Signs, Symptoms and Effects of Substance Abuse

About Drug Abuse

Learn More About Substance Abuse & Addiction

There are a variety of complicated reasons that people abuse illegal drugs, but the toll of substance abuse and addiction on individuals, families, and society is tremendous. Many try drugs out of curiosity, because friends are doing it, to have fun, to boost athletic or academic performance, or to ease another problem, such as depression or stress. While drug use does not immediately progress to abuse and addiction, there is no way of measuring how quickly drug use will change from casual usage to actual abuse.

Drug abuse and addiction is less about the actual amount used and more about the consequences of the problem. No matter how much a person uses, if the drug use is causing problems in a person’s life, there is likely a problem. Drugs of abuse produce some type of intoxication that alters judgment, perception, attention, or physical control and nearly all drugs can produce tolerance, a phenomenon in which a person must consume greater amounts of the drug to achieve the same level of intoxication.

Common drugs of abuse include:

Inhalants: These drugs include solvents that produce vapors that cause a very brief period of intoxication when inhaled, a process called “huffing.” The intoxication achieved by huffing is very similar to that experienced while drunk.

Marijuana: (“pot” or “weed”) The most commonly abused drug in the United States, marijuana can be smoked or eaten. Often the first illegal drug of abuse, marijuana usage is associated with increased risk of progressing to the abuse of more powerful drugs, such as cocaine.

Cocaine: (“crack” or “coke”) is a powerful stimulant that can be injected, smoked, snorted, or swallowed; the duration of effects depends upon the route of administration. The high from cocaine is relatively short, typically no longer than 30 minutes.

Heroin: (“smack”) is a powerful narcotic related to morphine that can be snorted, smoked, or injected and produces intense feelings of relaxation and euphoria in the user.

Methamphetamines: (“crystal meth” or “meth”) Meth is a powerful stimulant and has become known as the world’s most dangerous drug due to its high availability and the ease in which it is manufactured. Meth can be smoked, snorted, injected, or eaten and produces a long-lasting high.


Statistics of Drug Abuse

The 2010 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimated that the number of users of illegal drugs in the U.S. is over 22 million. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that 9.2% of people ages 12 and over had abused an illegal drug in the preceding month.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Drug Abuse

Researchers have devoted much time to studying addiction and the brain and have determined that it is likely that addiction is caused by a number of factors working together. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for drug abuse include:

Genetic: Researchers have learned that those who have a first-degree relative who struggles with addiction are more likely than those without a similar family history to develop the disorder.

Physical: Repeated usage of all drugs can cause physical changes to certain neurons and structures in the brain that reinforce drug use and lead to addiction. Brain changes that result from prolonged drug abuse may compromise both mental and motor functioning.

Environmental: Family attitudes about drug use and exposure to a peer group that encourages drug use appear to play a role in initial experimentation with drugs.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • History of mental health problems
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of family involvement
  • Chaotic home environment
  • Ineffective parenting
  • Lack of nurturing or parental attachment
  • Poor coping skills
  • Poor academic performance
  • Isolation from peers
  • Anxiety, depression, loneliness
  • Usage of a highly addictive drug

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse

The signs and symptoms of drug abuse will vary tremendously based upon drug of abuse, the frequency of use, the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, and the usage of more than one type of drug. The most common symptoms are broken down by the category of drug and include:

Inhalant symptoms:

  • Dizziness, slowed reflexes, muscle weakness, and clumsiness
  • Slurred speech and blurred vision
  • Watery eyes
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Elation
  • Slowed thinking, reflexes, and movement
  • Fatigue
  • Stupor or coma

Marijuana symptoms:

  • Pleasure
  • Glassy, red eyes
  • Talking loudly
  • Inappropriate laughter
  • Loss of interest and motivation
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Relaxation
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired memory

Cocaine symptoms:

  • Paranoia
  • Increased alertness and hyperactivity
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Weight loss
  • Dry mouth and nose

Heroin symptoms:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Alternating through periods of drowsiness and wakefulness

Methamphetamine symptoms:

  • Increased talkativeness
  • Increased alertness
  • Decreased appetite


Effects of Drug Abuse

The long-term effects of substance abuse will permeate nearly every part of an addict’s life, leaving destruction in its path. The most common effects of drug abuse include:

Inhalant effects:

  • Coma
  • Chemical and temperature burns
  • Mental illness
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Heart, liver, kidney failure

Marijuana effects:

  • Increased risk for usage of more powerful drugs, such as cocaine or heroin
  • Poor scholastic or academic performance
  • Exacerbation of mental illness
  • Psychosis
  • Increased risks for certain types of cancer

Cocaine effects:

  • Constriction of blood vessels leading to heart damage or stroke
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Damage to heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys
  • Death

Heroin effects:

  • Destruction of heart valves
  • HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infections
  • Tetanus
  • Botulism

Methamphetamine effects:

  • Long-term brain damage
  • Adverse changes in brain structure and functioning
  • Psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations
  • Kidney disease
  • Cerebral hemorrhage
  • Heart attack and stroke

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Whenever people suddenly stop using a substance that their bodies have become dependent upon, it is very common for them to suffer from unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Depending on the drug that has been used and the length of abuse, withdrawal symptoms will range in severity from mild to very severe.

Inhalant withdrawal:

  • Tremors and sweating
  • Tachycardia
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Grand mal seizures

Marijuana withdrawal:

  • Irritability and anger
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss

Cocaine withdrawal:

  • Severe depression
  • Excessive sleeping at odd times
  • Anxiety and irritability

Heroin withdrawal:

  • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Aches
  • Sweating

Methamphetamine withdrawal:

  • Severe depression
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased need for sleep

Overdose occurs when an individual takes too much of a drug and is considered a medical emergency. If you suspect an overdose, call 911 immediately.

Inhalant overdose:

  • Heart attack
  • Airway obstruction
  • Respiratory depression
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome
  • Death from other complications

Marijuana overdose:

  • Panic attacks
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia

Cocaine overdose:

  • Psychosis
  • Extremely rapid heartbeat
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Stroke
  • Respiratory failure
  • Heart failure
  • Cerebral hemorrhage
  • Death

Heroin overdose:

  • Respiratory depression and arrest
  • Dry mouth and discoloration of tongue
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Hypotension
  • Coma
  • Death

Methamphetamine overdose:

  • Agitation
  • Heart attack
  • Cardiac failure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Kidney damage and failure
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Coma
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders & the Complexity of Drug Abuse

Many people who struggle with substance abuse also suffer from some type of mental health disorder, which doubles the importance of finding the right treatment center. Some of the most common disorders that co-occur with substance abuse include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Poly-substance abuse
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Conduct disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • ADHD
  • Adjustment disorder
Our Client Experience

I was addicted to multiple substances to keep my mind distracted from my life. Once I started to have a hard time distinguishing reality and fiction, I got help. Thanks to Greenleaf, I was able to cleanse my body of these toxic substances and look forward to my first month of sobriety.

– Richard X.
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