Signs a Loved One Is Abusing Drugs

Friday, November 20, 2015 | By JP Emerald Coast

loved ones having a serious conversation

Would you know how to tell if a loved one is abusing drugs? Most people do not want to picture what it would be like if someone they care about fell into a pattern of drug abuse and addiction. This is an issue that affects all types of families, as addiction is a non-discriminatory disease. Anyone can become addicted to drugs like meth, heroin, cocaine, prescription opioids and benzodiazepines, to name a few. 

Some people use drugs and only experience some negative consequences, only slightly giving friends or family members cause for concern. For many others, however, using drugs causes bigger problems at work, home, and within social circles. 

common physical signs of addiction


The signs of drug abuse may not be immediately obvious to you. More than likely, you will start to notice some things about your loved one over time that don’t seem to make sense. For example, you might think it’s odd that your loved one can go from being engaged to distant within a matter of minutes. Or, you might raise your eyebrow at sudden and frequent lateness exhibited by your loved one. People who are abusing drugs can be very good at hiding their use so that it will not be apparent to the people closest to them. Hiding their use serves as a defense mechanism so that they can continue to use without interference from their loved ones. 

If something about your loved one doesn’t seem right to you, don’t immediately discount it. It can be easy to make excuses for people, especially someone you love, but doing so can have lasting, life-altering consequences. Once you start to notice a pattern of symptoms occurring repeatedly, chances are you may be dealing with someone who is abusing drugs. The most effective thing you can do at this time is to be alert for the physical, psychological and behavioral signs of drug abuse. The more signs you notice, the more likely it is your loved one may have an issue with substance abuse. Also, the sooner you are able to identify a problem in your loved one, the sooner you can make an attempt to intervene.

The symptoms your loved one might experience when abusing drugs will be indicative of the type of drug or drugs he or she is using. However, there are many physical signs of drug abuse in general and can include: 

  • Changes in appetite, such as eating more or less than usual
  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Lack of personal hygiene and grooming
  • Pupils appear larger or smaller than usual
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Lack of coordination and clumsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Trembling

Similar to physical symptoms, the psychological symptoms associated with drug abuse are often associated with what drugs your loved one are abusing. Here are some of the most common psychological signs of drug abuse:

  • Unexplained mood swings and irritability
  • Periods of unusually high energy or giddiness
  • Lack of interest in people and activities that were once viewed as important
  • Anxiety or even episodes of paranoia
  • Depression or anger

Common Psychological Signs of Drug Addiction


As mentioned before, each type of drug produces different physical effects in users. If you ever become concerned about the possibility that a loved one may be abusing drugs, you will want to know what type he or she is using. Here are a few common warning signs for each drug:


  • Glassy, red eyes
  • Giddiness, inappropriate laughter shortly after smoking, followed by drowsiness/sleepiness
  • Loss of motivation and interest in work/school
  • Weight gain due to increased appetite or weight loss from excessive sleeping


Also known as “uppers,” this category includes amphetamines, cocaine, and meth:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Dilated pupils
  • Excessive talking
  • Irritability
  • Sleeping for long periods of time when the high wears off
  • Going for long periods of time without eating or sleeping
  • Lack of appetite leading to weight loss


Also known as “downers,” this category includes benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium, as well as opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Drowsiness
  • Sleepiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Contracted pupils
  • Slowed breathing
  • Needle marks (if abusing depressants intravenously)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Twitching
  • Scratching


This category includes LSD and PCP:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Irrational, bizarre behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations and possible aggression
  • Confusion


This category includes aerosols, glues and vapors:

  • Watery eyes
  • Difficulty with memory and thoughts
  • Rashes around the nose and mouth
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of muscle control
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

 If your loved one is abusing one or more of these drugs, then you are not only bound to notice physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms but also potentially stumble upon some paraphernalia at one point or another. For example, you may find empty bottles of computer cleaner lying around, spoons with burns on the bottom, needles, rolling papers, or prescription bottles. 

four factors that lead to addiction


Some people try drugs either out of curiosity or because their friends are experimenting with them. They may be looking for a way to self-medicate because they are dealing with stress, or they may be living with a mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression. There is no solitary catalyst for drug abuse, as people turn to the use of drugs for these reasons and more. Unfortunately, however, any type of drug use can escalate from casual use to full-blown addiction — for some.

