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The Health Risks of Drug Addiction

Drugs interact with chemicals in the brain and body to make you feel a certain way. While drugs can be helpful in regulating moods, helping you sleep, and managing pain, they can also have serious complications when misused.

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Taking higher-than-recommended doses or taking drugs when you don’t need them for medical purposes can cause mind-altering effects. Not only can they make you high, they can also cause you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t act. They increase the odds that you will get hurt or make bad decisions that can have lasting consequences.

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Drug use can have serious medical complications. Among people under age 50 in the United States, drug overdose is the number one cause of accidental death, the Drug Policy Alliance publishes. Regular and repeated drug use can also damage internal organs, lead to the onset of several serious diseases and complications, cause poor mental health, and increase the odds for addiction.

Drug addiction can significantly and negatively impact every part of your life, creating social and family relationship issues, problems with work production and finances, criminal and legal complications, and a poor medical and mental health state.

Ultimately, drug use can have severe consequences in both the short and long term.

Drugs for Medical Benefit

Drugs can have many medical and mental health benefits when used as directed under medical supervision. If you suffer from a medical or mental health condition, medications are often an important part of your treatment and wellness plan.

The following classes and types of drugs can be medically beneficial:

Opioids

Drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), and fentanyl are all powerful prescription narcotics that are dispensed to treat moderate to severe pain. They are designed for short-term relief.

Benzodiazepines

Sedatives, hypnotics, and tranquilizers are often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders — to help people relax and combat insomnia. Medications like diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan) are commonly prescribed benzos, dispensed for the short-term management of symptoms.

Antidepressants

Mood-stabilizing drugs are helpful to regulate brain chemistry, and there are several different types to choose from. Medications like duloxetine (Cymbalta), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft) are prescribed to decrease depressive symptoms and regulate moods and emotions.

Stimulants

Medications like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall) are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This disorder can make it hard for a person to concentrate, settle down, and focus on tasks. Stimulant medications can help to improve academic and occupational performance and regulate brain chemistry. Stimulants can also be prescribed as diet aids and for narcolepsy.

All of these drugs have the potential for misuse. Any use of one of these medications outside of the parameters of a real and necessary prescription is drug abuse, which can have serious consequences.

When Drug Use Turns Into Abuse or Addiction

More than 6 percent of the American population over the age of 11 misused a prescription drug in 2017, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. The top classes of drugs that are misused include stimulants, opioids, and central nervous system depressant drugs, such as hypnotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers, NIDA further explains.

Any time you take a drug that isn’t prescribed to you or that you don’t need for medical reasons, it is considered misuse.

Drug abuse can take the following forms:
  • Shopping different doctors to get more of a drug
  • Taking a drug after your prescription has run out
  • Making up or exaggerating symptoms to get drugs
  • Taking more of the drug than you are supposed to or taking drugs in between doses
  • Using your medications in a way they are not intended to be taken, such as chewing pills, crushing pills and snorting or smoking the powder, or dissolving and injecting the powder
  • Taking medications to get high or for nonmedical purposes
When you take a drug outside of the bounds of its prescribed purpose and use, it is considered recreational drug use. This can quickly lead to addiction.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) explains that addiction is a chronic disease involving brain chemistry that leads to compulsive drug use that is out of your control. When you keep taking drugs in a way that is not medically necessary, you run the risk of drug addiction.

Short-Term Hazards of Drug Abuse

Psychoactive drugs are mind-altering. They can change the way you think, act, and feel.

Abusing drugs can make you feel invincible, excited, and euphoric. You may behave in a way that is not normal for you, cause you to become hostile, paranoid, or even violent. Psychotic side effects like hallucinations and delusions are also a possibility from drug abuse. These behaviors can be erratic or unpredictable, which could result in getting yourself into a situation that can have real consequences.

People often take illicit drugs to get high, to cause that euphoric release. The high can be hard to manage, however.

While it might make you feel good temporarily, drugs can also lower your inhibitions and make you more likely to take bigger risks that can lead to injuries or possibly even legal or criminal consequences.

