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COVID-19 & Addiction: Risks of Going Untreated

COVID-19 (the coronavirus) has been in the news and top of mind over the last week. Although the coronavirus is a severe public health concern, the disease of addiction is also a serious and challenging one to battle. Couple this with a co-occurring mental health disorder, and it can feel overwhelming. However, this is a battle that can be won with a supportive team.

Updates about COVID-19 are evolving continually, which causes changes to protocols, recommendations, and policies for healthcare professionals. We at American Addiction Centers (AAC) are monitoring daily and are updating our procedures and policies as necessary in line with guidance from the CDC (Center of Disease Control and Protection), WHO (World Health Organization), as well as federal and state authorities. We are committed to supporting our patients and their families who suffer from and are directly impacted by the disease of addiction.

Addiction Treatment: Should I Postpone?

Even with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, confronting an addiction is paramount to the health of individuals struggling with compulsive substance use. It is important not to let the fear of COVID-19 stop you from starting a treatment program that can not only help you achieve long-term sobriety, but may ultimately save your life.

Like other progressive and chronic conditions, addiction doesn’t always align with life events, such as the coronavirus. Nevertheless, in many instances, postponing treatment isn’t always an option, and could even be detrimental.

Isolationism

For protection against contracting COVID-19, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and others have urged us to avoid close contact with others. Many individuals struggling with substance use disorders have already willingly self-isolated. While such steps are valuable precautions, it’s feasible that, for some, it could be associated with increased loneliness and isolation. This could compound the sense of isolation already felt by many struggling with active addictions, and may even exacerbate maladaptive thoughts and corresponding addiction behaviors.

Reaching out to talk with a doctor, therapist, or a supportive friend or family member about these feelings can be therapeutic in these instances.

According to AAC’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, MD, ABHM, FASAM, FAMA, “isolation can be dangerous and detrimental to an individual in recovery. Isolation lowers dopamine levels, which is the very neurotransmitter that the person in recovery previously replenished with substances. In this state, and left to their own devices, the relapse process can begin.”

Anxiety

For many, anxiety and addiction go hand-in-hand, and the symptoms of each condition may influence the development and progression of the other. The current state of COVID-19 is inherently stressful for most of us. These stresses can stem from the steady barrage of many variables. This includes the constantly changing (and sometimes contradictory) media reports, unknowns about the disease, and how it might impact our day-to-day—including school, work, and finances.

Additionally, there is the fear of contracting the illness ourselves, or that our friends and family members may contract it. Uncontrolled anxiety may make it more likely for problematic patterns of substance use to start and to persist.

Weakened immune system

It may be no surprise that various types of chronic substance use can impact our health and wellbeing. Different substances, when chronically misused, are associated with diminished immune system function, increased susceptibility to contracting certain infectious diseases, as well as various issues with our cardiopulmonary system (heart and lungs). In these cases, there are vital processes in our bodies that we want functioning at as high a level as possible to lessen the potential harm of the novel coronavirus.

Allowing substance use to continue in a way that could negatively influence these organ systems and associated physiological functions could presumably increase the adverse consequences faced by those who contract the illness. Treatment for compulsive substance use can slow, stop, or reverse some of the cumulative damage to our health, allowing us to thrive in our environment as much as possible.

According to AAC’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, MD, ABHM, FASAM, FAMA “The use of substances has been shown to suppress the function of immune response cells, thereby increasing the individual’s susceptibility to infections and infectious diseases.”

Waiting on getting treatment for a progressive condition for any reason

Many chronic and progressive conditions and their related health consequences don’t take breaks. This includes conditions like diabetes, hypertension, COPD, and even addiction. For example, postponing a visit to a hospital for treatment over a weekend could potentially lead to an individual’s severe condition progressing, potentially placing the individual in more critical need of medical attention than before. In some instances, addiction to alcohol and drugs is similar.

Isolating ourselves for any given amount of time rather than seeking treatment could have several adverse effects. In short, waiting to receive the treatment that you need right now could result in the condition getting worse, even if it’s incrementally.

According to Tamara Hall, PhD, LPC, LMHC, CAADC, CCS, ACS, director of clinical excellence and quality at AAC says, “With substance use, the isolation and fear associated with our current COVID-19 situation could exacerbate pre-existing conditions, increase current use behaviors, or escalate the probability of relapse.  Additionally, the increase in risk-taking behaviors associated with active addiction can give rise to situations wherein viral exposure is more likely.”

Hall goes on to say, “The mortality rate for certain substance use disorders is very high. With the additional precautionary and screening measures currently being taken by our facilities, individuals with addiction and co-occurring disorders may be safer in our care where they can receive the services and support they need rather than staying at home and engaging in unhealthy/unsafe behaviors.”

AAC recognizes our responsibility to support ongoing efforts to reduce social anxiety and fear associated with the spread of COVID-19.  One of the most important things we offer is a safe treatment environment where lives improve through the use of effective medical and psychological techniques designed to address addiction and co-occurring disorders.

 

 

Last Updated on April 22, 2020
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Scot Thomas, MD
Industry Expert
Dr. Scot Thomas is Senior Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers. He received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
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