Substance Abuse Symptoms, Signs, Facts

By The Fix staff 01/21/15

Substance Abuse Symptoms, Signs, Facts

Substance Abuse

In 2012, more than 17 million Americans suffered from an alcohol use disorder according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. This includes heavy drinking and binge drinking. Meanwhile, more than 24.6 million people abused illicit drugs within the past month according to National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2013. Substance abuse refers to use of an illegal or legal substance for the purposes of coping with the stressors or life. In some cases, it may also be used for the self-medication of mental health or physical conditions, such as pain or emotional tribulations.

In order to fully understand the risk posed to the people of the US as well as around the globe by substance abuse, you need to understand some basic information about substance abuse. A mountain of research has been conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to find out the details of drug abuse, and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse closely monitors and tracks trends among those with an alcohol use disorder. Once you have read through this information, you will then be given some of the common signs in behavior of someone suffering from substance abuse and physical symptoms noticeable in him or her. Several tests can help reveal the presence of a substance use disorder, and substance use disorders have a wide range of causes. Although this may be overwhelming to take into account, a variety of treatment options--including inpatient and outpatient rehab--for substance abuse exist to help you or your loved one overcome the hurdles of addiction.

Substance Abuse Facts

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 37% of those suffering from alcoholism and 53% of those with a drug use disorder also have a severe mental illness. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse found that 855,000 adolescents met the criteria for a diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder in 2012.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings in 2013 reveals the scope of the impact of illicit drug use among the American population.

  • The rate of illicit drug use among people above the age of 12 stayed in close proximity to the rates found in 2010 and 2012; however, it had risen in 2009 and 2011 within 1% from the rates identified in 2002, which were approximately 7.9%.
  • Marijuana was the most commonly abused illicit drug in 2013 with 19.8 million people having reportedly used it within the past month.
  • 1.5 million people reported using cocaine in 2013.
  • 1.3 million people used hallucinogens within the past month in 2013.
  • 2.5% of people above the age of 12 reported abusing prescription drugs in 2013.
  • 595,000 people reported using methamphetamine within the past month in 2013.

Information about alcohol use taken from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2013.

  • 136.9 million people reported using alcohol in 2013.
  • 60.1 million people above age 12 engaged in binge drinking --consuming more than five drinks for men or four drinks for women in one setting.
  • 16.5 million people above age 12 reported engaging in heavy drinking--consuming more than 15 drinks for men and seven drinks for women within the past week.

The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse identified that 88,000 people die as a result of alcohol use in the US each year, which may occur while drinking or as a health complication from drinking--for example, cirrhosis of the liver.


Signs of Substance Abuse

According to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, a person must meet at least two of the following set of criteria in order to be diagnosed with an alcohol use or substance use disorder within the past year:

  • Experienced times where you drank longer than expected;
  • Wanted to stop drinking, but was unable to stop;
  • Tried multiple times to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink or substance used;
  • Craved alcohol or the respective substance;
  • Drinking alcohol  or drug use interfered with personal or work responsibilities;
  • Continued drinking or using drugs although it caused problems;
  • Stopped engaging in once pleasurable activities;
  • Experienced legal troubles;
  • Experienced mental health problems, such as anxiety depression, or difficulty remembering what happened while drinking or using drugs;
  • Had to drink more to get the same effect; developed a tolerance;
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms when stopping using the respective substance.

You may notice problems developing in many different situations that are definitive signs of substance abuse in family members or friends. These signs include problems at school or work, problems with physical health, neglected appearance, behavioral changes, or unexplainable monetary expenses.

Symptoms of Substance Abuse

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms from substance abuse vary depending upon the type of drug used. However, some symptoms will be noticeable for most drugs in general. Most drugs result in a euphoric state, or "high", while under the influence of the respective substance. The heart rate may increase or decrease, and a person may experience decreases in cognitive functioning, withdrawal symptoms, as well as other noticeable symptoms for each type of drug.


Some of the common symptoms of marijuana or cannabis use include red eyes, dry mouth, increased appetite, paranoia, difficulty concentrating, or lack of coordination.

Synthetic Drugs

This class of drugs includes side effects common to all drugs as well as hallucinations, increased perceptions of taste, smell, or texture, vomiting, and increased heart rate.


Hallucinogens result in hallucinations, vomiting, nausea, and possibly psychosis in addition to common drug use symptoms. In some cases, psychosis may occur.


This class of drugs decreases bodily functions, such as GI motility, heart rate, respiration, and decreased cognitive functioning. Furthermore, this class of drug reduces the inhibitions a person has towards differing activities, which places him or her at a greater risk for injury or engaging in risky behavior like unsafe sexual practices or intravenous drug use.


This class of drugs can cause hallucinations, increased bodily function, stroke, or even heart attack as well as the common side effects of drug use.


The tests for drug or alcohol use vary depending on the respective substance being abused. Alcohol use can be detected while still in the bloodstream or through the damage done to vital organs by alcohol. A urine analysis will reveal the use of most illicit drugs within the previous month.

Causes of Substance Abuse

Each person has a unique set of reasons that has led him or her to begin using drugs. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the common causes of substance abuse include both environmental as well as genetic factors. For example, a person with a family history of addiction may be predisposed to developing a tolerance and becoming dependent upon the substance more quickly. Furthermore, the environment plays a vital role in the causes of substance abuse. A person who spends time around others who use substances, either legal or illegal, will be more likely to engage in the same behaviors as a result of peer pressure or interest in attempting to treat other conditions.

Additional Causes

Part of the reason that so many people with an existing mental illness abuse illegal or legal substances is for the purpose of self-medication according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. When someone has more than one mental health diagnosis, the condition is usually termed comorbidity, or a dual diagnosis. However, comorbidity can apply to multiple diagnoses that do not involve substance abuse whereas dual diagnosis refers to the combination of another mental illness and a substance abuse disorder exclusively.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Substance abuse treatment involves many different options depending upon the severity of the substance abuse disorder. In cases of severe dependence, inpatient hospitalization may be needed in order to address the potentially life threatening side effects of withdrawal. However, in less severe cases, an outpatient treatment program may be able to help with providing support and case management to overcome substance abuse problems.

Inpatient Treatment of Other Health Conditions

An additional benefit of receiving inpatient hospitalization, or treatment, of a substance use disorder is the ability to treat other medical or mental health conditions that were pre-existing prior to using substances or that have developed as a direct result of substance abuse, such as substance-induced anxiety disorder.

Substance Abuse Rehab

Most people refer to treatment for substance abuse as rehab, or rehabilitation. Rehab is often conducted on an inpatient basis, but it must be continued post discharge on an outpatient basis. Outpatient rehab continues to provide psychotherapy and medication management of any mental or physical health conditions to help keep someone suffering from substance abuse problems from relapsing. In some cases of severe addiction, a residential treatment program, which may last from 6- to 12-months, may be necessary to help curb the desire to obtain more drugs and have a relapse.

Whenever substance abuse disorders begin to appear, they represent a coming struggle for the person with the disorder as well as the family. An understanding of substance abuse requires knowledge about the causes, signs, symptoms, and treatment options available for substance abuse disorders.

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