The Health Complications of Addiction
A traditional path to a drug addiction problem might sound like this: First, the person makes a choice to use a drug just one time, just for fun. Next, the person finds that feelings of sickness appear when drugs aren’t taken. And finally, the person feels both a physical and a psychological need for drugs that takes over almost every aspect of the person’s life.That is a typical progression, but as Robin L. Hoover, RN, MSN, CADCi, Director of Nursing at American Addiction Centers, points out, addiction can be variable.
“The condition of addiction knows no boundaries in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic status, education, profession, religion, culture, marital status, etc…An addicted person’s motivation to seek treatment and embrace recovery is as broad and varied as the population of sufferers themselves.”
But one thing that might motivate people to get care, or to stick with treatment plans once they start, involves the health complications addiction can deliver.
“Health complications are among the motivational factors, but certainly not necessarily the most convincing and rarely the sole rationale,” she cautions. “Many other factors come in to play for most addicted people, such as legal, financial, relationship, child custody, job/professional, family pressure, loss of loved ones through drug use, loss of basic needs (food, shelter, clothing), and more. But in my experience, the more mature addicts perceive health complications as a worthy inspiration.”
That means it might behoove families to understand the health complications associated with addiction, so they can provide people with addictions a reason to consider rehab. Should that addicted person agree to treatment, that information could help people to stick with care once it starts.
Complications by Length of Use
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Some people march right into treatment plans early in the addiction process. But it is not at all unusual for people to live with addictions for very long periods of time before they get the help they need. For example, in a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, researchers found that people who took heroin had an average time gap of nine years between first use and entry into a treatment program. That means many people spend about a decade using drugs before they get help, and they can face very specific health complications every step of the way.
Immediate-Use Health Concerns
Health consequences associated with immediate use are those issues that appear just minutes after taking in a drug of abuse. When asked about immediate risks of drug use, Hoover came up with 28 different types of consequences, ranging from mild (drowsiness, confusion) to severe (loss of consciousness, tremors). She points out that some immediate consequences can lead to other types of consequences in time. She says,
“The immediate complications may create new health risks, such as increased risk for falls, accidents, sharing needles (leading to abscesses, hepatitis C, or HIV), and sexual promiscuity (leading to HIV, STDs, and unwanted and high-risk pregnancies)”.
The most serious immediate concern involves overdose, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 20,000 people died in 2013 due to an overdose of prescription drugs. Many more lost their lives to overdoses on other drugs like heroin, cocaine, or barbiturates. An overdose takes hold when the drug of abuse is stronger than the body’s ability to process that drug. Sometimes, the drugs suppress breathing, so people slide into deep sleeplike states. Sometimes, the drugs boost heart rates, which can tax the heart to such a degree that a heart attack can develop. And sometimes, the drugs produce a profound lack of muscle control, which can lead to a stopped heart.
In addition to these very physical health concerns associated with the immediate use of drugs, people who take in these substances can also experience very strange, altered rates of perception. They might see things others cannot see, or they might hear voices others cannot hear. While under the influence of drugs, these people might run into traffic, attempt to operate machinery, or take on some other task that can lead to an accident. Sometimes, people under the influence commit violent acts, and they face law enforcement action. These immediate consequences may not be explicitly linked to health, but it is easy to see how they might have an impact on a person’s overall physical condition. In addition, some drugs cause a rebound hangover, and that can lead to continued drug use. People who feel ill after using may use again, just to make the discomfort stop, and that can set them up for a lifetime of using and abusing drugs.
Short-Term Health Concerns
Immediate health consequences are easy to understand, and they can be very hard to ignore. But some health impacts tied to drugs are not as clear-cut. Specifically, some health issues are tied to continued use of the drug over a period of weeks or months. These short-term health concerns can be quite serious. For example, some people with long-term drug abuse issues spend a great deal of time getting, taking, and sharing drugs. They may spend an equally long time recovering from the drugs they have tried. All that work can come at the expense of nutrition. People using drugs at this level may not eat nutritious meals on a regular schedule, or they may just eat the foods they can find in fast-food joints and all-night mini-marts. They may lose a great deal of weight, and they may start to experience dental health issues, too.
An infectious disease can develop when drug users share needles with one another. The tiniest drop of blood left inside a needle has the power to infect another person. Infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis are also considered short-term health consequences of drug use. Unfortunately, they are common consequences of continued drug use. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that people who inject drugs make up about 8 percent of the estimated new HIV infections recorded in 2010.
