How to identify addiction

You can identify an addiction using common sense as well as physical, behavioral and psychological warning signs. More here on identifying addiction.

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Why are some people addicts and others are not?  We still don’t know.  But if you suspect someone you care about is hiding a drug or alcohol habit, this article will help educate you on the facts about addiction and guide you through how to identify the signs of substance abuse. Plus, we invite your questions about possible addiction at the end. We try to answer all legitimate queries with a personal and prompt response, so don’t be shy!

How to identify a substance addiction

You are likely to notice when someone you care about unexpectedly displays changes in appearance and behavior, especially when the changes begin to negatively impact your relationship with that person. Without knowing it, you may be witnessing the onset of substance addiction, but, to be certain, you’ll need to learn how to spot the signs.

What constitutes an addiction?

According to modern diagnostic practice and cognitive neuroscience, addiction is “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.” In order for an individual’s behavior to be considered an addiction, two unique factors must be present:

1. The behavior is maladaptive or counterproductive, and undermines the person’s ability to function as he or she normally would in daily life.

2. The behavior is persistent, or occurs frequently enough to continually engage the person.

In recent years, professionals in the medical and science fields have categorized addiction as a brain disease because of its similarity to other mental illnesses, like depression, in the way it instills distinct brain changes.  In fact, with chronic drug use brain function changes over time.  Addiction is a real medical disorder that affects the brain, but also like depression, it can be treated effectively.

What are the noticeable warning signs of substance addiction?

Some symptoms or side effects of addiction can be subtle and easier for a person to hide. Other signs are quite obvious, especially as the addiction advances and the addict grows less self-conscious. Warning signs of addiction can be categorized three ways:

Physical warning signs:

  • bloodshot eyes
  • changes in appetite – weight loss or weight gain
  • deterioration in physical appearance, personal grooming habits, or hygiene
  • drastic shifts in sleep pattern
  • persistent coughs or sniffles
  • pupils are larger or smaller than usual
  • tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
  • unusual odors on the breath, body, or clothing

Behavioral warning signs:

  • changes in friends or hobbies
  • drop in attendance/participation at school/work
  • financial problems, possibly accompanied by stealing
  • frequently getting into trouble – fights, accidents, illegal activities
  • repeated unexplained outings, often with a sense of urgency
  • secretive, lying

Psychological warning signs:

  • appearing fearful, anxious, or paranoid without reason
  • appearing lethargic or “spaced out”
  • changes in energy – suddenly and extremely tired or energetic
  • changes in personality or attitude
  • lack of motivation
  • sudden mood swings, angry outbursts

Keep in mind that you will need to see multiple warning signs occur simultaneously and repeatedly in order to identify the likelihood that someone has an addiction. Someone you care about who experiences a rough day or two and displays changes in appearance or behavior may not be an addict, but close observation of that person on your part may be helpful in detecting addiction early in its onset.

What are some examples of addictive substances?

Addictive substances come in many forms and have a variety of side effects. With a few exceptions, most of the substances listed below are closely regulated, meaning users can only obtain them by verifying their age, with a healthcare provider’s prescription, or illegally.

Alcohol:beer, wine, liquor

Amphetamines: speed, crystal meth

Benzodiazepines: Xanax, Valium

Caffeine: coffee, tea, sports drinks, soda

Cannabis: marijuana, grass, hash

Cocaine: coke, crack

Hallucinogens: acid, ecstasy, mushrooms

Inhalants: poppers, aerosols

Nicotine: cigarettes, cigars, nicotine patches

Opioids: heroin, morphine, painkillers

Phencyclidine (PCP): angel dust, ketamine

Sedatives: sleeping pills, downers

Suspicious-looking pills, powders, or liquids discovered amongst a loved one’s personal belongings, or any drug paraphernalia (such as syringes, scorched spoons, smoke pipes, or rolled-up dollar bills) may indicate that addictive substances are being used.

What are common factors that lead to addiction?

One way to identify if someone you know has an addiction is to consider certain factors in that person’s life that are commonly known to contribute to addictive behavior. A person’s background or current environment can influence the onset of addiction. Some factors to consider include:

  1. Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences
  2. Family history of addiction
  3. Mental disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.)
  4. Noticeable increase in use of substances
  5. Reliance – believing a substance fulfills a “valuable need” or fills a void

An individual is not required to have any of these factors to become an addict, but someone living with any of these factors is at a higher risk of acquiring a substance addiction than a person not living with these factors.

Next step: getting help for someone with a substance addiction

By now, you should have a better understanding of which signs to look for that likely indicate someone you know is living with an addiction. The next steps you choose to take, however, will be critical in helping your loved one receive the help needed to redirect him or her away from a destructive life path. The role you play in an addict’s recovery will not be easy, but strategies and support are available to help you through the crucial processes that lead to recovery. You are not alone.

Watch for our next article, How to Help Someone with a Substance Addiction, which will outline important dos’ and don’ts for approaching a loved one struggling with addiction and the steps you can take through an intervention to help that person recover.

About the author
Clearview Treatment Programs provides highly individualized treatment programs for people with psychiatric disorders, alcohol and drug addictions, and dual diagnosis. Clearview operates the Clearview Women’s Center, which is specifically designed to address the symptoms of psychiatric disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder and other disorders related to emotional regulation.


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  1. It got me when you mentioned that two of the signs that the person has addiction problems is if they are frequently getting into fights or accidents and if their attendance in school or work is dropping. A friend of mine has been getting into a lot of conflicts with other colleagues, and he has been making excuses not go to work because of it. I noticed a lot of changes in his personality as well. It might be a good idea to have him assessed since I know that one way or another, something is wrong with him.

  2. Hello Alternate Diagnosis. First, you can create a list of your concerns based on data (ie. facts) which include:

    1. Amount of drugs ingested, frequency, and dosage daily
    2. Observed social effects of drug use
    3. Observed work, school effects of drug use
    4. Observed personal, health, or financial effects of drug use

    Then, you can consult with a psychologist or other trained addiction professional about what to do. Perhaps a formal intervention is necessary. Perhaps something informal. But either way, you need to face the problem and present your concerns. Help is also available via 1-800-662-HELP, a national drug abuse hotline.

  3. I have a “friend, sibling, child, spouse” who may or may not have a drug addiction problem. There is also a very strong possibility that he/she has an eating disorder. The signs & symptoms are very similar. Is there anyway for me to identify the issue without confrontation?

    Any help/guidance would be most appreciated.

  4. Hi Lisa. I am so glad that you are reaching out for help. The first step is to admit that you have a problem. From the sound of it: Yes, you probably have a drinking problem. The normal drinking “limit” for women is no more than 4 drinks at once, or more than 7 drinks a week. And you also mention depression. Yes, depression can play a major role in triggering the meed to self-medicate by drinking.

    There are a few things that you can do now.

    1. Go directly to a drug detox and rehab center (Google the SAMHSA Treatment Center Locator to search for one in your zip code).

    2. Talk to a family member or friend or your family doctor about what the next steps might be.

    3. Call an alcohol helpline to discuss your options with someone on the phone.

    Does this help?

  5. I think I am an alcholic though not sure if its because of my depression. I drink 1.5 litre of white wine per night and usually black out by the end of the night and can’t remember how I got to bed or what time. I want to stop – should I go cold turkey ? I have been heavilydrinking for about12 months. Please any advice would be helpful.

  6. You have a very interesting blog on substance abuse. I spent some time reading your articles and found them very insightful. Keep up the good work!

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