Addiction to any substance, whether legal or illegal, can in some cases lead to serious health conditions. Unfortunately, substance abuse and addiction have reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the world, including the United States. In 2017, for example, an estimated 11.2% of people ages 12 and older in the U.S. used an illegal, intoxicating substance in the previous month.1
Some substances, like alcohol and nicotine, are legal for people over a certain age, but many people still struggle with addiction to these substances. Other substances, like synthetic drugs or inhalants, can be extremely dangerous because of their unpredictable, harmful effects on those using them.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the serious health conditions that may be caused or worsened by substance abuse, including:
- Diminished immune system function and infection.
- Cardiovascular problems.
- Gastrointestinal issues.
- Respiratory problems.
- Liver damage.
- Kidney damage.
- Neurological issues.
Health Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
The abuse of drugs or alcohol can cause changes to brain chemistry. Further, the substance is often processed through many different body systems, potentially causing wider spread damage.2 These changes can lead to lasting damage.
If you are worried about your or a loved one’s health due to their substance abuse, know there is help out there. See how addiction treatment at a facility like Sunrise House could change your life and help you get on the road to recovery: just call 888-420-9678.
Below you’ll find some of the most common health conditions caused or made worse by drug or alcohol abuse.
Infections and Immune System Damage
Drugs that are injected intravenously carry a very high risk of infection, especially from HIV, hepatitis B and C, or bacterial infections from sharing dirty needles.3 Other drugs also increase the risk of certain infections, such as upper respiratory infections from snorting or smoking drugs.4
The euphoria associated with many intoxicating substances, especially alcohol, cocaine, and narcotics, can lower inhibitions, which increases the chance of taking sexual risks and contracting an STI. Some drugs, like cocaine, directly impact the immune system’s ability to create white blood cells, which reduces immune response to infection.5
Experts estimate that around half of all adult patients with pneumonia have abused alcohol in the past. Those with alcohol abuse issues and pneumococcal pneumonia see more severe complications and a higher rate of mortality than pneumonia patients who have not abused alcohol.6
Stimulants can increase a user’s heart rate while CNS depressants can slow it down. Consistent high or low blood pressure may be associated with an increased risk of blood clots, ischemic injury, and other circulatory problems such as aortic or coronary arterial dissection.5, 7
Many intoxicating substances can cause irregular heartbeat. Stimulants, like cocaine or methamphetamines, can lead to overdose deaths from cardiac arrest.
Those who abuse alcohol are at higher risks of:8
- Respiratory syncytial virus infection.
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Taking drugs intravenously can also have negative cardiovascular effects, such as local and disseminated vascular inflammation, cardiac valve infections, and otherwise a potential for increased exposure to several bloodborne infectious processes.9
Drugs that are ingested orally, such as alcohol or prescription drugs like opioids or ADHD medication can cause harm to the digestive system.10 Opioids can lead to chronic constipation, and other substances can cause stomach upset, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting.11
Chronic indigestion (such as that associated with chronic drinking) is called gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), which can damage the esophagus and make eating certain foods painful. Frequent, substance-related vomiting can also cause damage to the esophagus and lead to problems with malnutrition.12
Alcohol abuse is additionally associated with:13, 14
- Reflux esophagitis.
- Increased GI cancer risk.
- Mallory-Weiss tears (ruptured lower esophagus resulting in GI bleeding).
- Malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies.
Cocaine and methamphetamine use is also associated with some dangerous gastrointestinal issues, such as mesenteric arterial vasospasm, which can lead to a loss of blood supply between the heart and the gastrointestinal system. This can lead to ischemic colitis and, in severe cases, bowel tissue death, known as bowel necrosis.14
Smoking any drug can damage alveoli in the lungs and make the upper respiratory system more susceptible to infections.4
Some CNS depressants, especially opioids, can slow breathing or make breathing shallow or irregular.15 If a person overdoses on opioids or some other CNS depressants, hypoxia can lead to death; however, if a person has a reduced or depressed breathing pattern for a long time due to addiction, their body could also become starved of oxygen, leading to damage to other organ systems.15
Chronic alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of community-acquired pneumonia, such as those caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae.16
The liver is involved with nutrient metabolization, but is also a primary site of detoxification for many types of consumed substances.17
In the face of constantly high levels of certain drugs, the liver can become overwhelmed in its metabolic duties, and the tissues of the organ begin to break down.17 Alcohol, inhalants, heroin, and steroids can all rapidly damage the liver, causing cirrhosis or hepatitis.