Some people develop HIV and hepatitis as an STD through unsafe sex practices. While under the influence of drugs or alcohol, users can have lower inhibitions, making it easy for people to make poor decisions about their health and their practices. In addition to the risk of acquiring an infectious disease through needle sharing, these same users with lower inhibitions could abandon the use of condoms or other safe sex practices.
Long-Term Health Concerns
STDs and infectious diseases can certainly be part of short-term health consequences associated with drugs, but many can be successfully treated with medications. Unfortunately, addiction can make life so chaotic that sticking to a medication routine can be very difficult for people to accomplish. Some people who have these types of disease blame their symptoms on the drugs they continue to take.
As a result, long-term health consequences associated with drugs can include deaths due to these chronic and acute diseases. In a study of the issue in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that about 27 percent of drug users had died within 20 years of starting regular use of drugs,and only half of those deaths were not tied to HIV in some way. Studies like this show, quite clearly, how drugs can impede overall health and how STDs and other infectious diseases can be incredibly serious. It’s important to note, too, that the risk of disease is not only associated with needle drugs like heroin. AIDS.gov reports that alcohol, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and club drugs like ecstasy have all been linked to a boost in STD transmission. That means anyone could have this issue.
Complications by Drug Category
While some health consequences seem to happen to anyone who uses drugs, no matter the substance, there are some health issues that are exclusively tied to one particular type of drug. Some drug users dabble in the use of more than one drug at the same time. For example, a study in the Journal of American College Health suggests that students using ecstasy were very likely to use other substances, either in conjunction with ecstasy or in solo drug-use sessions. Clearly, some people do not develop an addiction to just one drug. At least some people mix and match substances. But some people do take just one drug over a long period of time, and these people can face serious health problems as a result.
Drugs like Valium, Xanax, and Haldol are all considered depressant drugs, and all of them can cause what experts at the Department of Labor call mental clouding. While under the influence, people may seem sedated, sleepy, and slow. They may also:
- Slur speech
- Stagger while walking
- Breathe slowly
- Experience unusual sensations
If taken in large enough doses, or in combination with other substances like alcohol, depressants can lead to coma and death. But in lower doses, people can be cut off from their emotions and feelings. They may feel emotionally blunted, and that could lead to relationship distress. A loss of personal connections could lead to a boost in drug use, and that could lead to overdose. Depressants can also linger in the body, and when people attempt to stop drug use, they can experience life-threatening complications, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A brain long sedated by depressants can be unprepared for sobriety, and when it appears, seizures can develop. A slow and steady approach to sobriety is required, but people with addictions may be unaware of that fact, and they may lose their lives in an attempt to get better.
Drugs like PCP and so-called magic mushrooms tinker with brain chemistry, causing a distortion in what people see, feel, and experience. This distortion may seem pleasant to the person choosing to take drugs, especially if the drug use takes place in a safe space. But the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that some of these drugs cause a rebound sense of hallucination. People who experience this syndrome can be thrust into the middle of a hallucination at completely inopportune times, including when they are working or driving, and they may become so afraid of the next episode that they develop symptoms of an anxiety disorder. There are also short-term risks associated with hallucinogens, Hoover says.
“In my opinion, hallucinogens most definitely pose health risks. Some people don’t believe they are as addictive as other drugs, and there may be some truth to that,” Hoover says. “However, they can cause significant changes in blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. People who take them can experience sleeplessness, weight loss, decreased appetite, depression, profuse sweating, decreased muscle co-ordination, and numbness in the extremities.” “Hallucinogenic drugs by definition distort the perception of reality, which in itself can be very dangerous,” she says. “And these drugs are unpredictable, making them all the more dangerous.”
Many of the health concerns associated with opiates are immediate, as this class of drugs is closely associated with overdoses. But an overdose is not the only risk associated with opiate abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that long-term use of opiates can lead to a form of brain damage.
People who take these drugs may experience many episodes of slow, low breathing, and each of these episodes could cause damage to brain cells. In time, people may have lasting damage that could impair decision-making abilities.Opiates can also impact cells in the digestive tract. Typically, drug doses make food and water move incredibly slowly through the digestive tract, and that slow movement can lead to constipation. After years of constipation, some people may develop pockets of disease in the bowels. Some people may find that they can no longer have bowel movements unless they use laxatives.
People who abuse stimulants like cocaine or Ritalin may not be at risk of sedation and brain tissue death due to that sedation, but they can put their hearts through repeated episodes of strain and stress as their addictions grind on. This longstanding abuse can lead to tissue death, deep inside the heart, and that can lead to heart attack or stroke. In addition, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term use of stimulants can change brain cell activity. Some people who keep taking these drugs can develop symptoms of psychosis or paranoia due to that brain tissue damage.
