a substance. The physical effects of abusing a substance can be severe and include overdosing. However, for a person with substance use disorder, these effects will not be enough to prevent future overuse.
- Having stashes: A person with an addiction may have small stocks of a substance hidden away in different parts of the house or car, often in unlikely places, to avoid detection.
- Legal issues: This is more a characteristic of some alcohol and illicit drug dependences. Legal problems may occur either because the substance impairs judgment or causes the individual to take more risks to the extent of causing public disorder or violence, or breaking the law to get the substance in the first place.
- Financial difficulties: An expensive substance can lead to sizeable and regular financial sacrifices to secure a regular supply.
The delivery method of a substance can cause damage. Smoking a substance, for example, can damage the lungs.
Repeatedly using a substance can impact a range of bodily functions and systems.
- Withdrawal symptoms: When levels of the substance to which a person has dependence drop below a certain level, they might experience physical symptoms, depending on the substance. These include cravings, constipation, diarrhea, trembling, seizures, sweats, and uncharacteristic behavior, including violence.
- Appetite changes: Some substances alter a person’s appetite. Marijuana consumption, for example, might greatly increase their appetite while cocaine may reduce it.
- Damage or disease from using a substance: Smoking substances, for example, tobacco and crack, can lead to incurable respiratory diseases and lung cancers. Injecting illicit drugs can lead to limb damage and problems with veins and arteries, in some cases leading to the development of infection and possible loss of a limb. Regularly consuming excessive amount of alcohol can lead to chronic liver problems.
- Sleeplessness: Insomnia is a common symptom of withdrawal. Using illicit stimulants, such as speed or ecstasy, might also encourage a disrupted sleep cycle, as a person might stay up late for several nights in a row to go to parties and use the substance.
- A change in appearance: A person may begin to appear more disheveled, tired, and haggard, as using the substance or carrying out the addictive behavior replaces key parts of the day, including washing clothes and attending to personal hygiene.
- Increasing tolerance: The body experiences reduced effects of the substance over time, so a person feels the need to take more to achieve the same effect.
A person might experience a few of these symptoms or many of them. Substance use disorder can have a drastically different impact on every individual.
Substance use disorder has many symptoms that can cause damage to an individual’s physical and psychological health, everyday activities, and social life.
The effects depend heavily on the type of substance, personal circumstances, family life, a person’s level of insight into their behavior, and their current finances.
Psychologically, a substance use disorder can lead to continued use despite other effects on health and an inability to stop using. A person might be obsessed with getting hold of a substance or partaking in their damaging activities.
Substance and addictive behaviors might also lead to a withdrawal from personal responsibilities, previously important activities, and social interactions. They may lead an individual to seek solitude and engage in the substance use disorder in secret.
Substance use disorder can also lead to confrontations with the law, both in obtaining a substance and carrying out uncharacteristic or disorderly actions that result from the use of the substance.
Regularly taking a substance can also cause physical damage, depending on the type of drug. Some substances cause withdrawal symptoms that include many physical effects, such as shaking, sweating, or nausea.
If a person or someone they know has any of these symptoms, they should consider treatment for themselves or the person they are concerned about, as soon as possible.
What are the earliest signs of addiction?
This depends on the substance involved. Generally, the person should pay attention to the quantity of the substance they are using. Using the substance in larger and larger amounts should be a red flag to the person that they may be on the path to addiction.
Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.