Substance Abuse Symptoms, Signs & Effects

Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry offers effective, comprehensive treatment for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of substance abuse.

What is Substance Abuse

Learn More About Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can be defined as an excessive and continued use of substances in order to experience mood-altering results. When drugs are used in excess, they cause a direct activation on the brain’s reward system that is so powerful it inhibits one’s ability to focus on what they would normally be focused on, resulting in disturbances within the individual’s everyday life.

It is difficult for some people to comprehend why someone would subject him or herself to the dangers that accompany drug use. These people may feel as though drug users should “just stop” using and be done with it, but it is much more complicated than that. The dependence that one develops on substances is an actual illness that results from a chemical disturbance in one’s brain that develops as a direct result of the drug use. Because of these disturbances, the addict’s ability to simply stop the behavior is compromised.

Some of the most common substances that are abused are: marijuana, narcotics and opiates (including heroin and prescription pain killers), stimulants (including methamphetamines, cocaine, and prescription amphetamines like Adderall), hallucinogens (including PCP, LSD, and ecstasy), and central nervous system depressants and downers (including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and tranquilizers).  Depending on the substance(s) abused, medical treatment may be necessary to safely detox and allow the recovery process to begin.


Statistics of Substance Abuse

In 2012, 23.9 million Americans over the age of 12 were estimated to have used illicit drugs or to have abused prescription medications. This is the equivalent of 9.2% of the United States population and the numbers are growing.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There is not any one specific cause that has been identified as the sole reason why people develop addictions to substances, but rather it is believed to be a combination of different factors working together. Some examples of these factors include:

Genetic: Studies have shown that drug addiction tends to cluster in families and is therefore believed to be strongly hereditary in nature. People with first-degree relatives (such as a biological parent or sibling) that has struggled with an addiction to any type of substance has a higher likelihood of developing an addiction as well.

Physical: The chemicals that drugs are composed of act on the brain’s communication system and cause a disturbance in the way that cells normally process information. The longer that people abuse substances, the more likely it is that the drugs will cause lasting damage to the composition of this communication system, leading to physical dependence.

Environmental: It is believed by many professionals in the field that environmental factors can play a role in whether or not a person will develop an addiction to drugs. For example, people who have a lot of stress in their life may find that using drugs provides them with a sense of relief. Or people who have been physically and/or sexually abused may develop a dependence to substances because it helps them forget about the experiences they have suffered through.

Risk Factors:

The more risk factors that a person is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to become dependent on substances. Some examples of risk factors that have been attributed to people beginning to experiment with substances and subsequently develop a dependence on them include:

  • Family history
  • Exposure to violence
  • Experiencing some form of trauma
  • Poor socioeconomic status
  • Poor self-control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of coping skills
  • Chaotic home environment
  • Suffering from other mental illnesses
  • Peer pressure
  • The level of availability that the person has in obtaining the drug

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

The signs and symptoms of substance abuse will vary greatly depending on the type of drug being abused, the frequency of the abuse, and the length of time that the person has been abusing it. The following are some examples of different symptoms that may be indicative that a person is abusing drugs:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Random periods of extreme lethargy
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Social isolation
  • Participating in reckless behaviors
  • Disturbances within one’s personal relationships
  • Excessively rapid or excessively slowed speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired judgment

Physical symptoms:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Distorted vision
  • Weakness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory impairment
  • Altered states of perception
  • Confusion

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Extreme fluctuations in mood
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety


Effects of Substance Abuse

As was stated when discussing the signs and symptoms, the long-term effects that substance abuse will have on a person will vary depending on the type of drug being used and the length as well as frequency of use. The most common effects that result from drug abuse can include:

  • Addiction
  • Decline in mental health
  • Chronic mood swings
  • Malnutrition
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Damage to cardiovascular and nervous systems
  • Collapsed veins
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • HIV / AIDS
  • Coma
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Withdrawal
  • Overdose
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders of Substance Abuse

The majority of people who struggle with substance abuse also suffer from some type of mental disorder. Some of the most common disorders that occur alongside substance abuse can include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Polysubstance abuse
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose of Drug Abuse

Whenever people suddenly stop using a substance that their bodies have become addicted to and dependent on, they will most likely suffer from unpleasant symptoms during the withdrawal period. Depending on the drug that has been used, the withdrawal symptoms will range in severity from mild to moderate to severe to very severe. The following are some examples of various effects that withdrawal can inflict on a person:

  • Intense cravings
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremors and chills
  • Shakes
  • Sweating
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Psychosis

Sadly, it is not uncommon for people who are dependent on substances to overdose on the drug that they are using. As the length of time that a person uses a substance increases, the higher their tolerance becomes. As a result, many addicts find that they need to steadily increase the amount that they use in order to receive the desired effects. This increase in use can lead to a person taking more than his or her body can handle, resulting in an overdose.

Like withdrawal, the overdose symptoms will vary depending on the drug that is being used. Some examples of signs that a person has overdosed may include:

  • Erratic breathing
  • Chills or profuse sweating
  • Acute psychotic behavior
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Passing out
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Sudden heart failure
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Death

For years I was addicted to multiple substances as a coping mechanism for my depression. After getting treated at Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry, I am now 3 years sober and able to manage my depression.

– Parker J.