Unchecked, drug and substance abuse can become a powerful addiction. In some cases, the consequences can even be fatal.
Why Should I Worry About Drug Abuse and Addiction?
The word “addiction” is often treated nonchalantly. Individuals may claim they’re addicted to TV, shopping or video games. And while these matters can consume a people in very real way, there are thousands more who have addictions to illicit drugs and other substances that are jeopardizing their lives on a much deeper level. What may start off as a casual use of substances can turn into a dependence — when the brain only functions in the presence of that drug and compels a person to use it. If you can spot the signs of addiction in yourself or a loved one, you may be able to mitigate some of the consequences.
What Are the Consequences of Drug Abuse?
Drug and alcohol use is a complex game of Russian roulette. The signs of abuse may not be immediately apparent and your issues can fly under the radar for weeks, months or even years. Eventually, without notice, an addiction may develop and everything can fall apart. This can make a previously bright future become incredibly hazy.
Even short bouts of substance use have the potential to wreak havoc on a person’s body. While different drugs and substances can affect the body in a variety of ways, sickness can occur for even those who use these casually. In some cases, even one use may be enough for an overdose, which is when the user’s bloodstream is teeming with toxins and the body can’t detoxify itself quick enough to be able to function properly. Overdose can be fatal. And all of that could happen with just one use. Prolonged abuse of drugs and alcohol can have even more significant side effects on the body.
How the Immune System Is Affected
Abusing drugs and alcohol over an extended period of time can have significant side effects on the immune system.
Long-term alcohol abuse can impair several aspects of the immune system in several ways, including:
- Digestion – It can damage cells in the digestive tract, greatly inhibiting how the body secretes enzymes for digestion.
- Handling of vitamins and protein – Along with slowing down how the body absorbs necessary protein, it can slow down and damage the liver, which affects how effectively it stores essential vitamins.
- Reduction in white blood cells – It can greatly reduce the body’s white blood cell multiplication rate, which can impact how the body responds to cancers and other life-threatening diseases
While different kinds of drugs have varying effects on the immune system, long-term drug abuse is dangerous. Its effects include:
- Respiratory and lung damage – Because of inhalation — especially concerning the toxins of marijuana smoke — the damage to lungs can be dramatic. Inflammation of the lungs and damage to the bronchioles are common.
- Dehydration – Certain drugs — methamphetamines in particular — can dry out the body’s mucous membranes, leaving the user vulnerable to infections and diseases
- Exhaustion and insomnia – Certain drugs greatly affect the body’s sleeping habits. When sleep deprivation occurs at dangerous levels, the immune system is weakened and the body becomes susceptible to all sorts of diseases.
Any and all of these effects greatly elevates a teen’s risk of acquiring HIV and AIDS. The liver is also vulnerable to infections such as Hepatitis B and C. All of these can have snowball effects on the body, further pushing the body to susceptibility to infections, tumors and other health problems.
How the Heart Is Affected
By elevating heart rate and disrupting heartbeat (i.e. causing arrhythmia), certain substances can deliver their highs at the expense of hearth health. Even casual and recreational use over time can have profound effects on the heart. An addiction only amplifies these effects.
Cocaine in particular is dubbed “the perfect heart attack drug” for a number of reasons. Abusing the drug can cause an 18% increase in the thickness of the ventricle wall and over a 30% increase in the stiffening of the aorta — 2 major factors that increase risks of heart attack and stroke.
Other drugs like amphetamine and ecstasy also impact long-term cardiovascular health by elevating heart rate and increasing blood pressure, both of which increase risks of heart disease and stroke.
How the Brain Is Affected
The effects of drug and alcohol use are perhaps strongest in the brain, which is where the initial rush of toxic chemicals is first felt. Prolonged abuse of these substances impact the structure and function of the brain. And considering that adolescence is when the brain is malleable and still developing, any alterations to the brain during this time can have long-lasting implications. In particular, heavy drug or alcohol use during this time in the teen’s development can hinder motor skills, logic, reasoning and memory function. These effects may manifest in your teen even as they mature into adulthood.
Studies indicate that there may be a correlation between heavy drug use and co-occurring mental disorders. In some instances, how the brain is remapped and reconfigured over years of drug- or alcohol-dependent behavior can keep the brain in an altered state. This is what happens in certain cases of long-term cocaine or meth use, where panic attacks and hallucinations persist even after the person has long-stopped using the drugs.
Most glaringly, a teen’s mental health can deteriorate over time with substance abuse and addiction, leading to issues like depression, withdrawal and extreme irritability. The risk of teen suicide increases when substance abuse causes chemical imbalances in the brain. This dependency on drugs — especially the craving of the effects of those drugs — can make the user feel low when the high wears off. These severe highs and lows contribute to feelings of depression, a general lack of interest and worries that the world is out to get them. Studies show that 70% of teen suicides are influenced in one way or another by drug and alcohol abuse.
How School and Work Is Affected
In some cases, individuals turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress of school and work. Unfortunately, this can backfire academically and professionally. Consumed by addiction, work and school will become an afterthought. When the consequences of drug use are especially evident, they can show up high or hungover or skip entirely to go out and feed their problem some more. In doing so, they can expect to see their performance plummet along with their reputation. If their lack of effort becomes too blatant or if they get caught with substances on campus or at work, they risk outright suspension or termination.
Trouble With the Law
Driving under the influence — or possession of illicit substances in general — lands thousands of individuals into legal hot water. The problem extends further: being caught up in drugs or alcohol can cause people to act out in other ways that draw attention from law enforcement. Things like stealing, violent behavior and vandalism often correlate with being under the influence.
Teens in particular can be affected. In one study by the National Institute of Justice, a substantial rate of drug use was found among teens who committed violent or property crimes. Another study of 113 delinquent youth in a state detention facility revealed that 82% reported being heavy drug or alcohol users just prior to their arrest. Teens may not consider that one drink has the potential to spiral into something worse.
How Are Family and Peers Affected
Drug abuse and addiction can also backfire for users socially. Friends and family can be the most vital resources in a person’s life. All too often, however, when users get swept up in their drug and substance abuse habits, they lose sight of what’s most important. They may ignore family obligations, change social groups or cut themselves off entirely from their loved ones in constant pursuit of their next fix.
The effects that a drug or alcohol dependence have on the brain can lead to a plethora of social problems, including:
- Initiating uncomfortable conversations
- A lack of inhibitions
- Being stigmatized by their peers
- Disengaging from social functions
- Increased willingness to fight or argue
How Finances Are Affected
Money issues are often associated with addiction. As problems arise with work, law enforcement and your health, it can also drain the family’s financial and emotional resources, causing tension and stress. Under the spell of addiction, individuals may resort to stealing money straight from the pockets of loved ones. The potential consequences of their substance habit can be traumatic enough; when an addiction pushes loved ones out of the picture, countless users are left to deal with their problems alone.
When Should I Get Involved?
At the first signs of a substance problem in your loved one, take action. It’s proven that substance abuse at an early age can spell addiction later in life. Among American adults who meet the medical criteria for addiction, 9 out of 10 started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
If you notice signs of substance abuse in a loved one, speak to a professional immediately. This could be your family doctor, your child’s guidance counselor, a local rehab professional, or one of our treatment advocates who answer the phone at The Recovery Village. Talking to us is free and private.
We at have spoken to too many families who initially believed their loved one’s substance use was “just a phase.” Fortunately, we have also seen the joy of recovery — time and time again — but it does not often come without professional help. That’s why we’ve dedicated ourselves to families like yours. Don’t let another day go by without guiding your loved one to a better path in life — set up a time for yourself to call us for free today.
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.