Substance abuse may be too many drinks at happy hour on a regular basis or getting high with friends at a party. For others, it’s bingeing on cocaine at home after work. Abusing drugs or alcohol is something the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids notes 23.1 million people are all too familiar with. But where does one cross the line from abuse to addiction?
Addiction is present when key signs point toward the substance use no longer being an occasional or social behavior. Do you feel like you can’t stop using? Perhaps you have tried to quit and failed, or even attempted to scale back how much or how often you use and haven’t been successful. Maybe you want to stop, but when you try, you start feeling withdrawal symptoms and use again to prevent things from getting any more uncomfortable. When you aren’t using, are you thinking about it? Do your friends and family miss hanging out with you and complain about your absences at social functions? Have you been arrested, or faced financial distress or broken relationships due to your drug abuse, and still can’t quit? If even a few of these situations sound like your life, you may be addicted.
Health Risks of Substance Abuse
The potential pitfalls can be life-threatening. Fox News accounts for over 41,000 people dying as a result of drug overdoses in 2012.
The following are risk factors associated with substance abuse and dependency:
- Musculoskeletal effects
- Heart troubles
- Mental health issues
- Respiratory effects
- Infectious diseases
- Neurological effects
- Prenatal impacts
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Gastrointestinal side effects
1. Musculoskeletal Effects
Most commonly seen among individuals who use steroids, PCP, MDMA, or inhalants, damages to the skeletal system are not unheard of among drug abusers. In fact, even regulated doses of steroids during the adolescent years can impact hormone production and consequently bone growth. Prolonged substance abuse can also make you prone to muscular weakness and lethargy.One issue seen in IV drug users is osteomyelitis, a bone infection that can wear away at bone density. It typically develops in injection drug abusers who use dirty needles or preparation equipment. Often thought of as a disease that stems from a mere lack of calcium, osteoporosis is strongly linked to drug abuse, too.
Even nicotine that is absorbed from smoking cigarettes is linked to increased bone loss, because the drug removes calcium from the bones. Per the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a study conducted on identical twins — of which only one was a long-term smoker — showed a 44 percent increased risk of bone fractures in the smoker than the non-smoker. Osteopenia — a more acute form of bone loss — has appeared in opiate abusers and often leads to osteoporosis.
Many people ignore their oral health, and substance abusers make up a big part of that demographic. Stimulant abuse is regularly to blame for tooth decay and even temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). It isn’t always the drug itself, but the poor habit of grinding one’s teeth that comes with it. Stimulants can also desensitize salivary glands, which decreases saliva production, thereby diminishing protection from dental damage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, osteoarthritis affected 26.9 million American adults as of 2005. Many of them were drug abusers who suffered from nutritional deficiencies.
2. Heart Trouble
Milder drugs like marijuana and nicotine have been proven to inflict a great deal of damage on the cardiovascular system. Likewise, the effects can be even more harmful from drugs like ketamine, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, inhalants, and more. The CDC notes about 80 percent of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are due to smoking, as are 30 percent or more of cancer-related deaths.
Harder drugs also have known effects on heart health. The Atlantic reported on the results of a comparison study between 20 regular cocaine users and 20 non-users; those who used coke had a 30-35 percent increase in aortic hardening, and their heart’s left ventricle walls were 18 percent thicker.
From arrhythmias to full-blown heart attacks, drug abuse has lasting cardiovascular effects. Injection drug users often suffer from collapsed veins. Using dirty needles can also lead to infections in the blood vessels.
3. Mental Health
Drug abuse can cause a variety of substance-induced mental health disorders. The Journal of Psychiatry notes the results of one study in which 15 percent of marijuana users reported psychotic symptoms. Fortunately, these issues generally resolve shortly after detox.
That being said, other drugs, such as stimulants, can cause lasting effects on your mental health. For example, cocaine binds to dopamine receptors to flood the brain with the feel-good hormone, resulting in a euphoric high. However, for those who abuse it regularly, these receptors essentially forget how to work without cocaine driving them, and they can actually decrease in function and die. For this reason, many who detox and recover from a cocaine addiction struggle with depression for years to come.
Interestingly, people who suffer from mental illness are far more likely to battle drug addiction to begin with.
According to the National Institute on Mental Illness, half of all people with a severe form of mental illness also have a substance abuse problem.
4. Respiratory Effects
Typical respiratory effects induced by substance abuse include bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. These are most often seen in cigarette smokers, but they can stem from smoking other drugs, as well. The American Lung Association claims smoking is the cause of 90 percent of deaths from lung cancer and 80-90 percent of deaths resulting from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Some drugs, such as opiates, can also cause depressed breathing, which can lead to coma and death.