Some people are predisposed to addiction through their biological makeup and/or environmental factors, while others are not. While there are several drugs that can lead to dependence in people, not everyone becomes addicted. This is because addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain. The structure of the brain becomes altered when drugs are introduced, and some brains change more than others based on their biology and environment. Therefore, some people are at higher risk for developing an addiction than others. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports the following as primary risk factors for the development of addiction:

  • The presence of one or more mental illness/family history of mental illness
  • Gender (men are more likely to develop drug addiction)
  • Race (American Indians, Caucasians, and African Americans struggle most with addiction, in that order)
  • Novelty-seeking behaviors such as impulsivity 
  • Bullying
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Early exposure to drugs
  • Poor parental guidance
  • Early drug abuse, especially during the teenage years when the brain is still developing

An astounding 40-60% of one’s risk factor for developing an addiction is directly linked to biological factors such as these and others. An addiction can develop due to biological reasons, environmental reasons, or a combination of both.  

When drugs are introduced, one’s biological makeup becomes compromised even further NIDA reports that drug abuse impacts functions in the brain that include the following:

  • Learning
  • Decision-making
  • Judgment
  • Memory
  • Behavior
  • Stress responses

Abusing drugs and hoping not to become addicted to them is like playing a game of Russian Roulette and hoping to dodge the bullet. There is no way to be sure if a person is going to develop an addiction to drugs until it is already occurring.


Trying to determine if someone is abusing drugs is only half of the battle if you are concerned about a loved one. Learning about the disease of addiction and exactly how a person goes from being a recreational/experimental user to having an addiction is key. The more you can educate yourself, the more of service you can be if you find that your loved one is struggling with addiction.

As mentioned before, addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain. The word ‘disease’ is defined as a disorder of structure or function. In the case of addiction, the brain is the structure that is disordered. When someone is addicted to drugs, his or her brain chemistry is impacted and the physical structure of his or her brain becomes altered.  When that occurs, symptoms of addiction begin to develop and are noticeable to others. One of the most common characteristics of addiction is compulsive behavior. Compulsive behavior is described as the act of doing something even if against one’s conscious wishes. When you understand compulsive behavior and why it occurs, it can be easier to navigate your loved one’s addiction. 

Compulsive behavior is just one of many symptoms of the disease of addiction, but it serves as a trigger for an insidious and relentless cycle of addiction to continually occur. One of the chemicals in the brain that is deeply impacted by regular drug abuse is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of reward, euphoria, pleasure, and compulsion. It is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain and is most frequently released when humans engage in positive actions, such as exercising, getting a massage, listening to music, eating healthy foods, etc. Dopamine is also released when humans do things that are unhealthy or negative, such as eating junk food or using drugs. 

When your loved one abuses drugs, he or she experiences a sense of reward and euphoria. That reaction occurs because drugs have triggered the release of dopamine. As drug abuse continues, your loved one develops a tolerance for the drug or drugs of his or her choice. In order to continue to get that same level of reward and euphoria, he or she has to use more of the drug. 

Continually exposing the brain to drugs negatively affects how effectively the brain releases dopamine. Instead of dopamine being naturally released, the brain is now conditioned to release it when drugs enter the system. At this point in one’s addiction, it can be almost impossible to experience any type of pleasure without the use of drugs because of this chemical change. 

While this is what is occurring in the brain of your loved one, what you are likely witnessing, as a result, are several behaviors that are typically uncharacteristic of him or her. That is because the influence the drug has over your loved one is so strong that he or she will find ways to rationalize his or her behavior or go to great lengths to deny the addiction even exists. It is common for people in this situation to exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Conceal all evidence of their drug use
  • Deny their drug use when confronted about it
  • Refuse to admit they have a problem with drugs
  • Become defensive and agitated when questioned about their drug use
  • Continue to abuse drugs despite several consequences related to their use

When your loved one is addicted to drugs, it can feel like a hopeless situation for all involved. That is understandable, however, there is hope. There are several things that you can do when your loved one is abusing drugs.