Alcohol, especially, can lead to a spectrum of liver disease that ranges from the relatively mild (alcoholic steatohepatitis, known as fatty liver) to more severe inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis) to progressive fibrosis and scarring of the liver parenchyma (cirrhosis). Cirrhosis is itself a risk factor for the development of liver cancer.18
The kidneys also filter toxins out of the bloodstream, so they are affected by large amounts of any dangerous substance in the blood. Some drugs are associated with a condition known as rhabdomyolysis, which is the breakdown of muscle tissue that floods the bloodstream with toxic levels of muscle cell contents, including a large protein known as myoglobin; as a result, the kidneys may become overwhelmed and unable to filter toxins efficiently.19
This can result in progressive kidney damage, leading up to renal failure that requires dialysis.20 Drugs like heroin or other opioids that result in respiratory depression and an associated reduction in the amount of oxygen the body takes in can also cause kidney damage.20 Also, additives and impurities in some illicit street drugs may also clog the small vessels that supply blood to the kidneys after being injected, resulting in damage to these vital organs.
When a person struggles with substance abuse for a long time, the brain adapts. As it does so, certain changes in brain chemistry accompany the development of physical dependence to the substance in question.21
In addition to physical dependence, consistent use of an addictive substance may ultimately lead to addiction, a brain disorder. As addiction develops, regions of the brain involved with several key functions such as reward/pleasure, decision making, and impulse control, may undergo changes.21
Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other sedative-hypnotics are central nervous system depressants, meaning they reduce excitatory brain signaling, leading to a greater sense of calm or relaxation.22 At high enough doses, these drugs are also associated with movement problems, significant cognitive impairment, and memory loss.
Stimulants like cocaine, meth, ecstasy, and some other designer drugs increase neuron firing, leading to greater attention, emotional highs, and physical energy. However, once these drugs begin to leave the body, negative side effects may develop as the brain may be slower to restore balance to neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.23
Rehabilitation Promotes Healing from Substance Abuse Harm
In order to stop the harmful effects of intoxicating substances, it is important to safely detox with a medical professional’s help and enter a comprehensive rehabilitation program. A rehabilitation program like Sunrise House offers therapy to understand the roots of substance abuse problems and to develop skills to avoid relapse. Ending an addiction or substance abuse problem gives the body time to heal, and damage to the body can be reversed or reduced.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Illicit drug use.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health consequences of drug misuse.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Respiratory effects.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Cocaine: what are the short-term effects of cocaine use?
- Bhatty, M., Pruett, S.B., Swiatlo, E., & Nanduri, B. (2011). Alcohol abuse and Streptococcus pneumonia infections: consideration of virulence factors and impaired immune responses. Alcohol 45 (6), 523-539.
- Ghuran, A., van der Wieken, L.R., & Nolan, J. (2001). Cardiovascular complications of recreational drugs. BMJ 323 (7311), 464-466.
- Simet, S. M. & Sisson, J.H. (2015). Alcohol’s effects on lung health and immunity. Alcohol Research 37(2), 199-208.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017) Cardiovascular effects.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Gastrointestinal effects.
- Sizar, O. & Gupta, M. (2019). Opioid-induced constipation. StatPearls.
- Chen, S., Wang, J., & Li, Y. (2010). Is alcohol consumption associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease?Journal of Zhejiang University. Science 11(6), 423-428.
- Bishehsari, F., Magno, E.,Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R.M., Forsyth, C.B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and gut-derived Inflammation. Alcohol Research 38(2), 163-171.
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What classes of prescription drugs are commonly misused?
- Simou, E., Britton, J., & Leonardi-Bee, J. (2018). Alcohol and the risk of pneumonia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ open, 8(8), e022344.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Liver damage.
- National Health Service (NHS). (2018). Alcohol-related liver disease.
- Torres, P. A., Helmstetter, J. A., Kaye, A. M., & Kaye, A. D. (2015). Rhabdomyolysis: pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. The Ochsner journal, 15(1), 58–69.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Kidney damage.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Neurological effects.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Prescription CNS depressants.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Your brain on stimulants, part 2: types of stimulants.