Complications Associated with Administration
The types of drugs used, and the length of the drug addiction, are responsible for the vast majority of health problems practitioners face. But some health problems can be tied to the way people take in drugs.
Eating drugs in pill or powder form means putting volatile substances in contact with the sensitive tissues of the mouth and digestive tract. Some drugs, like painkillers, are made to go through the body in this way, but other drugs are simply not designed to work with these sensitive digestive tissues. Sometimes, putting these tissues in contact with drugs leads to serious health consequences. Cocaine, for example, constricts blood vessels on contact. People who routinely swallow cocaine may kill off tissues in the digestive tract, which can lead to bowel obstructions and/or bowel blockages.
Some people choose to ignite their drugs and breathe in the vapors, rather than dealing with the digestive system. Unfortunately, many drugs are simply impure, and when they are ignited, their vapors contain substances that are toxic to the human body. Drugs like crack cocaine are terribly harmful to the mouth and lungs, while some types of marijuana also produce toxic smoke. That toxicity can lead to cancerous changes in the mouth, tongue, throat, or lungs. And the website run by the Wales Drug and Alcohol Hotline suggests that other health conditions like bronchitis and emphysema can also come from smoking drugs.
“I have not seen any studies on this topic, but it stands to reason that any time foreign substances are breathed into the lungs, there is a risk for damage to the respiratory system,” Hoover says. “Does it cause cancer or COPD at the same rate as smoking tobacco? I’m not sure how much this has been studied.”
People who choose to smoke drugs may be using their own bodies to answer that question, and the results of their experiments could be life-threatening.
Taking in drugs through nasal passages is another semi-popular method, as it puts intoxicating substances into the bloodstream almost immediately. But the tissues inside the nose and throat can take the brunt of each hit, and sometimes, they can collapse and/or die off due to constant use of drugs. People who use cocaine through their noses may, for example, experience a collapse of the bones that hold the nose in place, as those tissues may be starved for blood and nutrition due to the constant presence of drugs. In addition, people who snort drugs may share their sniffing tools. According to the Trip Project in Canada, sharing tools can lead to cross-contamination of blood products, and that could lead to the spread of diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Every time a person shares tools, this risk can go up. Without proper treatment, some of these diseases can be life-threatening.
Some drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine, can be melted or manipulated into a liquid state, and that liquid can be popped into a needle and shot into a person’s veins. This is one of the most dangerous ways to take drugs, as each and every prick of the needle can do damage to sensitive cells. Some people develop scarring in veins and arteries due to long-term needle use. Those scars can lead to heart attacks or strokes, and some people develop infections near the sites they inject drugs. Injecting drugs can also lead to body-wide infections, as many people who inject drugs share equipment. The people they share with may have AIDS, hepatitis, or another form of blood-borne illness.
Hoover also suggests that injecting drugs can be dangerous. “An injection crosses the blood/brain barrier directly and rapidly, increasing addictive qualities,” she says. “And users who convert a powder or pill form of a drug to a liquid form in order to ‘shoot it up’ run the risk of particles entering the circulatory system that may cause a cardiac event or stroke.”
That is a consequence that might befall someone who chooses to crush a painkiller pill, like Vicodin, and inject that pill when it is mixed with liquid. The ingredients in these pills are not made for blood vessels, and exposing them to blood vessels can lead to all sorts of terrible consequences.
In addition to smoking, snorting, and shooting drugs, some people choose to take in drugs through the skin, through a method called adsorption. They may use drugs specifically made for this purpose, or they may make up a paste of another type of drug and slather that on the skin. This may seem safe, but a study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology suggests that it can be difficult to measure how much of a drug gets into the body with this method of administration. Some parts of skin are thinner, so they are more permeable to drugs. And other parts of skin may be fragile or broken, allowing drugs to move right in through the blood. Some people overdose because of these issues. Some people can also develop skin irritations due to the substances they put on their skin cells.
Frequently Asked Questions
What drugs cause the most health complications?
Every drug comes with its own set of risks and complications. Researchers often like to compare one drug to another, in terms of its dangers. In one such article, highlighted by The Economist, researchers determined that heroin was the most harmful drug to users, while alcohol was the most harmful drug for people spending time with the user.It is best to remember, however, that every drug could be dangerous, depending on the person taking that drug. And even so-called “safer” drugs could be incredibly deadly if they are taken in high doses or in combination with other drugs.