Having an addicted loved one is an extremely difficult situation. It is certainly not a cut and dry situation. There are layers of complexities that are related to your loved one’s addiction, including the impacts it is having on you and your family. Trying to figure out what to do when addiction has taken hold of a loved one can feel overwhelming to the point where you may not be motivated to do much of anything. However, when you are aware of what to do, that pressure can be released and you can take action effectively.

Consider some of the following ways to help your loved one:

1) Don’t Enable Your Loved One

Enabling is something that nearly everyone does at one point or another when their loved one is abusing drugs. What you might think is being loving can actually be fueling your loved one’s addiction to drugs. It is important to identify enabling behavior and learn how to stop engaging in them in an effort to prevent “loving” your loved one to death.

Some examples of enabling behavior include:

  • Calling in sick to work or school for your loved one 
  • Providing your loved one with money to buy drugs
  • Allowing your loved one to utilize your mode of transportation to acquire drugs
  • Bringing your loved one to purchase drugs

While you may be thinking that you are protecting your loved one with your presence and financial control, you are doing the opposite. Ending your enabling behaviors is the first step in helping your loved one get sober.

2) Maintain Your Emotions 

There is no doubt that when addiction is present in anyone’s life, it produces a bevy of emotions. Keeping all of those emotions in check is an impossible request to make of anyone affected by this disease. However, when your loved one is addicted to drugs, it is important that you maintain your emotions so as to not make the situation worse. For example, when speaking with your loved one about his or her drug addiction, focus on remaining calm even if he or she gets angry. You can work on developing the skills to do this by reaching out to a local therapist or through literature found online or in libraries. Seeing a therapist, though, is highly recommended when a loved one is addicted to drugs, as doing so can help you identify, address, and sort through your emotions so you have the capacity to manage your current circumstances. 

3) Don’t Wait for Your Loved One to Hit Rock Bottom

It is a common misconception that a person needs to hit rock bottom before he or she gets any type of professional help. While this is true for many people, it is not an exact science. As a loved one yourself, you do not need to wait until your loved one is in jeopardy of hitting rock bottom before you intervene. Addiction is a life-threatening disease and if it is not addressed, it will get worse over time and will likely result in fatality. So, do not be afraid to talk about your loved one’s addiction with him or her. Do not get wrapped up in figuring out the “perfect” time to have the conversations you want. The sooner you address your loved one’s addiction, the more of a chance he or she has to stop abusing drugs and begin living a life of recovery.

4) Have Conversations When Your Loved One is Not Under the Influence

If you want to talk to your loved one about his or her drug abuse, be sure to do so when he or she is not under the influence. Of course, it can be difficult to find a window of opportunity when your loved one is constantly using, but keep a keen eye. Talking about a topic as serious as addiction when your loved one is under the influence can turn into an angered conversation that yields no viable results. 

When your loved one is not under the influence, begin the conversation by saying how much you care for him or her and explain your concerns in a calm, non-judgmental way. Talk about what you have been witnessing from your perspective and offer your help.  You can ask your loved one if he or she has ever considered going to treatment or you can encourage him or her to get treatment. You can even start small and recommend making an appointment for a physical with his or her doctor. The goal is to lovingly guide your loved one towards the help he or she needs. 

It can behoove you to gather information about local treatment resources prior to talking with your loved one. Being able to speak about what treatment options are available can help make the decision to get help less overwhelming for your loved one. 

5) Practice Good Self-Care

There is no way that you can be of any type of positive support to your loved one if you are not caring for your own needs and wants. It can be extremely easy to become immersed in your loved one’s addiction, which can be physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and disrupt the flow of your everyday life. At this time, make sure that you are continuing to engage in activities you enjoy, get enough rest, eat well, exercise, and keep yourself connected to your friends and family members. Retreating inwards and giving up the things that feed your soul will only weaken your reserve when it comes to helping your loved one.

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