When you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s hard to see past the short term. Your life begins to revolve around substances. Just getting through the day can become a struggle. The long-term effects of drugs on the body cannot be ignored though. Drug addiction can have severe consequences for your physical and mental health. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please know that recovery is possible. You can prevent further damage to your health and build a fulfilling life that doesn’t include substance abuse.
What Are the Effects of Drugs on the Body?
Drugs interact with chemicals in your brain and body to make you feel a certain way. Illegal drugs typically have no medical benefits and damage your health. Some prescription drugs help regulate moods, sleep, and manage pain, but they can also have serious complications when misused.
Taking higher-than-recommended doses or taking prescription drugs when you don’t need them for medical purposes can cause mind-altering effects. Not only can they make you high, drugs can also cause you to act erratically. Abusing drugs increases your risk for getting hurt or making bad decisions that can have lasting consequences.
Drug addiction can impact every area of your life, leading to:
- Social and relationship issues
- Problems with work productivity and finances
- Criminal and legal complications
- Poor medical and mental health
Addictive Drugs With Medical Purposes
Drugs can have many medical and mental health benefits when used as directed by a doctor. If you suffer from a medical or mental health condition, medications are often an important part of your treatment and wellness plan. However, prescription drugs can have serious medical complications when abused. Between April 2020 and April 2021, 14,000 Americans died from a prescription opioid overdose. Regular and repeated drug abuse can:
- Damage internal organs
- Lead to the onset of several serious diseases and complications
- Cause poor mental health
- Increase the odds for addiction
The following classes and types of drugs can be medically beneficial, but also have a high potential for abuse:
Opioid drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), and fentanyl are all powerful prescription narcotics. They’re used medically to treat moderate to severe pain. Prescription opioids are designed for short-term pain relief or to treat pain in people with diseases like cancer.
Sedatives, hypnotics, and tranquilizers are prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They can help you relax and encourage sleep. Medications like diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan) are commonly prescribed benzos for the short-term management of symptoms.
Medications like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall) are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition can make it hard to concentrate, have a calm body, and focus on tasks. Stimulant medications can help improve academic and occupational performance by regulating brain chemistry. Stimulants are also prescribed for narcolepsy and extreme obesity.
All of these drugs have the potential for misuse. Using them in any way different than what your doctor instructs is drug abuse, which can have serious consequences.
When Does Drug Use Turn Into Addiction?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the classes of drugs that are most misused include stimulants, opioids, and central nervous system depressant drugs such as hypnotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers.
In one year:
- Over 16 million Americans misused a prescription psychotherapeutic drug like Xanax.
- Almost 5 million Americans misused benzodiazepines.
- Over 6 million Americans misused prescription sedatives and tranquilizers.
- Over five million Americans misused prescription stimulants.
- Over 9 million Americans misused prescription painkillers.
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, 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.
- Regularly using recreational drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth, and others.
Medical experts believe that addiction is a chronic disease involving brain chemistry that leads to compulsive, uncontrollable drug use. When you keep taking illegal drugs or prescription drugs in a way that is not medically necessary, you’re at risk of drug addiction.
Self-Assessment: Am I Addicted?
What Are the Health Effects of Drug Abuse?
Psychoactive drugs are mind-altering. They can change the way you think, act, and feel. Abusing drugs may make you feel invincible, excited, and euphoric. You may behave in a way that is out of character for you, like becoming hostile, paranoid, or even violent. Psychotic side effects like hallucinations and delusions are also a possibility when you abuse some drugs. These behaviors can be erratic or unpredictable.
While substance abuse might make you feel good temporarily, drugs can also lower your inhibitions and make you more likely to take risks that can lead to injuries or even legal or criminal consequences. Even taking a drug 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. Drug abuse greatly increases the risk for contracting a potentially incurable viral infection that is transmitted through bodily fluids or blood.
Drug use can also lead to overdose, which can cause coma, brain damage, and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over 100,000 people died from a drug overdose in the United States between April 2020 and April 2021. When drugs build up in your body and have toxic effects, you can overdose, even in as little as one dose. A drug overdose may not always be fatal. If you seek immediate medical attention, it may be reversible.
When you use drugs on a regular basis, they can impact all of your body’s systems. Drugs interact with the way your brain sends chemical messages throughout the central nervous system, which tells your body how to function. Brain chemistry is disrupted through drug use, and repeated use changes the way your brain works.
Long-term drug use can also have serious medical and mental health complications.
Chronic drug use can put you at high risk for:
- Lung disease
- Heart disease
- Mental illness
- Infectious diseases
Negative health effects of drug use on the body can also depend on the way you take drugs. Side effects of specific methods of drug use include:
- 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 develop 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.
Central Nervous System
When you take a drug repeatedly, you develop a tolerance. Your brain begins to depend on the drug and will no longer work the same way to balance itself without the drug. You can then feel flat, numb, and sad and have withdrawal symptoms 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 fend off uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Loss of control over drug use is one of the hallmarks of addiction.
