Where Science Meets the Steps

The new science of addiction

5 Patterns of Drug Use That Indicate a Problem

How to tell if a loved one has a drug or alcohol problem

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How can you tell if you or a loved one has a drug or alcohol problem? Short of consulting a health care provider or drug rehab center, there are lists of warning signs and quizzes you can take online, but there are also broader patterns to watch out for:

#1 ‘Hard’ Drug Use

“Hard” drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, tend to be the most dangerous, both in terms of their effects on health and behavior as well as the risk of addiction. While some individuals use these drugs recreationally, addiction can set in after just one use, setting into motion a rapid downward spiral. Once a person has escalated to the use of hard drugs, they often engage in high-risk behavior, isolate themselves from friends and family, and live “outside” society.

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#2 Frequent Drug Use

By itself, frequency of drug use is not the most accurate way to determine whether someone is addicted. People who binge drink on weekends, for example, may have a serious problem even though they don’t drink every day. However, frequent drug use can be an indicator of tolerance (needing more of a drug to get the same high) and dependence. There is also a good chance that someone who uses drugs or alcohol regularly will continue using and have difficulty quitting.

#3 Early Drug Use

People who begin using drugs in early adolescence are highly vulnerable to drug problems in adulthood. One study found that people who started drinking before age 15 were more likely to become addicted to alcohol as adults than people who refrained from drinking until they were 18 or older. The earlier a child uses drugs, the earlier they become addicted. Since their brains and bodies are still developing during that time, the short- and long-term consequences may be particularly severe.

Unfortunately, drug use at an early age isn’t uncommon. In a survey of 10,000 teens, researchers found that the median age for drug use is 14. Other studies have also linked teen substance abuse to stealing, risky sexual behaviors, academic underachievement and other problems 

#4 Solitary Drug Use 

Using alcohol or other drugs alone has been linked to addiction and other problems later in life. A 2006 RAND study found that teens who use alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes while alone are more likely to have drug problems as young adults, are less likely to graduate from college and are more likely to report poor physical health by age 23 than social drug users. Solitary users also earned lower grades and engaged in violent or delinquent behavior more often. Solitary drug use among 8th graders in the study was relatively common, with 16 percent smoking cigarettes, 17 percent drinking alcohol and 4 percent using marijuana while alone.

#5 Escapist Drug Use

The reasons why someone uses drugs or alcohol can be as problematic as where, when or how. If a person uses drugs to cope with stress, build self-esteem or medicate an underlying mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, they are at higher risk of eventually becoming addicted. Research has also shown that the risk of drug use increases significantly when teens use substances to deal with stress or boredom. In a CASA survey, high-stress teens were twice as likely to use drugs as low-stress teens, and often-bored teens were 50 percent likelier to use drugs than other kids.

Many people drink a little too much on occasion or experiment with a substance once or twice. But when these instances start to negatively impact your relationships, finances, career or home life, a pattern of problematic drug use emerges. Whether it has been going on for a few weeks or a few years, these patterns increase the risk of addiction and should not be ignored.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees a number of addiction treatment centers. He served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms,and neuroendocrinology. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter

David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine and serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and Promises Treatment Centers.

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