Identifying a Loved One’s Drug Use May be Trickier than You Think

A woman is suspicious that her husband is using drugs.

There’s all kinds of articles available on the internet about the signs and symptoms of drug use. I’ve written some of them myself. But if a parent, spouse or other family tries to use these articles to tell if a loved one has been using drugs, there’s a couple of important reasons that attempt may fall short. But fear not, there are other ways to detect drug use that don’t require you to become a drug identification specialist.

Reason #1: When your teen, adult child, spouse or other loved one becomes a chronic drug user, he (or she) is going to try to keep this habit a secret. For that reason, most people will try to avoid being around their loved ones when they are really high or stoned. They may not be able to conceal all their symptoms of drug use—I’ve heard plenty of stories of people going home for the holidays and nodding off during Christmas dinner or running to the bathroom to re-dose cocaine or marijuana. But they are more likely to show up when the most intense symptoms of drug use are not so noticeable.

Reason #2: Also realize that many people who are addicted may not be high every hour of every day. Your loved one may feel compelled to reach for a drug every time they are disturbed or agitated or every time life gets a little challenging. You may look in vain for symptoms of drug use today but tomorrow after an upsetting conversation, they are out looking for their drug dealer.

To determine if your loved one is using drugs, you may have to step back and look at the person’s whole life. Work out the answers to the following questions and you will have a better idea about what’s going on. (Of course, these questions apply to either gender.)


A sad teen with his head in his hands.
  • Have your loved one’s moods and attitudes changed significantly?
  • Do his moods fluctuate from day to day?
  • Does he seem less emotionally and mentally stable than in the past?
  • Does his outlook seem darker and less positive than before?
  • Is he less optimistic about his future?
  • Is his behavior more erratic and difficult to understand?


  • Have his habits and patterns of activity changed dramatically?
  • Is he unable or less able to hold a job?
  • Has he changed the friends he associates with?
  • Do his current friends seem less successful and happy in life than his earlier friends?
  • Has he quit activities he used to enjoy, such as sports, music, art?
  • Has he abandoned career or educational goals?
  • Is he secretive?
  • Are there many unexplained absences?
  • Does he always have an excuse for problems he creates or items he loses or breaks?
  • Has he had accidents with a vehicle, especially multiple times?
  • Has he lost a spouse or fiancée?
  • Have his grooming and personal cleanliness changed for the worse?


  • Does he seem to be missing money or possessions?
  • Do the possessions of others around him go missing?
  • Are the possessions he still has in poor repair or dirty?
  • Is his car cluttered and dirty?
  • Is his room a mess and does he refuse to clean it up or let anyone else clean it up?
  • Does he not want you to see his apartment or home?
  • Has he lost his apartment or home?
  • Is he repeatedly short of money for basics like rent, food or utilities?
  • Does he claim to need money to pay debts to others?
  • Does he ask for loans or want to use your credit or gas cards?


  • Has he gradually developed chronic health problems?
  • Although he was usually healthy in the past, has he recently been hospitalized or needed urgent medical care once or more than once?
  • Does he look and seem to be in poorer health than before?
  • Has he complained repeatedly of problems like poor sleep, constipation, diarrhea, coughs, headaches or similar ailments?
  • Does he always wear long sleeves and long pants, even in warm weather? (These can cover marks, scars or infections resulting from injecting drugs or even bruises from abuse.)
  • Do the people he associates with seem in good or poor health?
  • Do his children and his spouse seem to be thriving or not?
Lonely man sits on stairs

Once you have honestly assessed the answers to these questions, you should have a better idea of the situation. In today’s environment with drugs on nearly every corner, these are very often signs that a person is using drugs. Yes, there is the possibility that some other severe life setback has damaged this person’s equilibrium and thrown him into a tailspin. But if you are seeing many of these signs, you may need to take immediate action to save your loved one’s life.

What kind of action should you take? Check the articles below to learn some of your choices. The worst thing you can do right now is to accept the excuses and assurances that all is well and leave the person alone. There is too great a chance that your loved one may lose everything to an overdose or a drug-related illness or accident.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.