Key takeaways:

  • Continuing to use a substance after it has caused problems and consequences in one or more important areas of life is the hallmark warning sign for an addiction
  • A person struggling with an addiction will often display changes in their mood and behavior
  • If you are concerned about a loved one who is showing signs of addiction, express your concern to them and encourage them to get a formal evaluation by a doctor or mental health professional

Developing an addiction to a substance or behavior involves a combination of physical and psychological factors. Not everyone with an addiction displays the same signs and symptoms, but there are certain warning signs that can be used to detect addiction.

Signs of addiction

The signs of a substance addiction vary depending on the person, what substance they are abusing and what their particular patterns of use are. For example, not all people who struggle with an addiction abuse drugs or alcohol daily, and not all are physically dependent to the substance they abuse. This means there are no set 'common signs' of addiction as everyone will display different symptoms.

Problematic use

Some people may engage in periodic drug use or binge drinking and may still experience the same negative effects as a daily user. Continuing to use a substance after it has caused problems and consequences in one or more important areas of life is the hallmark warning sign for an addiction. Some of the areas of life where a person may experience consequences include: [1]

  • Physical health (i.e. interrupted sleep, sudden weight loss, lack of personal hygiene, or excessive drug use that impacts a person’s liver, heart, or brain)
  • Mental health (i.e. increased irritability, mood swings, impaired judgment, or feeling more anxious, depressed, or insecure)
  • Social relationships (i.e. more conflicts because of substance use, less social interaction, more isolation, etc.)
  • Vocational (i.e. skipping class, missing work, being late on projects or assignments, unable to focus or concentrate on a task, etc.)
  • Recreational (i.e. giving up hobbies or enjoyable social and leisure activities in order to use drugs or alcohol more)
  • Daily functioning (i.e. oversleeping, skipping hygiene routine, not taking care of basic responsibilities and tasks)
  • Financial (i.e. not being able to pay bills, maintain stable housing, or take care of expenses because of high cost of drug or alcohol habits)

These signs may be harder to spot in teens or young people. Read our guide for warning signs of substance abuse in teens.

Changes in mood & behavior

A person struggling with an addiction will often display changes in their mood and behavior. People closest to them may notice some of the following signs of addiction:

  • Drug paraphernalia (including pipes, rolled up notes, scales, etc.)
  • Collections of drugs hidden away, known as ‘stashes’, often in plastic bags and wraps of paper or tin foil
  • Secretive about parts of personal life
  • Withdrawal or social isolation
  • Increased irritability or moodiness
  • Trouble upholding commitments or responsibilities
  • Issues at home, work or in education
  • Absences without explanation
  • New social groups
  • Unstable finances or frequent requests to borrow money 
  • Staying up later than usual or sleeping in longer
  • Lapses in concentration or memory
  • Lack of motivation
  • Weight loss or changes in physical appearance
Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

Diagnosing addiction

The criteria or symptoms of addiction are what doctors and medical professionals use to diagnose a person as having an addiction, dependence, or substance use disorder. 

Unlike warning signs, these criteria are the direct negative impacts that occur in a person's life through a substance or behavior abuse and can be quantified to gauge the level of the problem. However, a person who is experiencing any of these symptoms will often display some of the warning signs of addiction as a byproduct of their addiction. The 11 criteria for addiction, as outlined in the DSM-5, are as follows: [3]

  • Hazardous use that places the person or others at risk of injury or harm
  • Social or interpersonal problems and conflicts related to substance use
  • Neglected major responsibilities to abuse substances
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use
  • Developing a tolerance (needing more to get the desired effects)
  • Using larger amounts or for longer periods of time than intended
  • Repeated attempts to quit or control use and failing
  • Excessive time spent using, obtaining, or recovering from effects of use
  • Physical or psychological problems related to abuse
  • Activities replaced by substance abuse (i.e. leisure, social activities given up)
  • Cravings or strong urges to use

These criteria are measured on a spectrum of mild, moderate, and severe. Meeting 1-2 criteria is defined as mild, 3-5 moderate, and 6+ severe. Identifying the warning signs of addiction is possible, but a formal diagnosis can only be given by a licensed health or mental health professional during a clinical assessment.

Treating addiction

While it can be difficult for a person who has developed an addiction to stop using, there are many effective treatments that can help. People who engage in long-term treatment are more likely to achieve lasting sobriety, and less likely to relapse. Still, not all people who struggle with addiction are willing to get help. 

If you are concerned about a loved one who is showing signs of addiction, express your concern to them and encourage them to get a formal evaluation by a doctor or mental health professional. During this evaluation, they will receive a diagnosis and will also be provided with different treatment options that best meet their needs. In some instances, this will include inpatient care and medical detox while in others, treatment can be provided in an outpatient setting.

Final thoughts

While the warning signs for addiction are not the same for everyone, most people with an addiction to drugs or alcohol will display some changes in mood, behavior, or experience consequences as a result of their substance use. Knowing the signs and symptoms of addiction are important for early detection of an addictive disorder, but only a licensed professional can formally diagnose a substance use disorder. It’s important to schedule a formal assessment if you suspect you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.