Substance Abuse Symptoms & Effects

Substance abuse is a broad term that describes the use and misuse of mind-altering chemicals. Substance abuse can take many forms. For example, a college student taking twice his normal dose of Adderall without consulting his physician, a person cooking and using methamphetamine, and a person drinking alcohol to excess on a frequent basis are all considered acts of substance abuse. When a person abuses substances to such a degree that the substance abuse affects his or her ability to function effectively in life, he or she may meet criteria for a substance use disorder.

Substance use disorders are serious, and once a person begins abusing substances, it can be extraordinarily difficult to stop. Despite the challenges involved, it is possible to overcome a substance use disorder if a person seeks help from the caring and experienced staff of a substance abuse treatment center.

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Statistics

Substance abuse carries a great cost not only to individuals, but also to societies as a whole. Estimates from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggest that substance abuse costs nearly $700 billion each year in lost productivity, crime, and healthcare expenditures. In addition, data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) found that in 2011, there were nearly 5 million emergency room visits related to drug abuse. As shocking as it may be, this figure may not be surprising given that over 20 million Americans use drugs each year.

Causes and Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

A preponderance of research indicates that substance use disorders are not due only to a single gene or environmental factor, but instead arise out of a mix of multiple genetic and environmental factors. These may include:

Genetic: Mental health experts agree that genes play a role in determining a person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder. People whose family members struggle with mental illness or substance abuse are more likely to develop substance use disorders as well.

Environmental: A person’s environment throughout childhood and adulthood can play a role in determining his or her risk of developing a substance use disorder. Children who grow up in homes where there is substance abuse are more likely to abuse substances themselves. Children, however, are not the only people susceptible to environmental influences. A range of environmental factors, including substance abuse among one’s friends, severe stressors such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and socioeconomic stress can also cause a person to be more likely to abuse substances no matter how old he or she is.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Living in poverty
  • Being chronically unemployed
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Being exposed to violence
  • Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Low educational attainment

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

Because substance abuse is such a broad category, the signs and symptoms of substance abuse will vary depending upon a number of factors, including a person’s drug(s) of choice, the length and intensity of use, and his or her personality. That being said, the following are some symptoms common to individuals who are struggling with a substance use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Drug-seeking behaviors, such as visiting online pharmacies or seeking out dealers
  • Being secretive or deceptive about one’s whereabouts or activities
  • Stealing money
  • Lying
  • Unexplained decline in work or school performance
  • Engaging in dangerous or risky behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Unexplained wounds, scabs, or bruises
  • Pupil dilation
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Significant changes in weight
  • Lack of attention to hygiene

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Suicidal ideation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Loss of pleasure in activities one used to enjoy
  • Apathy
  • Anxious feelings
  • Poor motivation
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Agitation or irritability
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can have many negative effects on a person’s life if it goes untreated, possibly including:

  • Poor work or school performance, leading to job loss or expulsion
  • Strained or broken relationships
  • Divorce
  • Loss of child custody
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Financial problems
  • Homelessness
  • Contracting diseases due to sharing drug paraphernalia
  • Organ damage, including brain damage
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death as a result of overdose

Co-Occurring Disorders

People who struggle with substance use disorders also may struggle with other co-occurring mental health disorders, including:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of withdrawal: The exact nature of the withdrawal process differs based on which drug a person is using, how long he or she has been using it, and how intense his or her use has been. That being said, the following are some common effects of withdrawing from a substance:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Powerful cravings for the drug
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Tremors, shaking, or tics
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Agitation or irritability

Effects of overdose: When a person ingests an amount of a drug that is greater than his or her body’s ability to process, that person will likely experience an overdose. Overdoses are dangerous and possibly fatal, and may include some of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Constricted or dilated pupils
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Sweating
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure
  • Stroke
  • Coma
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