Are you worried about a friend or family member you suspect may be addicted to drugs? Addiction is a disease that affects a person's brain and behavior, leading to an inability to control their use of a legal or illegal drug, or medication, including alcohol. Once a brain becomes "dependent" on a substance, it will prioritize substance use over things previously considered important. Drug addiction can lead to health and relationship issues, including problems at work, school, and home.
Learn common signs of drug addiction
You may notice a loved one is neglecting responsibilities, taking unusual risks, or running into legal problems while under the influence of drugs. Your next step will be to learn the physical and behavioral warning signs of drug addiction.
Physical warning signs
- Bloodshot eyes or pupils larger or smaller than usual
- Changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or physical appearance
- Offensive odor on breath, body, or clothing
- Frequent bloody nose
- Impaired coordination
- A shaky or sick feeling when trying to quit dependence on a substance
- An increased amount of substance to get the same effect
Behavioral warning signs
- Displaying secretive or suspicious behaviors
- Changing friends and social scenes
- No longer participating in hobbies, sports, and other activities
- Borrowing money, stealing drugs or other items, or selling belongings to buy drugs
- Spending a lot of time thinking about the drug: how to get more, the desired reactions when taking the drug, or unwanted feelings when needing a "fix"
- Going to multiple doctors to get prescriptions for the same drug
- Continuing to take a prescription after it's no longer needed for a medical problem
- Unexplained changes in personality or attitude
- Sudden mood swings, irritability, lack of focus, or angry outbursts
Address drug addiction symptoms
Let a loved one know you've noticed warning signs of drug addiction in their physical appearance or behavior, and that you want to support them in their recovery process. Compile and share a list of treatment resources and encourage them in a non-threatening way to seek professional help.
Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at University of Utah Health provides addiction recovery services, including inpatient and outpatient programs. "Many people we see in our services are self-medicating for severe anxiety or have had past trauma," says Rebecca Hyde, MA, manager of Recovery Services at HMHI. She advises friends or relatives "to find a quiet, safe space to talk to a loved one" about suspected drug addiction. "Ask open-ended questions about how they feel and listen to responses to be able to meet people where they are," Hyde says. "You will probably need to have more than one conversation. Remember that while you can't 'fix' someone, you can find healthy ways to support them."
You can refer your loved one to additional recovery programs at U of U Health or the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Support the recovery process
When someone you care about seeks treatment, support their recovery in the following ways:
- Education: Learn about drug addiction and the treatment process.
- Support: Ask questions about treatment, therapy sessions, and medications.
- Optimism: Remind them the recovery process is a journey that takes time.
- Celebration: Acknowledge large and small achievements to boost confidence.
- Self-care practice: Take some quality time to recharge your batteries.
Recognize recovery is a lifelong process
Recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction doesn't end with a prescribed treatment program. It's a lifelong process. Many people join a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Cocaine Anonymous, that can help them stay clean.
After initiating a dialogue with a loved one about drug or alcohol addiction, you'll need to provide continuous encouragement. Your positive feedback will help a person battling an addiction stay motivated to choose a drug-free life.
If your loved one relapses, help them recognize the setback as soon as possible. Encourage them to get professional help so they don't undo the hard work they put into their initial recovery.