Diseases Associated with Alcohol or Drug Use

Drug and alcohol use can trigger changes in the brain and body. These changes can affect many body systems, even after a single dose, and chronic substance use can increase the risk of developing additional health issues.1

Comorbid conditions are when a person has a substance use disorder (SUD) and one or more medical conditions.2 (p3) Comorbid conditions generally interact with each other, with each affecting the progression and outlook of the other.2

Addiction and substance abuse is serious enough without the potential for comorbid medical conditions. If you find yourself abusing a substance and are worried about your health, call for information about addiction, treatment, and what American Addiction Centers and Sunrise House can do for you.

Liver Disorders

The liver processes and filters substances and removes toxins out of the body.3 Substances including alcohol, heroin, inhalants, steroids, MDMA, and cocaine are known to negatively affect the liver.1, 4 Combining these substances can increase the risk of harming the liver.1

Liver disease includes a spectrum of different disorders.5 Substances can injure the liver directly or as a consequence of another issue related to substance use.4, 6 Liver disorders can include:4, 5, 6

  • Fatty liver.
  • Fibrosis.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Liver necrosis.
  • Liver failure.
  • Liver cancer.

Warning signs of liver disease can include unexplained weight loss, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), abdominal swelling and tenderness, nausea, and vomiting.4, 5

Kidney Disorders

Kidney disease caused by addiction to alcohol The kidneys also filter substances from the body.7 If the liver isn’t working properly, this can put additional stress on the kidneys.7 Alcohol, heroin, cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, inhalants, MDMA, phencyclidine (PCP), steroids, and synthetic cannabinoids can directly and indirectly damage the kidneys.1, 6, 7, 8

Some substances can cause increased body temperature or lead to dehydration, both of which can harm the kidneys.1 Alcohol makes the kidneys work less effectively.7 Episodes of binge drinking, or consuming more than 5 servings of alcohol in a short period of time, can also lead to a rapid decrease in kidney functioning.7 Frequent binge drinking can cause permanent damage.7

People who drink heavily on a regular basis have twice the risk of developing chronic kidney disease, which is incurable.7 People who smoke cigarettes have 5 times the risk of chronic kidney disease than those who don’t smoke.7

Gastrointestinal Disorders

Substance use can cause changes in appetite and how the gastrointestinal system functions.1, 6 Drugs like marijuana can increase appetite and lead to weight gain, while stimulants tend to decrease appetite, leading to weight loss and malnutrition.6 Many substances can affect the gastrointestinal system, including: 1, 6

  • Alcohol.
  • DXM.
  • GHB.
  • Hallucinogens (e.g., LSD, PCP, etc.).
  • Inhalants.
  • Marijuana.
  • MDMA.
  • Opioids.
  • Stimulants (e.g., cocaine, amphetamines).
  • Synthetic cannabinoids.

Substances can damage the gastrointestinal system, especially if used regularly.1, 5 Gastrointestinal effects associated with alcohol and drug use can include abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, reflux, esophagitis, gastritis, ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, perforation, constipation, and bowel necrosis.1, 5, 9

Heavy alcohol intake is estimated to play a role in about 60% of all cases of pancreatitis.5 Over time, pancreatitis can become a long-term condition, leading to the development of diabetes, difficulties with the absorption of nutrients, and chronic pain.5

Consuming alcohol in large quantities is linked to higher blood sugar levels, which can increase the risk of developing diabetes or make it more difficult to manage existing diabetes.10 Heavy drinking has been linked to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, colon, and rectum.5, 11

People with substance-related gastrointestinal issues may complain of abdominal or chest pain, burning, nausea, vomiting, bloating, indigestion, shortness of breath, or experience bleeding.5, 6 Constipation occurs in nearly half of people who take opioids, and may be exacerbated in people who abuse them.9

Respiratory Tract & Pulmonary Issues

Substance use can create or aggravate issues within the respiratory system.1, 5 Alcohol, cocaine, DXM, GHB, inhalants, ketamine, marijuana, methamphetamine, opioids, and PCP can have negative effects on the pulmonary system.1, 6

Smoking drugs can irritate the lungs and cause direct damage.1 Substance use has been linked to respiratory issues, including chronic cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, excessive mucus production, chronic bronchitis, aspiration pneumonia, and lung damage.1, 5

Aspiration pneumonia is caused when the stomach’s contents are coughed up into the lungs due to a suppression of the gag reflex because of alcohol or drugs.5 Alcohol use has been linked to cancer of the larynx and the respiratory tract.5

Opioids and other depressants can slow one’s breathing rate or aggravate existing lung disease.1, 5 Drugs that are smoked can also exacerbate asthma or lead to chronic bronchitis.1, 5

Neurological & Sleep Issues

Drugs and alcohol act on the chemicals in the brain to change how a person feels, but continued use can create changes in how the brain works.1 Chronic use can cause long-lasting changes and, in some cases, substances can cause permanent damage to the brain.1, 5, 6

