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Physical Effects of Drug Abuse

 Repeated drug abuse can do significant damage to the body.

As of 2012, 23.1 million people needed treatment for a substance abuse problem, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes. Healthy People reports many of them will go on to develop chronic illnesses that require lifelong care.

The majority of consequences that stem from substance abuse are dependent upon which drugs are being abused and with what frequency. For example, intermittent marijuana abuse may have lesser health effects than chronic alcohol abuse; however, both can cause problems.

In addition, the health of the individual who is engaging in drug or alcohol abuse matters, too. Those who are immunocompromised due to conditions like cirrhosis or HIV may be more likely to suffer additional health effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 8 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States during 2010 were attributed to injection drug use practices. The contraction of this virus can wreak havoc on the entire immune system and body.

Of course, death is the ultimate price anyone can pay as a result of substance abuse. DrugWarFacts reports 46,471 people died in America during 2013 from drug-induced deaths.

Neurological Impairment

One of the most notable consequences of drug abuse is the effect it has on the mind. The abuse of certain substances has been proven to alter chemical responses and functionality in the brain. Medical Daily reports that a study of alcohol use showed lower IQ scores among drinkers. The same results have been seen among people who smoke tobacco, according to Science Daily. In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America study, teens who engaged in regular marijuana use lost IQ points over time as well, around 8 points on average. The drug was actually shown to alter the development of young brains.

Those who abuse drugs may also suffer from mental health disorders. In some instances, substance abuse actually causes mental illness to develop. Certain cases of substance-induced illnesses will go away when substance abuse ceases and addiction is treated, but others will not. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports 80 percent of people who suffer from alcoholism are also affected by mood disturbances. Substance-induced mental illnesses include:

  • Delirium
  • Persisting dementia
  • Psychotic disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Mood disorder
  • Sleep disorder
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Persisting amnestic disorder
  • Hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder

These illnesses present with symptoms similar to the organic disorder itself. However, it is actually the substances being abused that are to blame for the symptoms, not a pre-existing disorder. In other cases, long-term abuse of substances like alcohol and stimulants can cause mental health disorders such as depression to develop. These illnesses sometimes remain even after treatment of addiction problems.

Others may have suffered from a mental health disorder prior to ever engaging in substance abuse, but that abuse may complicate matters and make them worse. Around 29 percent of people with psychiatric disorders also have substance abuse problems, per HelpGuide. Drug and alcohol abuse often worsens symptoms of psychosis, anxiety, and depression. For example, someone who abuses cocaine for a long period of time will eventually erode the brain’s ability to process and regulate dopamine on its own. When dopamine receptors can’t function without the cocaine, deepened states of depression may ensue. Treatment of Stimulant Use Disorders notes a history of depression is present in as many as 50 percent of clients in treatment for cocaine abuse.

Individuals with a history of mental illness are at a greater risk of developing other disorders, too. reports one in 25 Americans lives with a serious psychiatric disorder. Complicating matters with drugs and alcohol often intensifies the symptoms of mental illness and can result in traumatic outcomes, including but not limited to suicide. In 2013, 9.3 million people over the age of 17 seriously contemplated suicide, 2.7 million made plans to carry out a suicide plan, and 1.3 million actually tried to take their own lives, SAMHSA reports.

Respiratory Effects

Anytime people smoke a substance – be it cigarettes, marijuana, crack, or heroin – they are introducing hundreds of toxic chemicals into their bodies via the lungs. The respiratory system works by filtering air into the lungs and passing oxygen into the bloodstream. When toxins like formaldehyde and other carcinogens enter the bloodstream, they can impact nearly every system working within the body.

Over time, persistent use and abuse of these substances lead to poor lung health. Overall lung capacity is decreased so individuals cannot take in as much oxygen as they once could. When oxygen levels are decreased, cells within the body actually start to die. Much of the danger that presents with marijuana abuse comes in tow with the fact that people who smoke marijuana tend to hold their breath four times longer than those who smoke cigarettes, thereby exposing their lungs to toxins for a longer period of time, per Medscape. Research supports smoking marijuana being linked to the development of emphysema. Many media sources and proponents of cannabis, especially the medical marijuana community, tout the safety of the drug in comparison to tobacco. However, states marijuana smoke actually contains 50-70 percent more cancer-causing toxins than cigarette smoke does.

Respiratory depression is a serious concern in the drug abuse treatment community. Many who have overdosed on drugs like heroin, prescription opioid pain relievers, and cocaine have died after passing out and stopping breathing.

Around 17,000 people die as a result of painkiller abuse each year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Binge drinking also increases the risk of respiratory effects. Many individuals have lost their lives after drinking heavily, going to bed and aspirating their own vomit while asleep. During 2013 alone, 29,001 people died as a result of alcohol consumption, per the CDC.


Cardiovascular System

Cardiac arrest is a common side effect of both prolonged and occasional substance abuse. In addition, damage to the heart occurs slowly with the abuse of certain substances, like cocaine and prescription stimulants. As these drugs make it harder for the heart to do its job, the stress of cardiac output increases blood pressure, too.

The journal Stroke notes the results of one study in which 13 percent of analyzed participants who had suffered from a stroke had used drugs or alcohol within a day prior to the event. The American Heart Association reports on the risks that people face when abusing cocaine, including a 30-35 percent increased chance of hardening of the arteries and 18 percent increased chance of thickness of the heart’s left ventricular wall.

Renal System

One of the biggest health consequences of drug and alcohol abuse is liver damage. Prolonged use of acetaminophen-containing drugs like Percocet can lead to serious harm for the blood-filtering organ. The Journal of Hepatology reported on an analysis of 662 people who suffered from acute liver failure in which 42 percent of cases were attributed to acetaminophen liver injuries. That being said, the liver’s biggest enemy is still alcohol, which DrugWarFactsreports was responsible for 18,146 cases of liver disease-related deaths in 2013.

Alcohol also frequently inflicts people who abuse it with kidney damage. Inflammation of the kidneys is common in people who abuse alcohol and suffer from co-occurring cirrhosis. NIAAA reports a 33 percent increase in kidney weight among those individuals. Opiate abuse is another common problem among people with kidney failure. Research from the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology supports a causal relationship between both cocaine and heroin abuse and the development of chronic kidney disease. The cost of treating someone with dialysis for one year can be as high as $50,000, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports.

Another illness often contracted via the same method of drug administration – hepatitis C – affects approximately 73 percent of people who inject drugs in America, per Health Day.

Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system suffers a lot of side effects due to the abuse of a myriad of substances, such as cocaine, heroin, LSD, GHB, MDMA, and prescription painkillers. Persistent alcohol abuse can erode the lining of the stomach and cause permanent conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease. Smoking certain drugs irritates the esophagus, as well. This can cause chronic inflammation and result in the development of esophageal cancer, too. Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are actually the two largest contributors to this disease, the Cancer Research of UK reports.

Prescription opioid painkillers and heroin are both quite harsh on the stomach and intestines. Chronic constipation generally occurs with the abuse of either drug. Over time, individuals may actually lose control of their bowels or suffer from an inability to empty them without the assistance of laxatives or enemas. Damage to the rectum and colon can occur as a result of constipation and bowel impaction.

How Intervention Can Help

While drug abuse and addiction can bring serious health consequences, much of the damage can be effectively reversed with proper care. Medical care is as important in addiction treatment as mental health care is, so it’s important to choose a program that can treat the whole person – both mind and body.