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 is not. Drugs can impact the brain causing:
- Changes in structure and function
- Memory loss
- Movement issues
- Frontal lobe damage
- Depression and anxiety
Depending on the substance, drug abuse can put significant stress on your heart and circulatory system. Stimulants like cocaine can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke while tobacco and alcohol abuse put you at risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular issues. Drugs like meth and opioids can increase your risk of heart infections and blood borne diseases, especially if you’re sharing needles.
Acute respiratory failure is a risk when you use drugs of abuse. This is more common with drugs like benzos, opioids, amphetamines, alcohol, and cocaine. Drugs can suppress respiration and put you at risk for overdose. Smoking substances like tobacco and marijuana increases your risk for lung disease and cancer.
Drug and alcohol abuse can affect your immune system both directly and indirectly. Some types of substances can suppress cells that fight infections and disease. Your lifestyle can also impact your immune system. When you’re addicted, you’re usually not eating nutritious food, exercising, or getting adequate sleep — all practices that keep your immune system in shape to fight off illness.
Many drugs can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal system. Opioid abuse can cause constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting. Alcohol can impact many of the digestive functions such as the stomach lining and intestines. It can also cause ulcers, reflux, and heartburn. Severe substance abuse can leave intestinal holes and long-term digestive issues.
Drugs and alcohol abuse can even impact hormonal functions. Certain drugs can affect the signals and binding ability of hormones. Drug abuse can contribute to infertility and impotence. It can also lead to low libido, irregular menstrual cycles, and pancreatitis.
Health Risks of Specific Drugs
Complications of long-term drug use can depend on the type of drug. Long-term dangers of specific drugs include:
Heroin is a fast-acting drug that quickly binds to your brain’s opioid receptors causing a quick burst of euphoria. Heroin is highly addictive with only a few uses. It can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, including flu-like symptoms, extreme depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
Regular heroin use can damage the brain and deteriorate its white matter. It changes brain structure and function, which can impact mood regulation, sleep functions, stress response, actions and behaviors, and your ability to make decisions. Heroin use can also lead to significant imbalances in your hormonal and neuronal systems that may not be entirely reversible.
Cocaine is a stimulant drug that interacts with brain chemistry, creating a flood of dopamine. This causes an intense high, which can result in a major crash as it wears off. Cocaine speeds up your central nervous system, which increases the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Not only is cocaine very addictive, but regular use can also cause you to experience psychotic and negative side effects when you take it, such as:
Cocaine can significantly impact the body and brain with effects that may include:
- 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, heart contraction problems, 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
Like cocaine, methamphetamine (meth) is a highly addictive stimulant drug that causes extreme highs and lows. Regular use can cause:
- Violent behavior
- Mood disturbances
- Hallucinations and delusions
Even after stopping meth use, these side effects can persist for a year or more.
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.
“Meth mouth,” or the deterioration of the teeth and gums from meth abuse is a common issue in meth users. Oral surgery and significant dental work may be needed to correct it.
Marijuana has been legalized for medicinal and even recreational use in many states throughout the country, but regular and prolonged use of marijuana is not without risk. Some research shows that you can develop a psychological and physical dependence on weed. About one out of 10 people who try marijuana will develop an addiction to it according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That rate increases to one in six if you start smoking marijuana before age 18. Using marijuana before the brain is fully developed in early adulthood can potentially lead to:
- Lower satisfaction and achievements in life
- Poor academic performance
- Lack of motivation
- Memory and thinking problems
- Higher likelihood of dropping out of school
- Altered brain development
- Initiating schizophrenic symptoms in people 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 increase your risk for heart attack and testicular cancer as well as cardiopulmonary issues, such as chronic bronchitis. Regular marijuana use can also lead to cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, which can cause you to experience cyclic episodes of nausea, vomiting, and dehydration that often require medical care.
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.
Ecstasy can be highly unpredictable. Long-term regular use can damage serotonin neurons, brain chemistry, and brain function in a way that may not be completely reversible. You may also struggle to feel pleasure, regulate emotions, and remember things.
Alcohol is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the world. Moderate drinking is usually safe but drinking too much on a regular basis can have many negative consequences, including addiction and serious mental health and medical complications.
Long-term risks of chronic alcohol misuse can increase your risk for:
- Mouth, bowel, breast, liver, head, and neck cancers
- High blood pressure
- Breast cancer
- Sexual dysfunction
- Possible life-threatening alcohol withdrawal in the form of DTs (delirium tremens)
Alcohol can significantly damage 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 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 sooner you get help, the less damage you will do to your physical and mental health. Many of the mental health and medical side effects of drug use can be reversed if you stop using substances. Even complications that are not able to be entirely reversed can still be managed.
If you are ready to stop using drugs, always do so under the care of medical professionals. Stopping cold turkey from certain drugs can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. Addiction treatment programs can give your brain and body time to heal and stabilize. You can learn coping mechanisms to deal with triggers, manage stress, and process emotions through behavioral therapies, counseling, and support groups. An addiction treatment program can save your life, offering you the support you need to overcome substance abuse.
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