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More than 10 percent of the American adult population, or 27 million people, use illicit drugs, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Long-term drug use can lead to a myriad of social, emotional, physical, financial, and interpersonal problems. In addition, drug abuse costs the American society nearly $200 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs, lost workplace production, and criminal costs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes.
Drugs make chemical changes in the brain and body, and over time, these changes can have major ramifications. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that 2.5 million people in the United States received medical care in an emergency department (ED) for an issue related to drug abuse or misuse in 2011. Repeated drug use increases the risk for an overdose with life-threatening consequences as well. Drug overdose fatality rates are at an all-time high in the United States, topping 50,000 deaths in 2016, the Chicago News Tribune reports.
Another possible side effect of chronic drug use is addiction. Per the NSDUH , in 2014, over 21 million Americans battled this chronic brain disease. The widespread prevalence of addiction has far-reaching effects, as prolonged drug use can have many adverse consequences, impacting most areas of a person’s life.
Drugs can have toxic effects on the brain and body, damaging nerve and brain cells in the process. Different drugs may impact a person’s health in variable ways; however, NIDA reports the following as potential side effects of prolonged drug use and addiction:
Drug use can also impact sleep patterns and quality, affect appetite levels and therefore weight, alter moods, and even potentially lead to psychosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that illicit drug abuse also carries an increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Drugs can disrupt sound decision-making abilities and make it more likely for a person to engage in unsafe sexual contact.
Chronic drug use changes brain wiring and circuitry related to reward, motivation, learning, memory, and decision-making by making chemical alterations to some of the brain’s naturally occurring chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, leading to drug dependence. When the drugs then wear off, withdrawal symptoms can occur. These side effects can be significant and even potentially life-threatening in the case of some drugs (like benzodiazepines and alcohol, for example). Drug withdrawal symptoms can be both physical and emotional in nature and include symptoms like anxiety, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, nausea, chills, tremors, sweating, high blood pressure and heart rate, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, depression, drug cravings, seizures, and more.
The manner in which a person uses drugs can cause different health complications. For instance, injection drug use can lead to collapsed veins, scar tissue (or “track” marks), skin infections, and an increased risk for contracting an infectious disease. The CDC warns that one out of 23 women and one out of 36 men who inject drugs will be diagnosed with HIV at some point. Snorting drugs can damage nasal and sinus cavities, and lead to lung infections and respiratory complications. Chronic nosebleeds and runny nose are common side effects of snorting drugs as well. Individuals who regularly snort drugs may lose their sense of smell altogether, become hoarse, and have trouble swallowing.
Smoking drugs can cause extensive damage to the lungs and respiratory system, leading to a chronic cough, bronchitis, lung disease, and cardiovascular issues. Ingesting drugs can damage the gastrointestinal system and may cause stomach ulcers or other irritations and health problems.
The type of drug, amount abused, how it is used, and frequency of abuse all play a role in potential health complications that can arise as can biological, genetic, and environmental factors.
Common drugs of abuse and potential risks of using them on a long-term basis are outlined below.
The most commonly abused illicit drug, marijuana alters perceptions and interferes with learning and memory functions. Many of these side effects wear off as the drug does; however, some of them may linger long after the drug processes out of the body. There has been research indicating that heavy marijuana use in adolescence may interfere with normal brain development and contribute to a loss of IQ points that is not recoverable even with abstinence; however, NIDA reports that research is ongoing and conflicting in this regard.
Heavy and perpetuated marijuana use may cause hallucinations, paranoia, and worsening schizophrenia symptoms in those suffering from the disorder, as well as anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, decreased life satisfaction, and possible suicidal thoughts. Marijuana also increases heart rate, and prolonged use can cause cardiovascular complications, including a heightened risk for heart attack.
A powerful and potent illegal stimulant drug, cocaine drastically interferes with the brain’s reward system while speeding up functions of the central nervous system. Heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure all increase with cocaine use. Prolonged use of cocaine can raise the risk for heart attack, stroke, chest pain, inflammation of the heart muscle, aortic ruptures, deterioration of the heart’s ability to contract normally, and seizures. In addition, cocaine can cause decreased blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially causing ulcerations and tears; decreased appetite, leading to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss; bleeding in the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage); bulges in blood vessels; and the onset of movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, NIDA warns.
Regular use of cocaine in large amounts (often due to use in a binge pattern) may cause a person to lose touch with reality altogether and suffer hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms. Chronic cocaine abuse can also cause cognitive deficits, such as difficulties performing motor tasks, making decisions about punishments or rewards, and controlling impulses. Memory functions and the ability to pay attention and concentrate are also affected.
Opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers)
Opioid drugs are considered to be highly addictive central nervous system depressant drugs. These drugs block pain sensations and create a mellowing and euphoric “high” as they interfere with the brain’s reward circuitry. Drug dependence can occur rapidly, and Brain a Journal of Neurology publishes that prolonged opioid use and dependence can negatively impact brain function and connectivity, thus impacting reward processing, motivation, moods, and rate of addiction.
Since opioids depress respiration, long-term use of these drugs can lead to lung infections and complications like tuberculosis and pneumonia. NIDA warns that prolonged opioid abuse may also cause arthritis and other rheumatologic issues, infections of the lining of the heart and its valves, kidney and liver disease, bacterial infections, decreased sex drive in men and disrupted menstrual cycle in women, depression, antisocial personality disorder, and a weakened immune system.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives and tranquilizers that slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and lower other functions of the central nervous system while decreasing anxiety levels, relieving tension, and enhancing sleep functions. Though they are prescription drugs with legitimate medical uses, they are commonly misused.
Prolonged use of a benzo can cause a person to become tolerant to them and need to increase their dosage to feel the drug’s effects, which can lead to drug dependence and addiction. Benzo abuse can cloud thinking, judgment, and the ability to concentrate while also impairing motor coordination and control.
Typically, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use due to the potential severity of dependence and possibly life-threatening withdrawal side effects that can occur. Chronic use of benzodiazepines may also increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) warns.
Methamphetamine and amphetamines (such as those contained in ADHD medications)
Methamphetamine (meth) and amphetamines are stimulant drugs that increase alertness, excitement, energy levels, and wakefulness. They also lead to increased pleasure and decreased appetite. When they wear off, the opposite effects occur, causing a “crash” that is signified by fatigue, lethargy, hunger, difficulties concentrating and thinking clearly, and depression. This encourages individuals to keep taking these drugs.
Meth drastically impacts dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Prolonged exposure to the drug may damage as many as half of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns. Nerve cells containing serotonin may be damaged at even higher rates. Abusing high amounts of meth can cause psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations, paranoia, and motor functions that are repetitive (such as skin picking to remove “bugs”). NIDA warns that brain structure and function are damaged by long-term meth use, and some of the neurobiological damage may be long-lasting or irreversible, even with abstinence. Increased risk for Parkinson’s disease, mood disturbances, trouble thinking clearly, motor function impairment, tooth decay (often called “meth mouth”), aggression and violence, memory loss, malnourishment and weight loss, distractibility, and skin sores are all potential side effects of prolonged meth use and/or addiction.
Physical problems are only one aspect of the possible issues that can arise as a result of prolonged drug use. Emotional and mental health concerns are common as well. High stress levels, self-destructive and risk-taking behaviors, and potential suicidal tendencies and ideations can be normal side effects of regular drug abuse and drug withdrawal. Individuals who regularly use drugs are less likely to consistently make good choices and may often find themselves in potentially dangerous or hazardous situations. Unplanned pregnancy, falling victim to crime, and being in an accident or becoming injured may result from poor choices and high-risk situations.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that more than half of all those who abuse drugs also suffer from some form of mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. Co-occurring mental health disorders and addiction can each exacerbate the symptoms of both disorders and complicate the treatment and recovery of each other, requiring specialized, comprehensive, and integrated care.
In addition to the mental health concerns, chronic drug use can also impact families and disrupt life at home. Individuals who abuse drugs often suffer from mood swings and even complete personality shifts. They are less likely to consistently fulfill work and home obligations as behaviors may be erratic and unpredictable. Tensions can be high at home, and interpersonal relationships suffer as individuals battling addiction are often withdrawn, secretive, irritable, and commonly isolate themselves socially.
Grades and academic performance can take a hit as chronic absences and a declining interest in producing good work may be direct consequences of drug abuse. NIDA publishes that marijuana abuse increases the odds that a person will drop out of school, for example. Work production often slides and unemployment may be the result of perpetuated drug abuse as well. Finances can then become strained as drug abuse can lead to loss of a job and significant sums of money are spent on obtaining drugs.
Drug use can also increase criminal behaviors and lead to legal troubles. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) publishes that around 60 percent of people who get arrested for most crimes test positive for drugs at the time of their arrest.
Homelessness can also be the result of drug abuse, as the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that two-thirds of homeless individuals cite drug (and/or alcohol) abuse as a major contributor to becoming homeless.
Without question, prolonged drug use can have lasting side effects that impact daily life functioning and overall quality of life. Drug addiction is a brain disease; like other chronic and relapsing diseases, it can be treated with specialized care for a long and sustained recovery.