8 Signs You Might be Physically Addicted to a Substance

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As important as it is to seek treatment for addiction, you might not even realize that you’ve developed one. An unrecognized addiction is impossible to treat and will only get worse over time. This is why it’s so necessary to recognize when you’ve developed a problem.

What Is Addiction?

First of all, let’s talk about the difference between abuse and addiction. “Abuse” is a term that describes the inappropriate or dangerous use of a substance. For example:

  • Taking prescription medication at a higher dose or frequency than advised by a doctor, or without a prescription at all
  • Using illegal substances to self-medicate
  • Becoming intoxicated in inappropriate situations, such as being drunk at work

Addiction, on the other hand, is when you develop a dependence on something that causes you to want to engage with it on a regular and recurring basis, even against your better judgment. Abuse often leads to addiction, and it can happen to anyone. For example, many Americans admit to being addicted to social media. Unlike certain drug addictions, this kind of dependency is psychological rather than physical. So what’s the difference between physical and psychological addiction? To put it simply, withdrawal from this kind of addiction has physical side effects. This is because substances with the potential to form physical dependency interact with the brain in a way that can cause substantial biological changes. Some examples of physically addictive substances are:

As you can see, not every addictive substance is illegal. You’ve probably heard people joke about being addicted to coffee or chocolate, but being dependent on certain substances can be life threatening. Unfortunately, many of these addictive and dangerous substances — such as alcohol and benzodiazepines — are widely used by many Americans.

The Signs Of Physical Addiction

You don’t have to witness someone abusing drugs to know they have a problem. There are many markers of physical addiction, and they can be hard to hide. Are you worried that you might be physically addicted to a substance? Are you concerned that a loved one is developing a dependency? Take a look at some of the most common signs and see if they sound familiar:

1. Cravings

Cravings are the most obvious and unmistakable sign of physical addiction. Unlike some physical symptoms, particularly strong cravings are hard to ignore, and could very well be the thing that makes you take notice of your addiction for the first time. While it may be easy to dismiss a stuffy nose and sensitive eyes as a common flu, feeling an overwhelming urge to consume a substance can only come from dependency. What do drug cravings actually feel like? Every substance is different, but the best way to understand them is to think of a time when you had a really strong urge to eat something unhealthy, such as fried food. You may notice that you experience particularly bad cravings when you’re stressed out, even if it’s been a long time since you last consumed that substance. This can be confusing and even frustrating, especially if you’ve been sober for a while. It’s important to remember that these late-stage cravings are completely normal. What’s happening is the body is releasing stored addictive chemicals from when you were using that substance.

2. Increased Tolerance

Addictions are expensive, and not just because they involve regular consumption. The human body is great at adapting to changes, but this doesn’t work out so well when it comes to drug abuse. The more you consume a drug, the more you need to take to get the same effects— which means you have to buy more and more over time. This is especially true for the following substances:

  • Alcohol
  • Opiates
  • Benzodiazepines

If you find that you need to consume larger doses of a substance each time, then you may have formed a physical dependency. Similarly, you might find that you’re able to function relatively “normally” when under the influence. For example, developing the ability to perform your work duties after drinking a large amount of alcohol. This is called “learned tolerance”, and it’s far from positive. It’s actually a result of practicing the same behaviors over and over while under the influence of a substance, rather than being less affected by it. Many people with addictions practice learned tolerance as a way of hiding their problem from others and themselves. It’s important to note that learned tolerance is not a sign of having your addiction under control, but rather a way of hiding it.

3. Flu-Like Symptoms

A runny nose, red eyes and a lingering headache are all common symptoms of a pesky flu. But could they be signs of something far more serious? Regular substance abuse can easily compromise your entire immune system, leaving you more susceptible to common colds. However, drug use itself can also cause the same symptoms. Addiction involves frequent use. Regularly sniffing drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines through the nose can result in a lot of health complications. Your sinuses may become irritated and feel sore and blocked, or runny and itchy. You might even experience nosebleeds. In particularly bad cases, the tissue inside the nose can become permanently damaged to the point of dying off. This can cause lesions, holes and collapses in your septum and cartilage. If this is the case, you might detect a bad smell— or even lose your sense of smell altogether. Snorting any drug is never good for you health. But if you’ve been using intranasal drugs so often that you’ve begun to notice any of these symptoms, then your habit may be developing into an addiction. Of course, flu-like symptoms aren’t just caused by using intranasal drugs. Headaches are a common withdrawal symptom of most physically addictive substances. Your eyes can also become affected by substance abuse. You may become overly sensitive to light, especially if you’re using cocaine or opiates. Many drugs cause red, bloodshot eyes. This is very common among people who smoke marijuana. Marijuana addiction is regarded as psychological, but many people who smoke cannabis mix it with tobacco, which contains highly addictive nicotine. Heavy use, especially when combined with tobacco, can cause a chronic cough.

