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Long-term substance abuse and addiction have serious health consequences, as they change the brain, damage organs, and increase the risk of catching an infectious disease. Addiction to drugs is referred to as a substance use disorder. Substance abuse can affect anyone of any age, race, or gender.
People suffering from addiction are often dependent on substances, whether legal or not, to feel “normal.” They are unable to control their drug use, and if they are able to stop for a period of time, they may experience intense withdrawal symptoms. Most individuals struggling with drug addiction or abuse cannot quit on their own, which is why many inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facilities, as well as support groups, exist to help.
Some populations are more at risk for substance addiction and abuse than others. According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
Although nearly any substance can become addictive, residents of the United States struggle with some addictive substances more than others. Some of the most commonly abused drugs, both legal and illegal, are:
As drug manufacturers create new combinations of potentially addictive substances, from prescription pharmaceutics to synthetic cannabis, individuals must understand the risks, both short- and long-term, for taking, misusing, and becoming addicted to these substances.
Individuals who abuse or become addicted to any substance are at a higher risk of contracting an infectious disease. In large part, this is because drugs lower inhibitions, so individuals who are “high” on a substance are more likely to indulge in risky behaviors, particularly risky sexual behaviors. People struggling with long-term addiction tend to live in less sanitary conditions for a variety of reasons. Individuals who have struggled with addictive substances for a long time also suffer physical effects like organ damage and lowered immune response, which can allow infectious diseases to take hold and spread faster than in a healthy individual.
Individuals who struggle with addiction to injection drugs are among the most at risk for infectious diseases. People who abuse or are addicted to heroin may not have access to clean needles, and this promotes the sharing of potentially infected bodily fluids, along with bacteria and fungi, through unclean paraphernalia. People suffering from heroin addiction have a higher incidence of HIV infection, along with hepatitis B and C. These individuals also are at high risk of staph infections, skin diseases, subcutaneous bacterial infections, endocarditis, and tuberculosis. Individuals who are addicted to steroids also suffer a higher risk of viral and bacterial infections due to needle-sharing and unclean paraphernalia.
Individuals who smoke any substance put themselves at a higher risk of lung infections and diseases, from pneumonia and tuberculosis to lung cancer. Pneumonia occurs when foreign particles get trapped in the lungs, which can occur when a person develops chronic cough and their ability to swallow worsens. Foreign particles, along with bacterial or fungal infections, can also spread among individuals who smoke substances when unclean paraphernalia is shared, including marijuana bongs, cigarettes, crack pipes, and meth paraphernalia. People who abuse meth are especially at risk for a fungal lung infection, which in healthy adults is easily fought off.
For individuals addicted to alcohol, marijuana, club drugs, stimulants, CNS suppressants, cocaine, methamphetamines, and many other drugs, inhibitions become lowered. As a result, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, or unprotected sex. People struggling with addiction have a higher rate of sexually transmitted infections of all kinds, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, herpes simplex II, and HIV. Drugs that get the user “high” in any sense put individuals at risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors outside of sexual activity as well, which can put them at risk of coming into contact with bacterial, fungal, or viral infections.
People who suffer from addiction or who regularly abuse substances tend to have much more extensive organ damage than healthy adults. There are a variety of causes of organ damage, particularly involving long-term drug abuse or addiction.
In general, people who are high on an addictive substance are at a greater risk of harming themselves by falling, burning themselves, or getting into car accidents. This puts these individuals at higher risk for broken bones, damage to skin and muscles, or concussions.
People struggling with addiction are more likely to suffer liver diseases than the average population. This is because the liver is the primary organ to metabolize substances like alcohol, meth, or opiates, including prescription painkillers. Although this organ can regrow tissue, consistent abuse causes damage, which can lead to jaundice, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Individuals who abuse or become addicted to substances tend to suffer cardiovascular damage. Those who are addicted to tobacco, cocaine, or other stimulants tend to suffer extreme changes in blood pressure and oxygen absorption into the blood, which can damage arteries and veins, as well as the heart. Cocaine and other stimulants like ADHD medications can also cause heart rhythm changes, which can trigger a heart attack. Individuals who abuse stimulants are more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes.
Those who eat or drink addictive substances tend to experience higher risk of digestive issues, including gastrointestinal problems, stomach damage, acid reflux, pancreatitis, ulcers, and cancer.
People who abuse drugs are at a greater risk of developing all kinds of cancers, including lung, liver, colorectal, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. This is because substances damage the cells over time, causing changes to DNA replication and allowing for harmful mutations.
Although any use of a potentially addictive substance changes the brain, long-term use can damage the brain and cause psychological disorders. Several addictive substances like MDMA, synthetic cannabinoids, and stimulants put the individual at greater risk for seizures, including seizure disorders. As the brain becomes used to floods of “happy” neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, the body develops a tolerance to the overflow of these neurotransmitters and depends on the addictive substance to provide that balance. When a person stops taking an addictive substance, the brain has a difficult time finding a normal balance of neurotransmitters. Many symptoms of withdrawal, such as depression and exhaustion, are related to an imbalance in neurotransmitters.
Long-term drug use changes other brain structures, as well. Glutamate affects the ability to learn along with reward neuron pathways. The brain will attempt to compensate if this system is out of balance, and long-term compensation will change the structure of the brain, making memory and learning new tasks more difficult.
As some addictive drugs damage the lungs and vascular system, oxygen will not reach the brain as effectively. When oxygen cannot reach the brain, the organ begins to die. This can cause serious damage to all structures in the brain. Changes to the pituitary system and hormone regulation from drugs, especially steroids, can harm other body systems like digestion and reproduction.
Some drugs like methamphetamines break through the blood-brain barrier. This can increase the risk of infection in the brain, as well as strokes and other kinds of brain damage. CNS suppressants can also cause sleepwalking and other behaviors while asleep, and this can damage the brain due to lack of REM function.
Addiction to drugs can cause psychological side effects, as well. Short-term use of drugs like cocaine or steroids can increase aggression, and long-term release of adrenaline can damage many organ systems in the body. When a person comes down from MDMA, meth, and similar drugs that involve a huge release of happy neurotransmitters, intense depression and suicidal thoughts can also occur. Long-term, larger and larger doses of these drugs are required to keep the individual feeling normal, not just happy or high, which puts the person at a much greater risk of overdose.
Depressants, from nicotine to CNS suppressants, can cause individuals to become restless, anxious, and even paranoid when they come off the substance, although any drug that changes the brain chemistry can lead to anxiety and paranoia as well as depression. Cocaine and synthetic drugs like bath salts have caused well-documented cases of violent paranoia.
Many individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction receive a dual diagnosis, meaning both an addiction to a substance and a psychological disorder are present. It is difficult to say which disorder came first, although reports suggest that individuals with psychological disorders like depression or schizophrenia may self-medicate with substances of abuse, which leads to addiction. However, some drugs like hallucinogens or cocaine can trigger underlying psychosis, including schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Regardless of which came first, substance abuse complicates mental health issues. The symptoms of the mental health disorder generally worsen when substances are abused, and the negative health effects of use are compounded by the psychological disorder.
If a person is dealing with addiction, or believes a loved one may suffer from this condition, it is important to get help as soon as possible to prevent serious long-term effects. Rehabilitation programs can offer both medical and psychological support for clients, to address infections, psychological disorders, and withdrawal symptoms. In addition, emotional support can be found from therapists and support groups. With comprehensive care, true recovery is within reach.