Substance abuse and addiction are epidemics in many parts of the world, including the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, in 2014, over 10 percent of people ages 12 and older in the US used an illegal, intoxicating substance in the previous month. Some substances, like alcohol and cigarettes, 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, are very dangerous and have unpredictable, harmful effects on those using them.
Health Conditions as a Result of Substance Abuse
- Brain Damage
- Cardiovascular Problems
- Gastrointestinal Issues
- Respiratory Problems
- Liver Damage
- Kidney Damage
- Infections and Immune System Damage
When a person abuses drugs or alcohol for recreational purposes, the goal is often to get high. This involves changes to brain chemistry, and the substance is processed through many body systems. These changes can lead to lasting damage. Here are some of most common health conditions caused by drug or alcohol abuse:
- Brain Damage:
Since drugs and alcohol change brain chemistry, side effects range from irritability and mood swings to hallucinations and delusions. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, marijuana, and sedative-hypnotics are all central nervous system depressants, meaning they reduce chemical transfer and neuron firing, leading to a sense of relaxation and happiness. Stimulants like cocaine, meth, ecstasy, and 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 begin because the brain cannot restore balance to neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When a person struggles with substance abuse for a long time, their brain becomes dependent on the substance to control neurotransmitters, which begins to change brain chemistry. Eventually, parts of the brain change shape or size, which leads to mental health issues, personality changes, and physical problems.
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- Cardiovascular Problems:
Stimulants increase heart rate while CNS depressants slow it down. Both high and low blood pressure, when consistent, can cause damage to the circulatory system, leading to an increased risk of blood clots or circulation problems. Overdosing on an intoxicating substance can cause irregular heartbeat. Stimulants, like cocaine or methamphetamines, can lead to a heart attack because the drugs increase the body’s stress response.
- Gastrointestinal Issues:
Drugs that are ingested orally, such as alcohol, LSD, benzodiazepines, or prescription drugs like opioids or ADHD medication, can cause harm to the digestive system. Opioids and benzodiazepines both lead to chronic constipation, and other substances can cause stomach upset, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting. Chronic indigestion is called gastrointestinal reflux disease (GIRD), which can damage the esophagus and make eating certain foods painful. Frequent vomiting can also cause damage to the esophagus and lead to problems with malnutrition.
- Respiratory Problems:
Smoking any drug can damage alveoli in the lungs and make the upper respiratory system more susceptible to infections. As a result, the risk of lung cancer increases. Some CNS depressants, especially opioids, can slow breathing or make breathing shallow or irregular. 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.
- Liver Damage:
The liver is one of the primary organs that processes toxins and metabolizes nutrients, so when substances of addiction are processed through the digestive system, the liver metabolizes those toxins. When too many toxins are introduced, the liver cannot process them all, and the tissues of the organ begin to break down. Alcohol, inhalants, heroin, and steroids can all rapidly damage the liver, causing cirrhosis or hepatitis.
- Kidney Damage:
The kidneys also filter toxins out of the bloodstream, so they are very affected by large amounts of any dangerous substance in the blood. Many drugs cause rhabdomyolysis, which is the breakdown of muscle tissue that floods the bloodstream with toxic chemicals; the kidneys become overwhelmed and are unable to process all the toxins out. This can cause kidney damage, leading up to renal failure that requires dialysis. Drugs like heroin or other opioids that reduce the amount of oxygen the body takes in can also cause kidney damage, due to oxygen deprivation.
- 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. Other drugs also increase the risk of certain infections, such as upper respiratory infections from snorting or smoking drugs. 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.
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 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.