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Drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a dependence on a legal or illegal drug or medication. Keep in mind that alcohol and nicotine are legal substances, but are also considered drugs.

When you're addicted, you're not able to control your drug use and you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes. Drug addiction can cause an intense craving for the drug. You may want to quit, but most people find they can't do it on their own.

Drug addiction can cause serious, long-term consequences, including problems with physical and mental health, relationships, employment, and the law.

You may need help from your doctor, family, friends, support groups or an organized treatment program to overcome your drug addiction and stay drug-free. To seek drug and/or alcohol rehab, click here.

For more extensive drug and alcohol addiction resources, click here.


Most drug addictions start with experimental use of a drug in social situations. For some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. The risk of addiction and how fast you become dependent varies by drug. Some drugs have a higher risk and cause dependency more quickly than others.


As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug to get high. Soon you may need the drug just to feel good. As your drug use increases, you may find that it's increasingly difficult to go without the drug. Attempts to stop drug use may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill (withdrawal symptoms).

Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

  • Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — this can be daily or even several times a day

  • Having intense urges for the drug

  • Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect

  • Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug

  • Spending money on the drug, even though you can't afford it

  • Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use

  • Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn't do, such as stealing

  • Driving or doing other risky activities when you're under the influence of the drug

  • Focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug

  • Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug



Like many mental health disorders, several factors may contribute to development of drug addiction and dependence. The main factors are:

  • Environment. Environmental factors, including your family's beliefs and attitudes and exposure to a peer group that encourages drug use, seem to play a role in initial drug use.

  • Genetics. Once you've started using a drug, the development into addiction may be influenced by inherited (genetic) traits, which may delay or speed up the disease progression.

Changes in the brain


Physical addiction appears to occur when repeated use of a drug changes the way your brain feels pleasure. The addicting drug causes physical changes to some nerve cells (neurons) in your brain. Neurons use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. These changes can remain long after you stop using the drug.

Recognizing drug abuse in family members


Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug use. Possible indications that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:

  • Problems at school or work — frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance

  • Physical health issues — lack of energy and motivation

  • Neglected appearance — lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks

  • Changes in behavior — exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering his or her room or being secretive about where he or she goes with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends

  • Spending money — sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they're being sold to support drug use

Recognizing signs of drug use or intoxication


Signs and symptoms of drug use or intoxication may vary, depending on the type of drug. Below you'll find several examples or for a more extensive list, click here.

For signs of opiate overdose and how to respond, click here

Marijuana, hashish and other cannabis-containing substances


People use cannabis by smoking, eating, or inhaling a vaporized form of the drug. Cannabis often precedes or is used along with other substances, such as alcohol or other illegal drugs, and is often the first drug tried.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

  • A sense of euphoria or feeling "high"

  • A heightened sense of visual, auditory and taste perception

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate

  • Red eyes

  • Dry mouth

  • Decreased coordination

  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering

  • Increased appetite

  • Slowed reaction time

  • Paranoid thinking


Long-term (chronic) use is often associated with:

  • Decreased mental sharpness

  • Poor performance at school or at work

  • Reduced number of friends and interests

Synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones


Two groups of synthetic drugs — synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones — are illegal in most states. The effects of these drugs can be dangerous and unpredictable, as there is no quality control and some ingredients may not be known.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called "K2" or "Spice," are sprayed on dried herbs and then smoked, but can be prepared as an herbal tea. Despite manufacturer claims, these are chemical compounds rather than "natural" or harmless products. These drugs can produce a "high" similar to marijuana and have become a popular but dangerous alternative.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

  • A sense of euphoria or feeling "high"

  • Elevated mood

  • Relaxation

  • An altered sense of visual, auditory and taste perception

  • Extreme anxiety or agitation

  • Paranoia

  • Hallucinations

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

  • Vomiting

  • Confusion


Substituted cathinones, also called "bath salts," are psychoactive substances similar to amphetamines such as Ecstasy (MDMA) and cocaine. Despite the name, these are not bath products such as Epsom salts. Substituted cathinones can be eaten, inhaled or injected and are highly addictive. These drugs can cause severe intoxication that results in dangerous health effects or even death.

Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

  • Euphoria

  • Increased sociability

  • Increased energy and agitation

  • Increased sex drive

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

  • Chest pain

  • Paranoia

  • Panic attacks

  • Hallucinations

  • Delirium

  • Psychotic and violent behavior

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines


Barbiturates and benzodiazepines are prescription central nervous system depressants. They're often used and abused in search for a sense of relaxation or a desire to "switch off" or forget stress-related thoughts or feelings. 

Phenobarbital, amobarbital (Amytal) and secobarbital (Seconal Sodium) are examples of barbiturates. Examples of benzodiazepines include sedatives, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax, Niravam), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).


Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

  • Drowsiness

  • Slurred speech

  • Lack of coordination

  • Euphoria or an exaggerated feeling of well-being

  • Problems concentrating or thinking

  • Memory problems

  • Involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)

  • Lack of inhibition

  • Slowed breathing and reduced blood pressure

  • Dizziness

  • Depression

Meth, cocaine and other stimulants


Stimulants include amphetamines, meth (methamphetamine), cocaine and methylphenidate (Ritalin). They are often used and abused in search of a "high," or to boost energy, to improve performance at work or school, or to lose weight or control appetite.


Signs and symptoms of recent use can include:

  • Feeling of exhilaration and excess confidence

  • Increased alertness

  • Increased energy and restlessness

  • Behavior changes or aggression

  • Rapid or rambling speech

  • Dilated pupils

  • Delusions and hallucinations

  • Irritability or changes in mood

  • Changes in heart rate and blood pressure

  • Nausea or vomiting with weight loss

  • Impaired judgment

  • Nasal congestion and damage to the mucous membrane of the nose (if snorting drugs)

  • Insomnia

  • Paranoia

  • Depression as the drug wears off

Club drugs


Club drugs are commonly used at clubs, concerts and parties. Examples include Ecstasy or Molly (MDMA), gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol, or roofie) and ketamine. These drugs are not all in the same category, but they share some similar effects and dangers, including long-term harmful effects.

Because GHB and Rohypnol can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, confusion and memory loss, the potential for sexual misconduct or sexual assault is associated with the use of these drugs.

Signs and symptoms of use of club drugs can include:

  • Hallucinations

  • Paranoia

  • Dilated pupils

  • Chills and sweating

  • Involuntary shaking (tremors)

  • Behavior changes

  • Muscle cramping and teeth clenching

  • Reduced inhibitions

  • Heightened or altered sense of sight, sound and taste

  • Decreased coordination

  • Poor judgment

  • Memory problems or loss of memory

  • Reduced consciousness

  • Increased or decreased heart rate and blood pressure



Use of hallucinogens can produce different signs and symptoms, depending on the drug. The most common hallucinogens are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine (PCP). 

LSD use may cause:

  • Hallucinations

  • Greatly reduced perception of reality, for example, interpreting input from one of your senses as another, such as hearing colors

  • Impulsive behavior

  • Rapid shifts in emotions

  • Permanent mental changes in perception

  • Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure

  • Tremors

  • Flashbacks, a re-experience of the hallucinations — even years later

PCP use may cause: 

  • A feeling of being separated from your body and surroundings

  • Hallucinations

  • Problems with coordination and movement

  • Aggressive, possibly violent behavior

  • Involuntary eye movements

  • Lack of pain sensation

  • Increase in blood pressure and heart rate

  • Problems with thinking and memory

  • Problems speaking

  • Impaired judgment

  • Intolerance to loud noise

  • Sometimes seizures or coma



Signs and symptoms of inhalant use vary, depending on the substance. Some commonly inhaled substances include glue, paint thinners, correction fluid, felt tip marker fluid, gasoline, cleaning fluids and household aerosol products. Due to the toxic nature of these substances, users may develop brain damage.

Signs and symptoms of use can include:

  • Possessing an inhalant substance without a reasonable explanation

  • Brief euphoria or intoxication

  • Decreased inhibition

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Involuntary eye movements

  • Appearing intoxicated with slurred speech, slow movements and poor coordination

  • Irregular heartbeats

  • Tremors

  • Lingering odor of inhalant material

  • Rash around the nose and mouth

Narcotic painkillers


Opioids are narcotic, painkilling drugs produced from opium or made synthetically. This class of drugs includes, among others, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone and oxycodone. Some people who've been using opioids over a long period of time may need physician-prescribed temporary or long-term drug substitution during treatment. For signs of opiate overdose and how to respond, click here

Signs and symptoms of narcotic use and dependence can include:

  • Euphoria or feeling "high"

  • Reduced sense of pain

  • Drowsiness or sedation

  • Slurred speech

  • Problems with attention and memory

  • Constricted pupils

  • Lack of awareness or inattention to surrounding people and things

  • Problems with coordination

  • Depression

  • Confusion

  • Sweaty, clammy skin

  • Constipation

  • Runny nose or nose sores (if snorting drugs)

  • Needle marks (if injecting drugs)

When to see a doctor


If your drug use is out of control or causing problems, get help. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances for a long-term recovery. Talk with your primary doctor or see a mental health provider, such as a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. To find alcohol and/or drug rehab treatment, click here.

Make an appointment to see a doctor if:

  • You can't stop using a drug

  • Your drug use has led to unsafe behavior, such as sharing needles or unprotected sex

  • You think you may be having withdrawal symptoms after stopping drug use


If you're not ready to approach a doctor, help lines or hotlines may be a good place to learn about treatment. You can find these lines listed in the phone book or on the Internet.

Seek emergency help if you or someone you know has taken a drug and:

  • May have overdosed

  • Shows changes in consciousness

  • Has trouble breathing

  • Has seizures or convulsions

  • Has signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure

  • Has any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug

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