Substances that can have neurological effects include alcohol, cocaine, DXM, GHB, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants, ketamine, marijuana, MDMA, methamphetamine, opioids, and sedatives.1, 6, 12

Substance use can have a toxic effect on the brain, leading to seizures or stroke.1, 6 Cognitive impairments have been found to some degree in up to 75% of people with an alcohol use disorder.5 Traumatic brain injury can result from falls, injuries, car accidents, or violence related to substance use.5 Certain substances can cause tremors, memory loss, and speech and thought difficulties.6 These issues become more severe as a person ages.6

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or “wet brain,” refers to two separate diseases—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.5 This disease is caused by brain damage from vitamin B1 deficiency, which is common in people with a long-term alcohol use disorder.5, 12

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is characterized by paralysis of the eye muscles, lack of muscle coordination, tremors, confusion, and abnormal movements of the eyes. Korsakoff’s psychosis involves a lack of ability to form new memories, severe memory loss, making up stories to make up for memory loss, and experiencing hallucinations.5, 12 This condition can be treated so that progression can be slowed or halted, but it cannot be reversed.12

Studies have linked the use of benzodiazepines with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a type of progressive dementia, especially in older individuals.13 Taking benzodiazepines for more than 3 months increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 32%, and taking them for more than 6 months increases the risk by 84% in those over the age of 66.13

A single use of hallucinogens can have long-term effects.14 Persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder can occur separately or together, and can involve disturbances in vision, thoughts, and mood, as well as paranoia and hallucinations.14

Substance use can also cause sleep issues.6 Stimulants or depressants can affect the sleep cycle, both while under the influence and during withdrawal, which can persist well into recovery.6

Endocrine & Reproductive Issues

Using alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, MDMA, opioids, and steroids can permanently affect the endocrine and reproductive systems, including issues with male fertility and erectile dysfunction.1, 6, 15

Chronic heavy drinking in women is associated with irregular menstrual cycles, spontaneous abortion, and babies with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Opioid use in women can lead to irregular menstrual cycles and reproductive issues.6

Steroids work by altering hormone production in the body, causing women to experience baldness and growth of body hair and men to experience infertility and decreased testicle size.1

Infectious Disease

Since alcohol and drugs can lead to impaired judgment, lowered inhibition, and reduced impulse control, people under the influence of substances may be more likely to engage in behavior that puts them at risk for contracting an infectious disease.2 Substance use can also weaken the immune system.1, 6

HIV is spread through shared needles or unprotected sex with someone who has the virus.1, 2 HIV affects the immune system and can progress to AIDS, which is fatal.5

Hepatitis affects the liver and is spread through shared needles or unprotected sex with someone who has the disease. 1, 2 More than three-quarters of people who have injected drugs for less than 7 years have hepatitis C.5 Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer.5

Tuberculosis affects the lungs and is commonly found among people who use drugs or have HIV.5, 6 Tuberculosis is spread by airborne droplets and can be transmitted by people who may not even realize they are sick.5, 6



  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health consequences of drug misuse.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Common comorbidities with substance use disorders.
  3. University of Rochester Medical Center. (2020). The liver: Anatomy and functions.
  4. Tarantino, G., Citro, V., & Finelli, C. (2014). Recreational drugs: A new health hazard for patients with concomitant chronic liver diseases. Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases, 23(1), 79-84.
  5. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4131. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
  6. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  7. National Kidney Foundation. (2020). Drinking alcohol affects your kidneys.
  8. Akkina, S.K., Ricardo, A.C., Patel, A., Das, A., Bazzano, L.A., Brecklin, C., … & Lash, J.P. (2012). Illicit drug use, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease in the U.S. adult population. Translational Research, 160(6), 391-398.
  9. Philpott, H.L., Nandurkar, S., Lubel, J., & Gibson, P.R. (2014). Drug-induced gastrointestinal disorders. Frontline Gastroenterology, 5, 49-57.
  10. Leggio, L., Ray, L.A., Kenna, G.A., & Swift, R.M. (2009). Blood glucose level, alcohol heavy drinking, and alcohol craving during treatment for alcohol dependence: Results from the Combined Pharmacotherapies and Behavioral Interventions for Alcohol Dependence (COMBINE) study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 33(9), 1539-1544.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol and cancer.
  12. S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
  13. de Gage, S.B., Moride, Y., Ducruet, T., Kurth, T., Verdoux, H., Tournier, M., … Bégaud, B. (2014). Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: Case-control study. The BMJ, 349, 1-10.
  14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). How do hallucinogens (LSD, psilocybin, peyote, DMT, and ayahuasca) affect the brain and body?
  15. Sansone, A., Di Dato, C., de Angelis, C., Menafra, D., Pozza, C., Pivonello, R., … & Gianfrilli, D. (2018). Smoke, alcohol and drug addiction and male fertility. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 16(1), 1-11.
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