The pernicious effects of drug abuse and addiction reach far beyond the users themselves. Drug users risk long-term physical and psychological damage as well as social consequences like job loss and falling foul of the law. Sadly, the family and friends of drug abusers also suffer as changes in the abusers’ behaviour impacts on their lives. There is often financial hardship because users will beg, steal or borrow the money they need to buy the drugs to feed their habit and relationships break down as users become more impossible to live with. Complete strangers also sometimes feel the effects of drug abuse as they fall victim to crimes perpetrated by addicts desperate for cash to purchase drugs or whose behaviour has been modified by drugs.
Early detection of drug addiction considerably improves the prospects for successful rehabilitation. Identification of symptoms is therefore crucial. A major problem, however, is denial; drug abusers will often either attempt to mask their symptoms or else make light of the issue.
Drug users themselves might be able to recognise indications that their drug use is moving or has moved to the point of addiction. These include:
- Increased tolerance – as drugs are used more frequently the body adapts and becomes more tolerant. An increased quantity of the drug is therefore necessary to achieve the same effect.
- Withdrawal symptoms – an extended period without the drug leads to physical (and sometimes mental) discomfort, including nausea, depression, insomnia, anxiety and shaking. These symptoms can only be relieved by further use of the drug.
- Loss of control – continued use of the drug despite the knowledge that it is having an adverse effect on health and lifestyle (abandonment of friends and hobbies, for example) and a feeling of being unable to stop drug use.
Relatives and friends
There are warning signs that relatives and friends can look out for if they suspect a drug problem. Some are specific to particular categories of drugs but many are general and apply to most of the commonly abused drugs.
Drug users often exhibit a number of changes in behaviour. Among them are:
- Performance at school or work – it is often the case that drug abuse leads to an unexplained drop in performance at school or work. Often, too, attendance falls or becomes erratic.
- Money – drugs are a major drain on the wallet. Users may get themselves into financial difficulties and might try to borrow or even steal money to buy their drugs. Money left around the house (or in a wallet or bag) will often disappear and other items might also vanish, sold by the addict to get cash.
- Social changes – as the drug habit takes hold, addicts often become very secretive in their behaviour. They also avoid old friends and haunts and abandon activities that they previously enjoyed; and sometimes they attach themselves to a new social group. It is sometimes the case that they become prone to trouble and may engage in illegal activities, including theft and even mugging.
- Changes in habits – addicts usually experience a change in eating and sleeping habits. Sleep patterns can be seriously affected as periods of hyper-activity and extreme drowsiness and lethargy are experienced.
Over time, drug abuse takes a physical toll. The signs include:
- Eyes – even in the short term, the eyes can act as a giveaway. They often become bloodshot and the pupils will either be over dilated or contracted. They may be glassy or watery in appearance and may have a vacant look.
- Actions – addicts often lose the ability to function normally. Their coordination is often impaired and their speech might become slurred. Shaking is common when addicts need their next “fix”.
- Appearance – in the short term, drug addicts might exhibit a rapid weight gain or loss and, as time goes by, will often begin to neglect their personal grooming. They may also begin to have an unusual smell.
Psychological changes in an individual can be attributable to a number of causes, drug abuse merely being one possibility. The following, however, might indicate a drug problem:
- Mood swings – unpredictable and sudden changes in mood, angry outbursts and demonstrable frustration often accompany drug abuse.
- Personality – illicit drugs often affect the brain and can lead to significant changes in personality. The addicts’ desire to keep their habit a secret can also lead to a personality change.
- Lethargy – drug addiction leads to lack of motivation, lack of awareness of the environment and a general lethargy.
- Other behaviour – drug addicts often exhibit periods of hyperactivity and can also become agitated, anxious or fearful for no apparent reason.
While the foregoing are general indicators of drug abuse or addiction, some drug groups have more specific effects. The most common are:
- Stimulants – Stimulants include drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines and Ritalin. Users typically exhibit dilated pupils, hyperactivity and euphoria with high pulse rates, raised blood pressure and increased temperature. As the effects of the drug wear off depression and anxiety take hold. In the longer term addicts who snort their drugs suffer damage to their nasal passage while almost all users will experience loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss and insomnia.
- Depressants – Barbiturates (such as Phenobarbital) and benzodiazepines (such as Valium) are usually prescribed as central nervous system depressants. They have a valid medical use but are often abused leading to depression, memory loss, drowsiness, poor coordination, slurred speech and general confusion.
- Marijuana – Dependence on marijuana is caused not by a chemical need but by a need to feel the effects of the drug; it is a psychological rather than physical problem. Addicts often have distinctly red eyes, heightened senses and a greater appetite. Their reaction times are usually reduced, their coordination is adversely affected, their concentration is poor and their memory is harmed. They also have high blood pressure and pulse rate.
- Opioids – This group of drugs comprises painkillers produced both naturally from opium and synthetically; they include opium itself, heroin, codeine and methadone. They result in a state of sedation and reduced sensitivity to pain. Addicts also feel depressed and confused and often suffer from constipation. Those who inject their drugs also show needle marks.
- Hallucinogens – Hallucinogens like LSD and PCP cause users to hallucinate with a risk of flash backs sometimes years later. They can be subject to panic attacks, delusions and occasional aggressive behaviour. Euphoria and loss of appetite are also possible.
Identifying drug abuse and addiction in teenagers is often problematic as teenagers typically exhibit moodiness, irritability and other difficult behaviour, all of which are common signs of drug abuse. Teenagers show the usual indicators of drug use above but more often than not they will start having problems at school – falling grades, absenteeism and lack of interest – and will exhibit behavioural changes like isolating themselves, becoming secretive and neglecting their appearance.