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Narcotics Addiction Signs, Symptoms and Side Effects

Written by Thomas Christiansen

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Proulx, MD

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Last Updated - 07/17/2023

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Updated 07/17/2023

Narcotics abuse is a widespread challenge in the United States. Learn what the signs and symptoms of narcotics abuse are to recognize addiction in yourself or a loved one.

Addiction to narcotics, despite the wide variety of people affected, tends to show remarkably uniform signs, symptoms and side effects. The ability to recognize these manifestations of addiction may help people identify narcotics abuse and addiction in themselves and others.

Narcotics Abuse and Addiction

Narcotics addiction and abuse are widespread issues in the United States and in most countries in the world. This growing problem is causing an unprecedented death rate from overdose deaths. Even in people who do not overdose, the social, health, financial and vocational problems that accompany addiction are challenging to live with.

What is Narcotics Addiction?

Narcotics addiction is also known as opioid use disorder (OUD). It is characterized by the five C’s of addiction:

  • Chronic, ongoing use with changes in brain function and behavior
  • Compulsive use
  • Impaired Control
  • Craving the substance
  • Continued use despite negative consequences

Narcotics addiction is characterized by drug tolerance developing and withdrawal symptoms occurring when drug use stops.

Effects of Narcotics Abuse and Addiction

Narcotics addiction affects people differently. The effects of addiction go beyond physical dependence. As drug use draws people deeper into their addiction, they lose their ability to function normally. The effects are often observed on social, physical, biological, psychological, financial, spiritual and vocational levels.

Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease, and narcotics addiction side effects nearly always magnify as drug use continues. While individual side effects vary, there are some common short-term and long-term side effects that people struggling with addiction experience.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of narcotic abuse are magnified when people take high doses. These effects can include:

  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Slowed thinking and reflexes
  • Impaired judgment or high-risk behaviors
  • Development of addiction
  • Respiratory suppression
  • Lowered consciousness
  • Coma
  • Overdose

Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of addiction are a result of the progressive detachment from normal life functions as the drug use escalates and the means to financially support drug use declines:

  • Additional substance use
  • The development or worsening of a mental health disorder
  • Job loss
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Loss of custody of children (if Child Welfare services become aware of the drug use)
  • Legal problems
  • Deterioration of physical and mental health

Signs and Symptoms of Narcotics Addiction

Narcotics are psychoactive drugs, which means that they change brain chemistry and have powerful effects on the brain’s functions. Narcotics have potent effects on the psychology and behavior of people who use them, especially among those who take narcotics frequently or at high doses.

Psychological Symptoms

The psychological symptoms of narcotics addiction progressively dominate normal thought processes and control behavior. Typical psychological symptoms include:

  • Obsessive thoughts about drug use
  • Drug cravings
  • Worsened mental health disorder symptoms, especially depression and anxiety
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Negative feelings: guilt, anger, resentment, self-pity, low self-esteem, regret, self-loathing and remorse
  • Irrational beliefs in order to support and rationalize the drug use

Behavioral Symptoms

The behavioral symptoms related to addiction are mostly centered around the obsession with the drug and the need to obtain the next dose, as well as the need to avoid scrutiny and criticism from other people. The drug use can become so dominant in individuals’ lives that they lose interest or the ability to partake in normal activities. Their primary focus is on drug use. Typical, addiction-related behavioral symptoms include:

  • Drug-seeking behavior that may include criminal activity
  • Social isolation
  • Avoidance and loss of interest in daily activities and responsibilities
  • Lying and other deceitful behaviors to cover up the drug use
  • High-risk behaviors: impaired driving, risky sexual behaviors, crime, etc.

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of narcotic abuse can depend on how long individuals have been using the drug and how much their addiction has removed them from normal day-to-day functions. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Injection track marks around the body (not just the arms) for injection users
  • Poor dental health
  • Poor hygiene
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Confusion, euphoria, detachment from reality
  • Small pupils

Mixing Narcotics and Other Substances

Polysubstance use is a typical element of drug use that accompanies addiction. When more than one substance is involved, the risks of the drug’s use increase and the addiction becomes more complicated to treat.

In many cases, polysubstance abuse occurs in an effort to offset the effects of one drug with another. For example, people who abuse narcotics may use stimulants to counter the sedating effects of the narcotics. People who use stimulants (such as cocaine or methamphetamine) may use sedatives to help bring them down from their high.

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Potential Co-Occurring Disorders

Most people with OUD have a co-occurring mental health disorder. Many of these people are not even aware of having a treatable mental health disorder. They have had the symptoms for so long that they normalized them. They find that the high they get from narcotics temporarily numbs the symptoms.

Mental health disorders and addiction are closely associated. They both share similar genetic causes, risk factors and symptoms. They can cause each other and they worsen each other when they occur together.

It is important that co-occurring mental health disorders be identified and treated when people are seeking treatment for OUD. Treating both at the same time is crucial to the success of recovery and is important for a return to good health and function.

Narcotics Addiction Statistics

According to data published by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2017:

  • 4.2% of the United States population abused narcotics (approximately 11.4 million Americans)
  • 97.2% of narcotics abusers used prescription opioids (approximately 11.1 million Americans)
  • 7.8% of narcotics abusers used heroin (approximately 886,000 Americans)
  • 4.9% of narcotics abusers used both prescription opioids and heroin (approximately 562,000 Americans)
  • 5.7% of abused prescription narcotics were obtained from drug dealers. The rest came from the health care system.

The top three most commonly prescribed narcotics in the United States are:

  1. Hydrocodone (6.3 million prescriptions in 2017)
  2. Oxycodone (3.7 million prescriptions)
  3. Fentanyl (245,000 prescriptions)

The top three most abused narcotics in the United States are:

  1. Buprenorphine
  2. Methadone
  3. Oxycodone

Getting Help For Addiction

People with addiction may be struggling with the fear of withdrawal symptoms, the fear of living without their drug and the fear of the unknown. To accept help, individuals must be ready to let go of their need for control and face the challenge of achieving sobriety. Luckily people don’t have to face that challenge alone.

View Sources

Ferrante, Michael. “Opioid pharmacology.” UCLA School of Medicine. Accessed July 24, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. “National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2017.” September 2018. Accessed July 24, 2019.