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Signs of Drug Addiction: Recognizing an Addict

Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease that affects judgment and behavior by altering cognitive functions such as learning, memory formation and impulse control. It is characterized by intense cravings for substances and an uncontrollable desire to obtain and use drugs, even when there are substantial negative consequences.1 When combined with alcohol, all the adverse effects of addictive drugs increase and in many cases, this “cocktail” proves lethal.

Signs of drug abuse and addiction depend on the substance being used/abused and individual factors including age, weight, duration of use and whether there is co-occurring drug use. However, many drugs share the characteristic of causing changes in sleep, mood, appetite, weight, behavior and personality. A diminished interest in hygiene, eating and appearance is also quite common. Drug addictions can lead to major life changes including problems at work or school, a shift in social circles, broken relationships and domestic abuse. Addicts rearrange their lives to gain more frequent access to their substance(s) of choice. In fact, it is common for an addict to seek out and take drugs to the exclusion of everything else. Below are the short and long-term health effects for drugs that are most commonly abused.

Amphetamines (Class: Stimulant)

The amphetamine family of drugs includes prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin and street drugs such as methamphetamines and ecstasy. Short term: Increased blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature; decreased appetite and sleep; malnutrition; increased energy; involuntary bodily movements and rapid talking. Long-term: Damage to brain cells, symptoms that mimic schizophrenia, hallucinations, reduced concentration and performance, increased aggression or hostility, paranoia and serious cardiovascular complications including stroke.1

Benzodiazepines (Class: Depressant)

Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines including Xanax and Valium to treat anxiety and panic disorders, insomnia, seizures and alcohol withdrawal. Short term: Drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, trembling, impaired coordination, vision problems, grogginess, feelings of depression and headache. Long-term: Diminished cognitive function, decreased attention span and significant memory loss. Stopping cold turkey can result in-life threatening seizures, tremors and muscle cramps.2

Cocaine/Crack (Class: Stimulant)

An illicit and highly addictive drug, the two chemical forms of cocaine that people abuse are a water-soluble hydrochloride salt and water-insoluble cocaine base (or freebase). The street name crack refers to freebase cocaine, and the characteristic crackling sound it makes when the mixture is smoked.3,4 Short term: Increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure; narrowed blood vessels; enlarged pupils; headache; abdominal pain and nausea; euphoria; increased energy; alertness; insomnia; restlessness; anxiety; erratic and violent behavior; panic attacks; paranoia; psychosis; heart rhythm problems; heart attack; stroke; seizure and coma. Long-term: Loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, nasal damage, trouble swallowing from snorting, infection and death of bowel tissue from decreased blood flow, poor nutrition and weight loss from decreased appetite.5

Heroin (Class: Depressant)

Heroin is highly addictive, with the potential to produce profound degrees of drug tolerance and physical dependence. Short-term: Euphoria, warm flushing of skin, dry mouth, heavy feeling in the hands and feet, clouded thinking, alternate wakeful and drowsy states, itching, nausea, vomiting, slowed breathing and heart rate. Long-term: Collapsed veins, abscesses (swollen tissue with pus), infection of the lining and valves in the heart, constipation and stomach cramps, liver or kidney disease and pneumonia.5 Studies have linked heroin use to some deterioration of the brain’s white matter, which may affect decision-making skills, the ability to control behavior and responses to stress.6

Inhalants (Class: Variable)

Inhalants can cause a wide variety of reactions depending on the substance inhaled, but this addiction is particularly insidious since it can be caused by otherwise innocuous household items. Common products found in the home or workplace that are abused include spray paints, markers, glues, cleaning fluids and aerosol whipped cream. These contain volatile substances that have mind-altering properties when inhaled. Particularly disconcerting is that inhalants are widely abused by teens and the only class of substance abused more frequently by younger teens. Short-term: Confusion, nausea, slurred speech, lack of coordination, euphoria, dizziness, drowsiness, disinhibition, lightheadedness, hallucinations/delusions, headaches, sudden death due to heart failure (from butane, propane, and other chemicals in aerosols), death caused by asphyxiation, suffocation, convulsions, seizures, coma or choking. Long-term: Liver and kidney damage, bone marrow damage, limb spasms due to nerve damage, brain damage from lack of oxygen that can cause problems with thinking, movement, vision and hearing.5

Nitrites are a specific class of inhalants abused primarily by older adolescents and adults to enhance sexual function and pleasure, typically in risky sex situations. Short-term: Enlarged blood vessels, enhanced sexual pleasure, increased heart rate, brief sensation of heat and excitement, dizziness and headache. Long term: Increased risk of pneumonia. In addition, animal research indicates that inhaling nitrites depletes many cells in the immune system and impairs mechanisms that fight infectious diseases. When animals were subjected to relatively small amounts of butyl nitrite, they experienced a dramatic increase in tumor incidence and growth rate.5,7

Ketamine (Class: Hallucinogen)

Ketamine, a drug derived from PCP, causes various side effects based on the intoxication level and duration of use. The drug distorts perceptions of sight and sound and produces feelings of detachment from the environment and self. Short-term: Problems with attention, learning and memory; dreamlike states, hallucinations; sedation; confusion and problems speaking; loss of memory; problems moving to the point of being immobile; increased blood pressure; unconsciousness and slowed breathing that can lead to death. Long-term: Ulcers and pain in the bladder, kidney problems, stomach pain, depression and poor memory.5 Two studies published in the American Journal of Pathology indicate long-term use of ketamine may cause the cells lining the bladder to initiate their own death, enabling urine to penetrate underlying tissues, causing a painful condition called cystitis.8