4. Affected Energy Levels

Addiction is consuming and can greatly hinder your ability to go about your day. One of the hardest symptoms to deal with is affected energy. Sleep disorders are a common side effect of physical addiction, especially when the substance being abused is a stimulant. You might be using so often that you feel almost constantly energized, making sleep impossible. Of course, lack of sleep will only make you feel more tired in the long run. People who are sleep deprived often end up taking even more stimulants to compensate for their low energy. Other drugs can make you feel drained and lethargic, even when well rested. People who frequently use heroin may sleep more than usual, but the quality of that sleep is diminished.

5. Weight Changes

Rapid weight loss is a classic symptom of substance addiction, especially with opiates and amphetamines. These drugs can cause digestive issues, which make it difficult for the user to maintain their weight. These digestive issues can include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach cramps

You don’t have to orally ingest substances to experience stomach problems. In fact, abdominal distress is a common side effect from smoking crack cocaine. Weight loss can also be caused by changes in the brain. When you eat food, your brain “rewards” you by releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine. But when you take addictive drugs, the brain releases massive amounts of dopamine. This trains the brain into thinking that taking those drugs is more important than anything else. This means that your brain is prioritizing drugs over things that are necessary for your survival, such as eating food. Many people with drug addiction become dangerously underweight. Alcohol addiction, on the other hand, can cause significant weight gain. Certain alcoholic beverages, such as beer or even spirits mixed with soda, are very high in calories. Excessive consumption of these over a prolonged period of time will inevitably cause weight gain. But what about low calorie alcohol? Unfortunately, even these can lead to weight gain— and not just because alcohol increases your appetite. Your body is capable of converting a certain amount of calories into energy, and it stores the excess as fat. But when you drink, your body will always break down the alcohol first. This means that you won’t be able to burn the calories from food as effectively as when you’re sober. For people addicted to alcohol, frequent and heavy drinking usually results in obvious weight gain.

6. Memory Loss

It’s no secret that being under the influence of drugs can hinder your ability to think clearly. But did you know that some drugs affect your memory long after you’ve taken them? People who take benzodiazepines for long periods of time also suffer from memory loss. Benzos are a prescription drug and should only be taken for short amounts of time. Unfortunately, they’re also highly addictive. Many people form a dependency on benzos from taking them for too long. Lengthy use of opiates and amphetamines also impacts the part of your brain responsible for forming memories, especially short-term ones. Chronic alcohol consumption can cause Korsakoff’s syndrome, which involves severe memory loss and even confabulation. This is when a person attempts to “fill in the gaps” of misremembered events by unintentionally making up details, which they then believe to be truthful.

7. Mental Health Problems

A change in behavior is sometimes the first sign that a loved one has developed a substance abuse problem. Withdrawals and sleep deprivation can cause people to become irritable and experience aggressive mood swings, making them unpleasant to be around. When you use addictive drugs, your brain releases unnaturally large amounts of dopamine, followed by a comedown of low dopamine levels. But as you develop a physical dependence and use them more frequently, your brain’s ability to keep regenerating the same amount of dopamine is drastically hindered. These low dopamine levels can cause mental health issues such as depression. You might find that you often feel down, anxious or paranoid for no apparent reason, especially when you’re sober. You may even experience panic attacks. Physical addiction to some substances — particularly opiates and amphetamines — can also cause obsessive behaviors, such as:

  • Constant fidgeting (such as foot tapping)
  • Itching
  • Skin picking
  • Obsession with organizing or cleaning your surroundings

8. Letting Yourself Go

Not everyone’s a neat freak or snappy dresser. But if looking after yourself has taken a backseat to your drug use or drinking, then you may have developed a physical dependency. Physically addictive substances rewire the brain to think that drinking water and eating food are less important than using, so it’s hardly surprising that they’d affect other life priorities. People consumed by physical dependence can pay less attention to their personal hygiene over time. They might stop showering, brushing their teeth or wearing clean clothes. It’s a clear sign that they don’t quite have things together like they should. This doesn’t just apply to personal hygiene. Supporting and dealing with a physical addiction can leave little time, energy and money for other important things, such as looking after the home, work performance, and interpersonal relationships. When addictive substances take hold, it’s all too easy to let everything else fall to the wayside.

What To Do If You’re Experiencing These Symptoms

Recognizing the signs of physical addiction can be troubling. After all, it isn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that you or someone you know is dependent on drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, recognizing the problem is the first step to moving past it. And there’s no better time to take control of your life than right now. Recovery is life changing, but it doesn’t have to turn your life upside down. After all, it’s not always practical or even necessary to put your life on hold while you seek treatment for addiction. If you’ve recently become aware of your physical addiction, then you’d likely benefit from a treatment program that works with your schedule. You can still go to work, spend time with family and friends, and do everything you would normally do in your day-to-day life— all while receiving treatment from qualified and helpful professionals. This method can actually teach you to become more resilient against temptation in the “real world”, and ultimately help you to become a stronger, healthier you. What are you waiting for?


National Institute of Drug Abuse National Institutes of Health Osborne Head & Neck Institute Alzheimer’s Association National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism