How to Tell if Someone is Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol 

Addiction is a chronic brain illness that affects everyone afflicted with it in different ways. What starts as the voluntary use of drugs or alcohol becomes a compulsion when someone becomes physically dependent on substances and chronic abuse alters the reward and motivation circuits of the brain. 

While diagnoses should be made by medical professionals, there are a few different signs to watch out for if you suspect you or a loved one has developed a problem with alcohol or drugs. 

This page will go over some of the classic signs of substance use disorder and briefly discuss how rehabilitation works to treat addiction. 

Signs of Substance Use Disorder 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5) outlines several criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder. The signs are broken down into 4 categories: 

Impaired control. This includes: 

  • Using larger amounts of a substance or using it more frequently than intended. 
  • Trying and failing to quit or taper their use of substances. 
  • Spending an excessive amount of time seeking drugs or alcohol. 

Social impairment. This includes: 

  • Ignoring responsibilities and recreations to seek and abuse substances. 
  • Continued use of a substance despite it causing problems problems with friends, family, and relationships. 
  • Continuing drug or alcohol abuse even after it causes someone to neglect their responsibilities at work or in academic pursuits. 

Risky use. This includes: 

  • Continued use of the substance despite medical problems that are caused by or worsened by its use. 
  • Using the substance in dangerous settings (e.g. impaired driving). 

Physical dependence. This includes: 

  • Tolerance to a substance. In other words, needing more of the substance to get its desired effect. 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from the substance or reducing the amount taken. 

The severity of the disorder correlates with the number of signs exhibited by the patient—if someone exhibits:  

  • 2 or 3 of the 11 criteria listed above, they’re diagnosed with a mild substance use disorder. 
  • 4 or 5 criteria and they are said to have a moderate substance use disorder. 
  • 6 or more criteria and they have a severe problem with drugs or alcohol. 

Addiction Treatment 

While some people may be able to quit drugs or alcohol by themselves, formal treatment is necessary for others. Withdrawing without medical assistance can be dangerous depending on the types of substances abused, the length of time they’ve been using, the amount abused, and other factors. 

Medical detox is usually the first step in addiction treatment. Detox ensures that a patient withdraws safely from drugs or alcohol. Once the toxins have been expelled, the patient is ready to move on to rehabilitation.  

In this next phase of treatment, the patient undergoes therapy and group counseling to re-wire thought patterns and avoid and overcome the triggers that lead them to abuse drugs or alcohol. There are a variety of evidence-based approaches as well as alternative therapy methods employed by effective treatment facilities. Medication-assisted treatment may also be needed in some cases. 

It is vital that a patient undergoing drug or alcohol rehab is simultaneously treated for any co-occurring disorders they may have. Approximately half of people afflicted with substance use disorder also suffer from another mental illness and vice versa. Research shows that the most effective approach to treatment involves a comprehensive approach, treating all psychological problems simultaneously. 

If you believe you or a loved one has a substance use disorder, consider reaching out to an American Addiction Centers’ (AAC) admissions navigator at . They can answer questions about AAC facilities and help you explore your options.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

The Best Place to Recover in Orange County
We are here to help you get sober and learn how to stay that way. Laguna Treatment Hospital is located in Orange County within easy reach of the entire Los Angeles metro. We are the premier chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC. We offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs.