As the Holidays Approach, Learning the Signs of Addiction Could Save a Life

The holidays present unique moments to confront family members about substance abuse. But before that intervention can occur, concerned loved ones must know what signs and symptoms to look for.

Man is thinking about holidays

The holiday season brings families together, creating moments for people to see their loved ones in person for the first time in months. Face-to-face interactions such as these present the best opportunities for learning about how life is going for people we deeply care for but don’t see often. And with that in mind, it’s also a good time to intervene if it becomes apparent a loved one is using drugs and alcohol.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse and Addiction

When someone is addicted, family members around them will often suspect one of their loved ones is addicted to drugs and alcohol, but they may not know for sure. Those addicted to mind-altering substances are rarely forthright about it. However, knowing for certain that a loved one is addicted to drugs and alcohol is the first step towards getting them help.

With that in mind, the key to helping a loved one who may be abusing drugs and alcohol is to learn the signs and symptoms of substance abuse.

The following sections break down the physical signs of addiction, the behavioral and emotional changes that substance abuse causes, and the difference between misuse and addiction. Empowered with this knowledge, family members can make informed observations of their loved ones, spot addiction if it is present, and then have honest conversations with them about it.

Physical Signs of Addiction

Addiction can happen to anyone, and the road to addiction is an individual one. With that in mind, addiction will not look the same for everyone affected. However, some signs can act as indicators or clues to drug use or alcohol misuse. These include:

  • Burns on the lips from smoking hot glass, aluminum, or metal

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Headaches or body aches

  • Weight fluctuations or drastic changes in eating patterns

  • Changes in sleeping patterns and fluctuations in energy levels

  • Sweating, shaking, flu-like symptoms

  • Needle marks on the skin or scabs from uncontrollable skin picking

  • A smell of alcohol on the person’s clothes or breath

  • Hand or finger tremors or other hard-to-control movements

Another common physical sign of addiction is a change in the person’s overall appearance. People often neglect themselves when they become addicted to drugs and alcohol. They may abandon hygiene and grooming, and they may have an overall look of decreased health and vitality. A change for the worse in the person’s overall appearance can be a sign of addiction.

Behavioral Indicators of Addiction

Mood swing at family holiday gathering

Different mind-altering substances will produce profoundly different effects on people who use them. However, there are some common signs of substance abuse that virtually all addicts display. Behavioral changes to be on the lookout for include:

  • The person is lying about areas of their life they don’t want to discuss.

  • The individual may be exhibiting stark and unexplained mood changes.

  • The individual may be experiencing financial trouble or legal challenges.

  • The family member or loved one may be changing their social groups often.

  • Changes in personality patterns and exhibiting unusual behavior are also signs.

  • Worsening anxiety, nervousness, panic attacks, and emotional outbursts can also occur.

  • People who are experimenting with drugs and alcohol may also have difficulty concentrating.

  • Addicts prioritize substance abuse, so they may have difficulty fulfilling obligations at work or school.

  • Someone who is hoarding prescription medications or seeking help from multiple doctors may be addicted.

The above is by no means a complete list, but it does provide insight into what to look for in terms of behavioral changes. As a general rule, when a loved one experiences a stark behavioral change that seems suspicious, or if something they’re doing or a way they’re acting seems off and they bristle when asked about it, this may be an indicator of substance abuse or addiction.

Misuse Versus Addiction

It is possible to misuse substances and not meet the criteria for addiction. Particularly with alcohol and cannabis (substances where usage spikes during the holidays), people can experiment with these substances and get drunk or high without meeting the criteria for addiction.

However, misuse almost always precedes addiction. One instance of misuse may be a teachable moment for an individual, and it may serve to remind them why they don’t like to experiment with mind-altering substances. And it may even be enough to cause them to stop using the substance. However, someone who misuses mind-altering substances regularly is on a path to dependence and addiction.

Misuse is a behavior that, when caught soon enough, can be corrected by an individual’s volition. Addiction, on the other hand, happens when someone misuses mind-altering substances frequently and to the point where they lose control over their usage patterns, where they use substances long after it has become clear that those substances have negative effects on them.

What About Alcohol?

Man in santa's hat stands with a bottle of alcohol

Some degree of increased alcohol consumption is common during the holidays, and while it’s widely considered socially acceptable to drink, alcohol is still a drug. It has mind-altering effects, and it is addictive. Millions of Americans struggle with alcohol abuse and have serious addiction problems that are just as bad as narcotic drug addictions.

The difference between alcohol consumption as a social activity and alcohol addiction is that alcohol addiction is compulsive, uncontrolled, and harmful. It is a behavior that the person will continue to engage in despite negative consequences. If a person is exhibiting any of the above physical or behavioral indicators and they try to defend it by saying, “I’m just drinking alcohol, I’m not using drugs,” their alcohol consumption should still be recognized as harmful. Such a person should be encouraged to enter alcohol addiction treatment.

Make the Holidays Rewarding, Meaningful, and Safe

If you reconnect with a family member or loved one over the holidays and you notice they exhibit signs and indicators of drug addiction or alcohol abuse, please talk to them about getting help. Addiction is becoming increasingly lethal, with regular reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that drugs and alcohol are fast becoming some of the leading causes of preventable, injury-related death in the United States.1

This holiday season, talk to your loved ones about drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. Don’t let the next family gathering be a funeral.


  1. CDC. “Drug Overdose Deaths.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