LSD (Class: Hallucinogen)

LSD creates sensory perception that is reported by users as an expansion of consciousness that transcends the normal boundaries of awareness and existence. When tripping, it is common for younger people in particular to be so mellow that they are incapable of concealing behavioral changes.9 Short-term: Increased blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature; rapid emotional swings; distortion of a person’s ability to recognize reality, think rationally or communicate with others; dizziness and insomnia; loss of appetite; dry mouth; sweating; numbness; weakness; tremors and enlarged pupils. Long-term: Frightening flashbacks called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD]), ongoing visual disturbances, disorganized thinking, paranoia and mood swings.5

Marijuana or Cannabis (Class: Hallucinogen)

Marijuana is so widely used recreationally that it may be the most commonly used illicit drug in the world. There are classic red flags parents should look for that indicate their teens are smoking marijuana. In addition to having smoking paraphernalia scattered or hidden in their rooms, there are often behavioral changes. These include being inappropriately giddy, eating ravenously, slacking off on responsibilities and excessive use of breath mints, chewing gum and eye drops. Short-term: Balance and coordination problems, red eyes, increased heart rate and appetite. Long-term: Weight gain/obesity, chronic cough and frequent respiratory infections.5

Research has shown that verbal learning, memory, attention and psychomotor skills are most impaired during acute intoxication, however, diminished functions may also be detected in chronic users. Driving after marijuana use doubles the risk of motor vehicle accidents, although researchers theorize that personality factors that predispose people to marijuana use may correlate to reckless driving. Smoking one marijuana cigarette results in airflow obstruction equivalent to smoking two and one-half to five tobacco cigarettes. Most of the carcinogens in tobacco are also present in cannabis, which may explain why studies have found that long-term marijuana use increases the risk of oropharyngeal, lung and testicular cancers.10

Methamphetamine (Class: Stimulant)

Highly addictive, methamphetamine is taken orally, smoked, snorted or dissolved in liquid and injected. Regardless of the method used, the drug induces an immediate, intense euphoria. Short-term: Increased breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature; increased wakefulness and physical activity; decreased appetite and irregular heartbeat. Long-term: Anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood problems, violent behavior, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, weight loss, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”) and intense itching leading to skin sores.5

Phencyclidine/PCP (Class: Hallucinogen)

PCP is addictive and leads to psychological dependence, craving and compulsive PCP-seeking behavior. Symptoms can persist up to a year after cessation of PCP use. The short-term side effects of PCP differ to a large degree based on dosage. Short-term: Delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, problems thinking, a sense of distance from one’s environment and anxiety. Low doses: Increased breathing, blood pressure and heart rate; shallow breathing; face redness and sweating; numbness of the hands or feet and problems with movement. High doses: Decreased blood pressure, pulse and breathing; nausea; vomiting; blurred vision; flicking up and down of the eyes; drooling; loss of balance; dizziness; violence; suicidal thoughts; seizures, coma and death. Long-term: Memory loss, problems with speech and thinking, depression, weight loss and anxiety.5

Prescription Opioids (Class: Depressant)

These include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone and variants with acetaminophen. Physiologic tolerance may occur from chronic opioid use, requiring escalating dosage to alleviate pain. Short-term: Pain relief, drowsiness, nausea, constipation, euphoria, confusion, slowed breathing and death.5 In addition, long-term effects of oxycodone include acetaminophen toxicity and kidney or liver failure.11 Long-term effects of hydrocodone include acetaminophen toxicity, liver damage and sensorineural hearing loss.12

If a loved one or friend is exhibiting symptoms of drug use and you do not know where to turn, there is no need to suffer in silence. The dedicated addiction experts at The Right Step are committed to delivering innovative, visionary treatment plans tailored to each client’s specific needs, with lasting results. Help is waiting on the other end of the phone line. Call us today at 1-844-756-2656.

  1. Mennis J. Stahler GJ, Mason MJ. Risky Substance Use Environments and Addiction: A New Frontier for Environmental Justice Research. Chakraborty J, Grineski SE, Collins TW, eds. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13(6):607. doi:10.3390/ijerph13060607.
  2. Drug Facts: Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/stimulant-adhd-medications-methylphenidate-amphetamine Revised January 2014. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  3. Benzodiazepines: Uses, Side Effects and Risks. Medical New Today website. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262809.php Updated April 13, 2016. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  4. What is Cocaine? National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-cocaine Updated May 2016. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  5. Commonly Abused Drugs Charts. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts Updated April 2016. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  6. What are the long-term effects of heroin use? National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use Updated November 2014. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  7. What are the unique risks associated with nitrite abuse? National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/inhalants/what-are-unique-risks-associated-nitrite-abuse Updated June 2012. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  8. Excessive Ketamine Abuse Causes Bladder Cells to Commit Suicide. IFL Science website. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/excessive-ketamine-abuse-causes-bladder-cells-commit-suicide/ Published March 21, 2016. Accessed August 18, 2016.
  9. Signs and Symptoms of LSD Abuse. Narconon website. http://www.narconon.org/drug-abuse/signs-symptoms-lsd.html Accessed August 18, 2016.
  10. Andrade C. Cannabis and neuropsychiatry, 1: benefits and risks. J Clin Psychiatry. 2016 May;77(5):e551-4. doi: 10.4088/JCP.16f10841.
  11. The Effects of Oxycodone Use. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-oxycodone-use/#long-term-effects-of-oxycodone Accessed August 18, 2016.
  12. The Effects of Hydrocodone Use. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-hydrocodone-use/ Accessed August 18, 2016.
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