When someone begins abusing drugs, they experience an array of physical, psychological and emotional effects that can persist even after the drug use has stopped. Many people have some understanding of how continued drug abuse yields negative effects, but not everyone has an in-depth knowledge of exactly what changes when someone is addicted.
In this guide, we’ll explain the major effects of drug abuse and addiction and discuss the impact of some of the most commonly abused substances.
What Is Drug Abuse?
Before addiction can be diagnosed, a person will show signs of drug abuse. While addiction is characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking behavior, abuse is simply the use of either legal or illegal substances in inappropriate ways. Examples of drug abuse include:
- Taking a larger dose of your prescription painkiller.
- Taking someone else’s prescription.
- Using a substance to ease stress, feel good or avoid negative emotions.
Many people mistakenly believe that occasional or infrequent abuse of a substance isn’t dangerous, but it’s a slippery slope that can get worse over time if the person doesn’t address the underlying reasons for their drug abuse.
The Effects of Drug Abuse on Health
Although people use drugs for their intoxicating effects on emotions and cognition, most substances cause direct damage to the body and brain. Drugs harm every major bodily system in multiple ways. Here are three of the most critical organs and systems affected:
1. The Cardiovascular System
The vast majority of drugs have serious consequences that affect the cardiovascular system. The most common effect is an abnormal heart rate, which can quickly lead to a heart attack. Stimulant drugs like cocaine cause the heart to beat extremely fast, which, over time, contributes to heart disease and heart failure.
Drugs that are injected can cause the veins to collapse and can spread infections to blood vessels and even the heart itself.
2. The Respiratory System
Drugs that are introduced to the body through inhaling smoke greatly increase the risk of severe respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis, emphysema and even lung cancer. Crack cocaine is particularly damaging to the lungs. Opioids can slow down breathing to dangerous levels, and in the case of an overdose, can cause someone to stop breathing altogether.
3. The Liver and Kidneys
Both the liver and kidneys are essential in filtering out toxins from the body. Most drugs can quickly cause kidney damage in the long term, which can lead to life-threatening kidney failure. Kidney failure is the result of chronic dehydration, extreme increases in body temperature and the breakdown of muscle.
Heroin and inhalants are extremely hard on the liver and can cause significant damage. Many people also combine these drugs with alcohol, compounding the effect.
The Effects of Drug Abuse on the Brain
Your brain contains a reward and motivation system that makes you want to repeat activities when they make you feel good. Normally, the reward system dispenses small amounts of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, making you happy after spending time with friends or checking that last item off of your to-do list. When you take a drug, it causes the brain to release immense amounts of dopamine, which makes you want to repeat the behavior.
Over time, your brain adapts to the presence of a certain drug by reducing responsiveness to dopamine — this means it takes more of the drug to feel high, causing increased consumption and, eventually, addiction.
Drug abuse causes other chemical changes in the brain that result in damage to certain functions, like:
- Stress resilience
- Judgment and decision-making
The Effects of Drug Abuse on Behavior
The negative impact that drugs have on cognition also results in significant changes in behavior. People become consumed with the desire to obtain and use drugs at the expense of almost everything else, and it changes the way they act. The following five behavioral changes are indicative of drug abuse:
1. Increased Desire for Privacy
As drug abuse worsens, the person struggling will become aware that, to continue the abuse, they need to keep it secret. They will start spending more time alone and become irritable when they can’t get a private moment to abuse the substance.
2. Rapid Mood Shifts
Altering the chemical balance of the reward system through drug abuse increases emotional highs and lows, leading to intense mood swings that can damage relationships.
3. Increased Aggression
Drug abuse causes increases in anger and irritability. It also impairs the parts of the brain responsible for judgment and decision-making. One behavioral sign of addiction is having angry outbursts and reduced ability to control them.
4. Risky Behavior
A reduction in impulse control and an increased need for drugs is a recipe for risky behavior. Drug abuse disrupts the ability to make logical choices to the point where someone might:
- Steal money from family
- Steal drugs from friends
- Engage in dangerous activities to get drugs
In some cases, the addiction becomes so severe, that an individual will get in trouble with the law just to access their substance of abuse.
5. Loss of Interest
The flood of dopamine caused by drug use eventually begins to make regular activities seem boring and useless. Someone abusing drugs will typically drop most — if not all — of their normal hobbies and social ties, and will appear bored and listless when doing things they normally enjoy. One of the most difficult aspects of recovery is learning how to enjoy life again without drugs.
Dangerous Short-Term Effects of Commonly Abused Drugs
It’s one thing to know that drugs are harmful, but another to understand the specific ways drugs endanger health. The following five drugs all have dangerous short-term impacts that often overlap:
After alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States — this is likely because many people believe it to be “harmless.” Unfortunately, this perception is not entirely true. Upon smoking marijuana, its active ingredient, THC, passes over quickly from the lungs to the bloodstream, causing these effects within minutes:
- Altered perception
- Altered sense of time
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired thinking and problem-solving
- Impaired memory
These effects make everyday activities like driving more dangerous.
Cocaine’s effects are almost instantaneous after someone takes a single dose. The high lasts anywhere from a few minutes up to about an hour. In small doses, cocaine use results in:
- Excess energy
- Hypersensitivity to stimuli
- Decreased appetite
- Constricted blood vessels
- Dilated pupils
- Increased body temperature
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety, panic or paranoia
- Muscle twitches
The physiological effects can lead to heart attacks, headaches, seizures, strokes and even coma. Large doses of cocaine can also cause unpredictable and frequently bizarre or dangerous behavior.
Meth is an extremely potent stimulant, which has obvious effects even at tiny doses. It is extremely powerful and can cause addiction very quickly. The short-term effects of meth include:
- Increased ability to pay attention
- Increased energy and wakefulness
- Decreased appetite
- Increased breathing rate
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Increase in body temperature
Overdosing on meth causes convulsions that result in death if the person does not receive medical attention immediately.
Ecstasy, or MDMA, is what’s known as a “club drug,” meaning people typically use it to enhance their experience at clubs, concerts and other recreational events. Ecstasy has a very long window of action, with acute intoxication lasting between three and eight hours. The short-term effects of ecstasy include:
- Perceived enhancement of mental and emotional clarity
- Suppressed appetite and thirst
- Muscle tension
- Elevated temperature
- Teeth clenching
- Chills and sweating
If someone overdoses from ecstasy, they may experience heart failure or die from severe heatstroke. These types of overdoses often occur during music festivals or other events that take place over multiple days.
Popular opioids include heroin, as well as many prescription painkillers. Heroin is significantly stronger than prescription opioids, but both can create a feeling of euphoria that users typically describe as a “rush.” Other short-term effects of opioids include:
- Flushing of the skin
- Dry mouth
- Heavy feeling in extremities
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme itching
- Clouded thinking
- Depressed breathing
The respiratory effect of opioids is usually the most dangerous outcome. Breathing that is slowed for too long can result in a coma and irreversible brain damage.
Dangerous Long-term Effects of Commonly Abused Drugs
While the short-term effects of drug abuse are frightening, the long-term effects are just as disturbing. Here’s how drugs can do damage with certain drugs over time:
Marijuana can have an impact on brain development and learning, especially when drug abuse begins in the teen years.
Smoking marijuana frequently leads to the same issues tobacco smokers have — namely a chronic phlegm-filled cough and higher susceptibility to lung illness and infections.
Cocaine affects the body in multiple ways, especially if it is ingested through the nose. Snorting cocaine can:
- Reduce or remove sense of smell
- Cause nosebleeds
- Create problems with swallowing
- Result in a constantly inflamed and runny nose
Smoking crack cocaine causes severe lung damage and makes asthma worse. Cocaine also causes organ damage to the gastrointestinal tract and cardiovascular system. It’s common for longtime cocaine users to experience chest pain similar to a heart attack
Long-term cocaine use can increase your risk of developing disorders like Parkinson’s disease. It can also cause impairment of focus, impulse control, memory and decision-making.
The long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse are some of the most obvious and extreme among all drugs. They include:
- Paranoia, hallucinations and psychosis
- Deficits in cognition and motor skills
- Increases in distractibility
- Memory loss
- Violent, aggressive behavior
- Disturbed mood
- Severe dental decay
- Weight loss
- Skin picking and sores
One of the most disturbing long-term effects of meth is having hallucinations of insects crawling underneath the skin, which leads people to destroy their skin in an attempt to remove the bugs. It’s essential to treat meth addiction as quickly as possible because many of the cognitive deficits are not reversible.
There is less research on the long-term effects of ecstasy, but we do know that it has damaging effects on the brain’s ability to produce and respond to the chemical serotonin. Low serotonin is linked to:
- Poor memory
- Depression and anxiety
- Poor attention
Ecstasy reduces the flow of blood to many critical parts of the brain, potentially leading to lasting damage after heavy, long-term use.
The use of opioids over a long period of time can actually make someone more sensitive to pain in the long run, even though opioids are frequently used to manage pain. Opioids also make the liver and heart work harder, causing damage to both organs. If someone is using an injected opioid, they have to be careful not to keep injecting in the same spot or risk collapsed veins, as well as blocked blood vessels.
One of the most common long-term effects of opioids is opioid-induced constipation, which can become debilitating over time. People taking opioids may also develop hypoxia, a condition that occurs after a significant period of not getting enough oxygen to the brain.
Know the Facts
When discussing the effects of drug abuse, it’s important to remember that it’s not just illegal drugs that are dangerous. Medical marijuana, prescription stimulants and opioid painkillers can all be legitimately obtained through a doctor — but this does not mean they can’t be abused.
Whenever someone is taking a medication that alters perception and has the ability to produce a high, it’s essential to look out for even the smallest signs of misuse and abuse. Detecting the development of drug abuse early is the best way to ensure that short-term effects don’t spiral into irreversible long-term effects.
Beacon House: Lighting the Path to Recovery
If you or someone you care about is struggling with drug abuse and needs to find a drug addiction treatment center in Northern California, Beacon House is here to help. Our drug abuse treatment focuses on uncovering the root of addiction and overcoming underlying issues.
Detoxification, multiple therapy modalities and innovative recovery programs form the basis of treatment at Beacon House, and our aftercare program helps you stay on track after the initial treatment is over.
Don’t wait for drug abuse and addiction to do permanent damage to your body and mind. Call Beacon House today at 831.372.4366 for more information about our treatment and recovery programs.