5. Infectious Diseases
Intravenous drug users carry the biggest risk of contracting an infectious disease. This demographic accounted for 8 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The risk for contracting hepatitis C is even greater.
Obviously, a host of side effects can stem from being infected with these diseases, such as nerve problems, chronic pain, anemia, and cirrhosis of the liver. In addition, drug abuse has been linked to an increased likelihood of engaging in unsafe sex practices, which can also lead to the contraction of infectious diseases.
6. Neurological Effects
Certain drugs may act on dopamine receptors to produce periods of euphoria while you are abusing them. When you stop using, those same receptors can have a very difficult time bouncing back to normal. Full functionality may never be restored for some people. Drug abuse can also impact your memory and cause problems with maintaining attention even after you’ve stopped using. More severe side effects include seizures and stroke.
Nicotine products seem to be the most likely of all drug substances to cause cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates 221,000 more people will be newly diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. Men’s Health notes heavy marijuana smokers may be as much as six times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-marijuana users. Many people mistakenly believe cigars are a safer alternative, but the National Institutes of Health reports that cigar smokers who inhale have an astounding 27-fold increased risk of developing oral cancer, along with 53 times the risk for cancer of the larynx and 15 times the risk of cancer of the esophagus, compared to non-smokers.
Even smokeless tobacco has been shown to increase the risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of oral cancer in a cumulative study of worldwide smokeless tobacco users is as high as 80 percent, in addition to a 60 percent risk of esophageal cancer, per U.S. News.
8. Prenatal Impacts
Use of illicit substances while pregnant certainly isn’t advisable, but many pregnant women use regardless. Drug War Facts notes 5.4 percent of pregnant women aged 15-44 used illicit drugs during their pregnancy. In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 18 percent of expectant mothers consume alcohol during early pregnancy when fetal development is in its most crucial stages.
When you’re carrying a developing child, the effects of drugs and alcohol can be serious for the unborn baby. The dangers of substance abuse during pregnancy in any amount or frequency range from low birth weight and an increased risk of miscarriage to premature birth and developmental problems.
9. Liver Damage
Most people are aware of the consequences alcohol abuse can have on the liver. Over time, alcohol erodes the liver’s ability to filter blood. According to the American Liver Foundation, 10-20 percent of all heavy drinkers end up with cirrhosis of the liver — a fatal disease that slowly causes liver failure.What many don’t understand is that illicit drugs can be just as harmful for the organ. Inhalants act quite similarly to alcohol. As a result of these forms of substance abuse, the liver suffers from a lack of oxygen and the body cannot fully recover from its absence. In addition, carbon tetrachloride — a common ingredient found in many popularly abused inhalants — has been linked to liver disease, as well as damage to other vital organs including the heart and kidneys. Injection drug users are at particular risk of liver damage due to their increased likelihood of contracting hepatitis. Some will suffer with the effects of fatty liver disease, as well.
10. Kidney Damage
Inhalants, MDMA, PCP, and heroin have all been shown to have ill effects on the kidneys. One National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism publication notes a 33 percent increased kidney weight in alcohol-dependent people with cirrhosis compared to those without the disease.The kidneys’ job is to filter blood and assist in the production of liquid waste. When they are impaired, urine can back up into the kidneys and cause a dangerous and potentially deadly condition known as reflux nephropathy. Illicit drugs bring their own side effects. UptoDate attests to acute cases of kidney failure in cocaine abusers. Kidney failure can also occur as a result of too much protein in the urine, which is often a side effect of heroin and prescription opioid pain reliever abuse.
11. Gastrointestinal Impacts
Many drugs can slow digestion and cause nausea and vomiting, but some inflict more severe issues. The biggest problem lies in the mucous membrane, which protects the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Drugs like cocaine and heroin break down this lining and can cause it to be permanently eroded. When this happens, the tract has no protection from permanent damage that can occur, such as perforations in organ walls.
Obviously, death is the ultimate consequence of a substance-abusing lifestyle. Sometimes it’s abrupt, as is the case for the tens of thousands who overdose every year. Other times, it may be due to effects that have stemmed from prolonged substance abuse, such as cancer and many of the other conditions that have been mentioned here.
The road to recovery can be long and winding. While sobriety won’t happen overnight, it will happen if you stay committed. Fortunately, most of the mental, physical, and emotional side effects that stem from substance abuse and addiction can be rectified when you stop using. Treatment is the first step to getting you there. Detox and continued care that incorporates intensive therapy are needed.
Call The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake today to discuss how treatment can change your life.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake 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.