Even taking a drug only a few times can have negative consequences. You may engage in unsafe practices by injecting drugs through a shared needle, which can transmit an infectious disease, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. NIDA warns that drug abuse greatly increases the risk for contracting a potentially incurable viral infection that is transmitted through bodily fluids or blood.

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Drug use can also lead to overdose, which can cause coma, brain, damage, and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that close to 70,000 people died from a drug overdose in the United States between November 2017 and November 2018.

An overdose happens when drugs build up in your body and have toxic effects, which can happen in as little as one dose. A drug overdose may not always be fatal. If you seek immediate medical attention, it may be reversible.

Addiction & Long-Term Consequences of Drug Use

When you use drugs over and over again on a regular basis, they can impact your entire bodily system. Drugs interact with the way your brain sends chemical messages throughout the central nervous system, which tells your body how to react. Brain chemistry is disrupted through drug use, and repeated use changes the way your brain works.

When you take a drug repeatedly, your brain will learn to tolerate it. Eventually, it will begin to depend on the drug and will no longer work the same way to balance itself without the drug present. You can then feel flat, numb, and sad when you aren’t taking drugs.

When your brain is physically dependent on a drug after chronic use, you can suffer from significant physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings when the drug wears off. This can lead to compulsive drug use to keep this from happening. Loss of control over drug use is one of the hallmarks of addiction.

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NIDA explains that long-term drug use interferes with normal brain functioning. Some of the impact of drug use on the brain may be reversible, but some of it may not be.

Long-term drug use can also have serious medical and mental health complications.

NIDA warns that chronic drug use can cause these major issues:
  • Cancer
  • Lung disease
  • Heart disease
  • Mental illness
  • Infectious diseases
  • Addiction

Long-term hazards of drug use can also depend on the way you take drugs.

The following are side effects of specific methods of drug use:
  • Ingestion: Swallowing drugs can lead to gastrointestinal problems, including stomach ulcers.
  • Snorting: Inhaling drugs can damage your sinus and nasal passages, which can cause you to lose your sense of smell and suffer from chronic nosebleeds and/or a runny nose.
  • Smoking: When you smoke drugs, you can suffer burns to the hands and face. You may also struggle with respiratory issues, such as chronic cough and possible respiratory illnesses and diseases like pneumonia.
  • Injection or intravenous (IV): Abusing drugs by injection raises the odds for contracting an infectious disease. It also causes complications, such as scarring at the injection site (track marks), collapsed veins, and cardiovascular issues like infections of the lining of the heart.

Specific Drugs & Related Long-Term Complications

Complications of long-term drug use can depend on the type of drug being taken. Long-term dangers of specific drugs are outlined below.

Heroin

Heroin is a fast-acting drug that quickly binds to opioid receptors in the brain, causing a quick burst of euphoria. Heroin is highly addictive with few uses. It can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, including flu-like symptoms, extreme depression, insomnia, and anxiety.

NIDA reports that regular heroin use can actually damage the brain and deteriorate its white matter. It changes brain structure and function, which can then impact mood regulation, sleep functions, the way you respond to stress, your actions and behaviors, and your ability to make decisions.

Heroin use can lead to significant imbalances in the hormonal and neuronal systems that may not be entirely reversible.

Cocaine

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that significantly interacts with brain chemistry, creating a flood of dopamine. This causes a very big high, which can then result in a major crash as it wears off.

Cocaine speeds up the system, which increases the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Not only is cocaine majorly addictive, regular use can cause you to experience psychotic and negative side effects when you take it, such as paranoia, anxiety, panic, irritability, tremors, and hostility.

Cocaine has significant impact on the body and brain.

NIDA publishes the following possible long-term side effects of cocaine use:
  • Intracerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) and bulges in cerebral blood vessel walls
  • Malnourishment and unhealthy weight loss due to lack of appetite
  • Toxic impact on the heart and cardiovascular system, leading to chest pain, increased risk for stroke, aortic ruptures, the heart struggling to contract properly, and inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Ulcerations and tears in the gastrointestinal tract related to reduced blood flow
  • Movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Difficulties with impulse control, memory, decision-making abilities, sustaining attention, and motor skills

Meth

Like cocaine, methamphetamine (meth) is a highly addictive stimulant drug that causes extreme highs and lows. Regular use can cause violent behavior, confusion, insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, and mood disturbances, as well as hallucinations and delusions. Even after stopping meth use, these side effects can persist for a year or more, NIDA reports.

