How to Tell if Someone Is on Drugs: Opiates, Marijuana, and More

Drug addiction often starts with experimental substance use in social settings, per Mayo Clinic.
 
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.


Knowing these signs can help to identify whether a loved one may be using drugs and risking harmful consequences to their health, school, job, and family life.


General Signs of Drug Addiction

If a person is abusing any drug, there are some of the general signs to look for, per Mayo Clinic. 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

How to Spot Drug Use in Adolescents

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.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction

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

Signs of Abuse Related to Specific Drugs

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.

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.

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.

 

The Importance of Early Intervention

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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