Every year, millions of people in the United States use and abuse prescription, legal, and illicit substances in order to get high. Of those, thousands will end up with an addiction disorder – a mental illness or brain disease characterized by an inability to get through the day or feel normal without the drug and withdrawal symptoms and/or intense cravings if they try to stop taking it. It’s a widespread problem that has devastated communities for centuries.

Though medical science has made significant strides in addiction treatment, it’s still much better for one’s overall health to avoid addiction altogether. Most experts agree that there is no “cure” for addiction, and cravings and the potential for relapse can recur throughout a person’s life, even after many years of avoiding substances.

How Addiction Develops


No one falls into an addiction disorder on purpose, and addiction is not a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Anyone can become addicted to a substance, whether it’s alcohol, heroin, prescription medication like Adderall, or caffeine. One of the biggest reasons that addiction happens is in fact due to a lack of education on the subject. People are simply not aware of how easily an addiction can develop and fail to recognize the signs of a growing problem.

Addiction is more complicated than most people realize. Though genes play a factor, there’s no such thing as one simple “addiction gene” that means someone is guaranteed to become addicted if that person abuses a substance.

Some people will abuse a variety of substances and never develop an addiction. Others will notice that they have somewhat of a problem but will be able to stop on their own. Still others will find that their lives have been taken over by severe addiction that cannot be overcome without professional help. But everyone can be aware of the signs of an addiction disorder if they do their research.

What Is Drug Abuse?


Technically, drug abuse is the use of any illegal substance or the use of prescription medications outside of what was ordered by a doctor. There are specific guidelines for what constitutes the abuse of legal intoxicants like alcohol. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 49.2 percent of people surveyed in 2014 had used an illicit drug in their lifetimes, while 61 percent had smoked cigarettes of some kind and 82.1 percent had consumed alcohol. Regular use (in the past month) of illicit drugs was at 10.2 percent in 2014, an entire percentage point higher than it was in 2012.

Signs of teen drug abuse can include:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Unexplained changes in personality
  • Changes in social circles
  • Changes in grooming habits or hygiene
  • Significant changes in sleep patterns
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia
  • Decreased ability to meet school and other responsibilities
  • Loss of interest in previously beloved activities
  • Unusually large or small pupils
  • Unexplained runny or bloody noses (from snorting)
  • Marks from needles on the arms or legs (from shooting up)

The occasional use of a substance, even an illicit drug, is very unlikely to lead to an addiction. Despite common belief, you cannot become addicted to powerful intoxicants like meth or heroin after just one use. An addiction disorder develops after a user builds up a tolerance to the drug, which requires regular use. Tolerance means that an individual needs higher and higher doses of the drug in order to achieve the same effect experienced during the first high.

Many people addicted to popular illicit drugs started out as occasional users but soon find that they can’t reach that intense euphoria that they reached on the first use when they had no tolerance to the intoxicant. They begin to try higher doses, “chasing” that incredible feeling. Others may start regularly using a drug in order to escape unhappy or stressful situations in their lives that they feel cannot be changed. Either way, the connection between the behavior (taking a hit) and the reward (the high) keeps them coming back.

For parents and caregivers, it’s important to be aware of the signs of drug abuse. Teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to the pull of intoxicants and the potential for developing addiction. They may also experience more negative health effects and a greater risk of overdose, due to the fact that their bodies and brains are still developing.

Some of these – like mood swings – can just be signs of being a teenager, but it’s a good idea to have a frank and honest discussion with your child if you have suspicions. Being proactive like this can prevent the development of a drug addiction. According to Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap, 23.5 million Americans 12 and older have an addiction problem. Nobody wants their child to become part of that statistic.

Signs of Addiction


As an addiction disorder develops and grows, it becomes harder and harder for the afflicted person to hide the problem. Eventually, distinctive signs tend to pop up, even for those considered to be “high-functioning.” It’s important for anybody who uses potentially addictive drugs, including those obtained with a prescription and taken as directed, to be familiar with the signs of addiction so treatment can be sought as soon as possible.

Addiction is generally thought of in two forms: physical and psychological. Psychological addiction refers to the mental and emotional attachment to the drug that causes distress when it’s not available even if its absence does not produce physical symptoms. Physical addiction is characterized by the withdrawal symptoms that appear when intake of the drug lessens or stops altogether. All substances are considered to have some potential for psychological addiction, and most are physically addictive as well.

Both the psychological and physical aspects typically need to be present for a person to fit the diagnostic criteria for an addiction disorder. If a person goes off a prescription drug and experiences some negative symptoms, for example, this doesn’t mean that addiction has occurred. If the individual has strong cravings for the drug and finds it difficult to stay away from it, this is indicative of an addiction.

If these symptoms start to appear, it’s important to seek professional advice and treatment. Every year, only 11.2 percent of those who have an addiction get help for it, leaving the rest to struggle on their own. Even your primary care doctor will be able to provide guidance and give referrals to places that can help. The best treatment caters to one’s individual needs, fits one’s schedule, and doesn’t break the bank. There are plenty of options for those who make the effort to look, and successful, long-term recovery is more likely the sooner an addicted person does so.