What does acetaminophen do to the body?Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter medication that can alleviate mild-to-moderate pain. Chemists sometimes mix acetaminophen with opiates, producing painkillers that can alleviate discomfort while boosting signals of pleasure. People who become addicted to these medications are typically attached to that opiate signal, but they may take in a great deal of acetaminophen each day, as the two drugs are combined in the same pill. According to the Food and Drug Administration, taking more than 4 grams of acetaminophen each day can cause serious liver damage. That damage can be so severe, in fact, that it could cause death.
What’s worse on the body: smoking or injecting drugs?
Make no mistake: Both methods of drug use can be intensely hard on the health of the body. But in a study of 400 people who abused methamphetamine on a regular basis, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, researchers found that people who injected the drug had higher levels of drug dependence than those who smoked the drug. That is probably due to the speed with which injecting puts a drug in contact with the cells of the brain. That speed causes a huge reaction inside the brain, and that big shift could lead to a quick development of addictive tendencies. Injecting drugs can also lead to intensive scarring inside blood vessels, and that could lead to heart attack or stroke. People who inject drugs and share needles run the risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
What’s the difference between a side effect and a withdrawal symptom?
Side effects and withdrawal symptoms tend to be very different. For example, an article in Pain Physician suggests that side effects linked to opiates include dizziness, slow breathing, and constipation. They tend to appear during the time people are taking opiates. Withdrawal symptoms associated with opiates, on the other hand, are often compared to flu symptoms. People feel nauseated, weak, and sweaty. Those withdrawal symptoms take hold hours after the last dose of drugs, when the body is transitioning to sobriety.
How does having a disease contribute to the effects and dangers of drug use?
Living with a disease often means attending to a number of medical details, including:
- Dietary changes
- Prescription use
- Drug testing
- Exercise routines
People who attend to their condition with care and diligence might keep their health concern under control, but an addiction can inject an element of chaos into life. People might slip on managing their health details, and that could allow the medical condition to grow much more severe in a short period of time.
What are the health concerns of mixing drugs and alcohol?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that mixing alcohol with medications can cause all sorts of side effects, including nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and loss of coordination. In extreme cases, mixing medications with alcohol can boost the risk of internal bleeding, breathing difficulties, and heart problems. Mixing alcohol with illicit drugs is no less risky, as some drugs are strengthened by alcohol. Opiate drugs like heroin, for example, are already sedating. Adding the sedation of alcohol to this already sedating drug can lead to issues like coma.
What are needle exchange programs, and why do they exist?
Many of the health risks involved with injecting drugs concern infection. Specifically, people who use needles to take drugs may share their needles with other drug users. Sometimes, those shared needles contain specs of blood-borne pathogens, including those associated with hepatitis or AIDS. Needle exchange programs allow people who inject drugs to gain access to clean, safe needles. It is not a program that is designed to promote abstinence, but people who use these programs may be encouraged to enroll in treatment each time they come in for new needles.
Are there OTC medications to treat a drug overdose?
Sadly, no. In some states, including Washington, according to StopOverdose.org, people concerned about overdose risks can get a prescription for a medication that can be used in the event of an overdose. But other states do not make this drug available to people who do not have a medical license, and no state makes the drug available over the counter (at least, not at the time of this writing).
Can excessive drug use cause irreversible damage to the body?
In some cases, yes. People who abuse a great deal of alcohol over a very long period of time, for example, can experience a severe form of liver disease. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, some people need liver transplants, as their livers cannot be treated. But many of the medical concerns caused by drug use can be either controlled or eradicated with the right treatment plan. Fears about irreversible health problems should not keep people out of treatment. Proper care can always improve the situation.
Can drug use cause permanent brain damage?
Unfortunately, some of the damage caused by these drugs can be permanent. Other brain cell issues, however, can be treated with medications and diet changes. Much of that depends on the amount of time the brain cells have been exposed to drugs, along with the type of drugs people have taken.
“I would like addicted people to know that they have a right to a substance-free quality of life, there is hope for them to achieve their dreams, and they are worth the effort it takes to live in recovery,” Hoover says.
That is a message that is easy to forget. Substances of abuse can seem so powerful and so overwhelming that people might find it difficult to fight back, despite the health consequences the use can cause. But many of the medical concerns here can be treated, and addiction can be effectively managed. People can, and should, fight back. Their physical and mental health depends upon it.
- Central Nervous System
- Chemical Imbalance
- Dental Health Due to Drug Use
- Drugs and Cholesterol
- Effects of Use to the Nose
- What Drugs Can Do to the Skin
- Drug Induced Coma
- Permanent Effects of Abuse
- Reversing Alcohol Damage
- Signs of Use in the Eyes
- Effects on the Skeletal System
- Concerns of Heart Disease
- HIV and Aids from Drug Use