Parts of the brain responsible for verbal learning, emotional regulation, memory, and motor speed are all impacted by repeated and chronic meth use. This can have significant cognitive and psychological impact. The brain can recover some of its function and structure with prolonged abstinence, however.

The Dentistry Journal publishes that “meth mouth,” or the deterioration of the teeth and gums related to meth use is a common issue related to this potent drug. Oral surgery and significant dental work may be needed to try and correct it.

Marijuana

Marijuana has been legalized for medicinal and even recreational use in many states throughout the country, but regular and prolonged use of this drug is not without risk and possible consequences.

The New England Journal of Medicine publishes that a little under 19 percent of people who use it regularly will struggle with addiction. This number goes up drastically if the drug is consumed in adolescence.

Additionally, using marijuana before the brain is fully developed in early adulthood can potentially lead to lower satisfaction and achievements in life, poor academic performance, a lack of motivation, memory and thinking problems, a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, and altered brain development. Marijuana use can also cause schizophrenic symptoms to appear in someone who is predisposed to the condition.

Regular use of marijuana may cause you to experience psychotic side effects and paranoia instead of the mellowing and pleasant high that is normally desired.

Long-term side effects of marijuana can include a possible increased risk for heart attack and testicular cancer as well as cardiopulmonary issues, such as chronic bronchitis, Forbes reports. NIDA publishes that long-term chronic marijuana use can lead to cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, which can cause you to experience cyclic episodes of nausea, vomiting, and dehydration that often require medical care.

Ecstasy

Ecstasy is a synthetic and man-made stimulant and hallucinogenic drug, MDMA (3,4- methylenedioxymethamphetamine). It impacts serotonin levels in the brain to make you feel empathetic, happy, and stimulated.

The drug can be highly unpredictable. Long-term regular use can damage serotonin neurons, brain chemistry, and function in a way that may not be completely reversible, NIDA warns. With long-term use, you may struggle to feel pleasure, regulate emotions, and remember things.

Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most used psychoactive and addictive substances in the world, and most of the time, it is used responsibly. Moderate drinking is typically considered safe, but drinking too much on a regular basis can have many negative consequences, including addiction and serious mental health and medical complications.

The National Health Service (NHS) publishes the following long-term risks of chronic alcohol misuse:
  • Mouth, bowel, breast, liver, head and neck cancers
  • High blood pressure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Breast cancer
  • Depression
  • Infertility
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dementia
  • Stroke
  • Possible life-threatening alcohol withdrawal in the form of DTs (delirium tremens)

Alcohol can significantly damage many internal organs, including the liver, pancreas, brain, heart, and nervous system. The liver, which processes toxins out of the body, can be drastically impacted by chronic alcohol use.

When you drink alcohol, the liver can accumulate fat. Repetitive drinking can lead to progressive liver disease, ranging from steatosis to alcoholic hepatitis to alcohol-related cirrhosis, the American Liver Foundation (ALF) reports.

The first two forms of alcoholic liver disease can be reversed with prolonged sobriety, but cirrhosis causes irreversible scar tissue. Alcohol-related liver disease can have life-threatening complications.

It’s Never Too Late to Get Help for Addiction

Addiction is a treatable disease. The faster you get help, the fewer the lasting consequences. Many of the mental health and medical side effects of drug use can be reversed if you stop using the substances. Even complications that are not able to be entirely overturned can still be managed.

If you are ready to stop using drugs, please first consult a trained professional as going cold turkey off certain drugs can lead to sever withdrawal symptoms.

An addiction treatment program can provide you with tools to minimize relapse and teach you how to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Addiction treatment programs can give your brain and body time to heal and stabilize. You can learn coping mechanisms to deal with triggers, how to deal with stress, and how to manage your emotions through behavioral therapies, counseling, and support groups. An addiction treatment program can literally save your life, offering you the support you need to overcome substance abuse.

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