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What are the signs and symptoms of drug abuse?

A drug is a chemical substance, which when introduced into the body orally, intra-nasally, by absorption through the skin or mucous membranes, inhalation into the lungs, intravenously, into a muscle, or as a rectal or vaginal suppository, will produce a change in the body. A psychoactive drug specifically changes how the user thinks, feels, acts, or perceives objective reality. Psychoactive  drugs are used to induce pleasure, alter one’s perception of reality, manage pain, depression, anxiety or psychosis, to make one more awake and alert, or relaxed and sleepy. They are purchased over the counter, prescribed, or purchased illegally. Manufacture, possession or distribution of drugs can result in substantial criminal penalties. Drug use can be placed on a continuum, with use at one end, and dependence on the other.

Use: Examples of use include taking a prescription drug by the person it is prescribed to, according to the prescription, or use of a legal and culturally acceptable beverage or food which contains a drug, such as coffee, tea, or chocolate. 

Misuse: use of an illegal drug, or use of a prescription drug by a person who is not prescribed the drug, or use not indicated by the prescription, or excessive or inappropriate use of a beverage or food which contains a drug e.g., snorting cocoa powder, or drinking alcohol to the point of loss of consciousness. 

Abuse: Drug abuse, also known as Substance Related Disorder, Moderate severity, is a pattern of using drugs in quantities and with a frequency which is interfering with one’s life. Drug abuse can put the user on the path to dependence. Drug abuse is different from drug dependence, in that once an individual is drug dependent; they have reached a point of no return. They will not be able to use their drug of choice again in moderation. The only option for a healthy life is to abstain completely. 

Drug Dependence



Drug dependence, or addiction, is characterized by three criteria: 

  1. Tolerance
    Tolerance is the body’s adaptation to the presence of the drug. Over time, the drug will have to be used in larger quantities, or a stronger drug in the same class will have to be used in order for the user to get the desired effect.

  2. Withdrawal
    When the drug is not present, the user will become physically ill, and psychologically distressed. Some drugs, such as ethanol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can be potentially fatal to withdraw from. Other drugs, such as heroin and other opiates will produce extreme sickness, but are generally not life threatening to withdraw from. Cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine do not generally produce prominent physical withdrawal symptoms, but they do produce a deep depression upon withdrawal.

  3. Compulsive use despite consequences
    Use of drugs will cause life to become increasingly unmanageable. There will be financial losses, physical problems, and legal consequences, loss of employment, neglect of hygiene, neglect of child care, loss of friendships, and loss of self-respect. Despite these losses, the addict will feel compelled to continue using, as the counterfeit pleasure they obtain from the drug outweighs the pain of real-life consequences.

Drug Abuse

Sometimes it can be difficult even for professionals to differentiate between abuse and dependence. This is partly due to unreliable reporting from the patient, and the ambiguity of the diagnostic criteria. The patient may also be observed in the early stage of dependence, which is often indistinguishable from abuse. Again, when high tolerance to the substance, withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use of the substance, and continued compulsive use of the substance despite consequences are present, Dependence is diagnosed. Someone abusing drugs will experience escalating tolerance, but the point at which high tolerance indicative of dependence is reached is subjective. Withdrawal symptoms are generally not experienced by someone abusing drugs. Their body has not adapted to that point, though it will if they continue using. When someone is abusing drugs, there will be a gradual process unfolding over months, or depending on the substance, weeks, in which more and more critical tasks and responsibilities will be traded for time spent acquiring the substance, using the substance, and recovering from the effects. Money will be diverted from bills to buying drugs. Time that should be spent working, attending classes, studying, tending to one’s home and car, or with family or friends will be replaced by involvement with the substance. 

For some people, abuse is the extent of their relationship with a substance, and they will not progress to dependence. Abuse of a drug can cause many problems such as DUI’s, loss of employment, health problems, and the risk of arrestor overdose. But when problems occur, the abuser will slow down or stop. The addict is just getting warmed up. 

Some people will abuse a substance during specific developmental stages of life, such as the college student who drinks copious amounts of beer every Friday and Saturday night, or smokes cannabis frequently and heavily. Once they graduate and embark on a career, their use fades way; the party is over. Other people abuse drugs or alcohol in response to stress, such as the man who finds himself at a bar every night after a divorce or loss of employment. Once they accept the loss of the relationship, or get a new job, they stop drinking, at least with such frequency and quantity. Addicts or those who are dependent will not just continue when the immediate crisis is past, but escalate the frequency and quantity of use. Life will become an ongoing series of crises. 

Specific signs and symptoms of drug abuse based on drugs:


This is not a path you want to explore. Nobody starts out thinking they will become an addict. Abuse is the road to addiction. Not everyone continues down the road, but you don’t want to test yourself in this way. It is not too late to change course if you have started down this path. Stop using. Disconnect from people you use with, or get drugs from. Contact a sober friend or family member and tell them what is happening so it is no longer a secret you are hiding. Then see somebody.  A good drug and alcohol counselor can make a difference.