Drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication. When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.
Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:
• Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — daily or even several times a day
• Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
• Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
• Taking larger amounts of the drug over a longer period of time than you intended
• Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
• Spending money on the drug, even though you can’t afford it
• Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
• Continuing to use the drug, even though you know it’s causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
• Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
• Driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the drug
• Spending a good deal of time getting the drug, using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
• Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
• Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug
Recognizing unhealthy drug use in family members
Possible indications that someone you care about is using drugs could include:
• Problems at school or work — frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance
• Physical health issues — lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain or red eyes
• Neglected appearance — lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks
• Changes in behavior — exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering their room or being secretive about where they go with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends
• Money issues — sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they’re being sold to support drug use
A quick break-down of different drug categories.
Marijuana, hashish and other cannabis-containing substances
People use cannabis by smoking, eating or inhaling a vaporized form of the drug. Cannabis often precedes or is used along with other substances, such as alcohol or illegal drugs and is often the first drug tried.
K2, Spice and bath salts
Two groups of synthetic drugs — synthetic cannabinoids and substituted or synthetic cathinones — are illegal in most states. The effects of these drugs can be dangerous and unpredictable, as there is no quality control and some ingredients may not be known.
Synthetic cannabinoids, also called K2 or Spice, are sprayed on dried herbs and then smoked, but can be prepared as an herbal tea. Despite manufacturer claims, these are chemical compounds rather than “natural” or harmless products. These drugs can produce a “high” similar to marijuana and have become a popular but dangerous alternative.
Substituted cathinones, also called “bath salts,” are mind-altering (psychoactive) substances similar to amphetamines such as ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine. Packages are often labeled as other products to avoid detection.
Despite the name, these are not bath products such as Epsom salts. Substituted cathinones can be eaten, snorted, inhaled or injected and are highly addictive. These drugs can cause severe intoxication, which results in dangerous health effects or even death.
Barbiturates, benzodiazepines and hypnotics
Barbiturates, benzodiazepines and hypnotics are prescription central nervous system depressants. They’re often used and misused in search for a sense of relaxation or a desire to “switch off” or forget stress-related thoughts or feelings.
• Barbiturates. Examples include phenobarbital and secobarbital (Seconal).
• Benzodiazepines. Examples include sedatives, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).
• Hypnotics. Examples include prescription sleeping medications such as zolpidem (Ambien, Intermezzo, others) and zaleplon (Sonata).
Meth, cocaine and other stimulants
Stimulants include amphetamines, meth (methamphetamine), cocaine, methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, others) and amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (Adderall, Adderall XR, others). They are often used and misused in search of a “high,” or to boost energy, to improve performance at work or school, or to lose weight or control appetite.
Club drugs are commonly used at clubs, concerts and parties. Examples include ecstasy or molly (MDMA), gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol ― a brand used outside the U.S. ― also called roofie) and ketamine. These drugs are not all in the same category, but they share some similar effects and dangers, including long-term harmful effects.
Because GHB and flunitrazepam can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, confusion and memory loss, the potential for sexual misconduct or sexual assault is associated with the use of these drugs.
Use of hallucinogens can produce different signs and symptoms, depending on the drug. The most common hallucinogens are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine (PCP).
Signs and symptoms of inhalant use vary, depending on the substance. Some commonly inhaled substances include glue, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt tip marker fluid, gasoline, cleaning fluids and household aerosol products. Due to the toxic nature of these substances, users may develop brain damage or sudden death.
Opioids are narcotic, painkilling drugs produced from opium or made synthetically. This class of drugs includes, among others, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone and oxycodone.
Sometimes called the “opioid epidemic,” addiction to opioid prescription pain medications has reached an alarming rate across the United States. Some people who’ve been using opioids over a long period of time may need physician-prescribed temporary or long-term drug substitution during treatment.
When to see a doctor
If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, get help. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances for a long-term recovery. Talk with your primary doctor or see a mental health professional, such as a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
Make an appointment to see a doctor if:
• You can’t stop using a drug
• You continue using the drug despite the harm it causes
• Your drug use has led to unsafe behavior, such as sharing needles or unprotected sex
• You think you may be having withdrawal symptoms after stopping drug use
When to seek emergency help
Seek emergency help if you or someone you know has taken a drug and:
• May have overdosed
• Shows changes in consciousness
• Has trouble breathing
• Has seizures or convulsions
• Has signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure
• Has any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug
Staging an intervention
People struggling with addiction usually deny that their drug use is problematic and are reluctant to seek treatment. An intervention presents a loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.
An intervention should be carefully planned and may be done by family and friends in consultation with a doctor or professional such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or directed by an intervention professional. It involves family and friends and sometimes co-workers, clergy or others who care about the person struggling with addiction.
During the intervention, these people gather together to have a direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment.