Medically Reviewed

Health Risks of Substance Abuse

9 min read · 2 sections
While substance misuse can adversely affect mental and emotional health, it can also take a serious toll on your physical health. Discover various health problems linked to drug and alcohol misuse as well as specific substances often associated with these conditions. Links to additional in-depth content are provided throughout.
What you will learn:
Health problems and diseases caused by drugs and alcohol.
System-specific info on substance abuse and its impact on the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, teeth, etc.
Substance abuse health risks related to: alcohol, cocaine, benzodiazepines, opioids, MDMA/ecstasy, heroin, meth, inhalants, marijuana, and more.

Health Issues Linked to Drug and Alcohol Misuse

According to data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 46.3 million people aged 12 and older had some type of substance use disorder within the last year.1 Additional studies reveal that drug use disorders accounted for 8 in every 100,000 deaths in 2019, and annually an estimated 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.2,3

Drug and alcohol use can have far-reaching physical effects beyond those associated with overdose and death. In fact, adverse effects of substance use can impact a host of body systems and organs, including everything from the cardiovascular, reproductive, and respiratory systems to the kidneys, brain, and teeth.4

The following content provides a broad overview of various health problems associated with using and misusing drugs and alcohol, along with insights about individual substances commonly linked to certain health conditions. For an in-depth look at specific body systems and substances that can negatively affect each, follow the link at the end of each section.

Impact of Substance Use on the Brain and CNS

Substance use is associated with various neurological and behavioral conditions, ranging from headaches and changes in mood and perception to seizures and cognitive disorders.4 In addition, substance use often leads to disinhibition, impulsivity, and impaired executive function, all of which are associated with risk-taking behaviors. These behaviors, then, can predispose people to injury and physical trauma such as violence, falls, burns, automobile crashes, etc.5 The resulting trauma can damage the brain, nerves, spinal cord, and more.4

Substance misuse over time can also permanently alter the brain, making it more difficult to achieve abstinence.6 And while substance use doesn’t always lead to addiction, a substance use disorder is a brain disease involving functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. It’s characterized by a compulsive need to use a substance despite its devastating consequences.

Substances linked to adverse brain and central nervous system effects include:

Explore more info about substance use and the brain and central nervous system.

Heart and Cardiovascular Health Issues Linked to Substance Use

The cardiovascular system (aka circulatory system) comprises the heart and blood vessels. Its purpose is to deliver nutrients and oxygen throughout the body and to return deoxygenated blood back to the heart and lungs, where the lungs expel carbon dioxide and the process begins again.17

Substance use and misuse, both in the short and long term, can adversely affect the cardiovascular system, leading to a range of issues, from arrhythmia and hypertension to cardiomyopathy, aortic dissection, and sudden cardiac death.4,18,19

Common substances associated with cardiovascular issues include:

Explore more info about substance use and the heart and cardiovascular system.

Effects of Drug and Alcohol Use on the Lungs and Respiratory System

The respiratory system not only allows for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the body, respectively, but also removes various waste products (e.g., water vapor, dust, and pollen) and aids in pH regulation in the blood.23,24 When substances impact the respiratory system, they can have critical and far-reaching effects ranging from shortness of breath, crack lung, and respiratory infections, to excess fluid in the lungs, sudden sniffing death syndrome, respiratory depression, and death.25-29

Some of the more common substances associated with lung and respiratory system issues include:

Explore more info about substance use and the lungs and respiratory system.

Kidneys and Renal System Issues Linked to Substance Misuse

As part of the renal system, the kidneys filter the blood and remove waste via urine secretion.35 They also help maintain a proper mineral balance and produce hormones that can impact processes such as red blood cell production, blood pressure regulation, calcium metabolism, and more.35,36

Thus, substances that impair renal function can ultimately lead to a host of conditions and diseases including urinary retention, rhabdomyolysis-induced kidney damage, fluid imbalances and related conditions, acute kidney failure, and death.36-38

Substances commonly linked to kidney disease include:

Explore more info about substance use and the kidneys and renal system.

Impact of Substance Misuse on the Reproductive System

Although research regarding substance use and reproductive health is limited and at times contradictory, it suggests that substance use can adversely affect reproductive health by potentially upsetting hormonal balance, altering fertility, and leading to sexual dysfunction.49,50 What’s more, prenatal substance exposure and alcohol use during pregnancy are linked to a host of issues including increased risk of adverse outcomes such as maternal mortality, stillbirth, and preterm birth.50,51

The following substances are associated with reproductive system issues.

Explore more info about substance use and the reproductive system.

Impact of Drugs and Alcohol on Dental Health

Factors occurring alongside substance use can impact oral health, as can polysubstance use. Thus, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single substance as the cause of dental effects. However, research supports associations between misuse of several substances and oral and dental health conditions such as dry mouth, tooth decay, periodontal disease, bruxism (involving jaw clenching and teeth grinding), and more.55-57

The following substances are associated with dental health issues:

Explore more info about substance use and dental health.

Substance Misuse and Eye, Nose, and Skin Conditions

Substance misuse can impact various subsets of larger systems. For example, it can have a direct impact on the eyes (a subset of the nervous system) and the nose (part of the respiratory system). Plus, the skin, which is an integral component of the integumentary system, can also be adversely affected by substance misuse.

Explore more info about substance use and the eyes, nose, and skin.

Health Risks and Dangers of Injection Drug Use

Injection drug use, where a person uses a syringe and needle to inject a substance into a muscle, comes with its own set of unique perils such as:69-76

  • Blood-borne diseases:
    • Human immunodeficiency virus [HIV].
    • Viral hepatitis A, B, and C.
    • Tuberculosis.
  • Skin, bone, and soft tissue bacterial or fungal infections.
  • Bacterial endocarditis (i.e., infection of the heart lining or valve).
  • Epidural abscess.
  • Vascular injuries.
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).
  • Noninfectious pulmonary complications (e.g., pulmonary edema, emphysema, pulmonary embolism, etc.).

Due to the fast-acting effects of injection drug use, it carries a disproportionate risk for overdose.77,78 Additionally, compared to other opioids, synthetic drug analogues including illicitly manufactured fentanyls are typically more potent and thus present an increased risk of overdose.69

Explore more info about the dangers of injection drug use.

Substance Use and Cancer

Research regarding substance use and cancer risk is complex and at times contradictory. However, science has revealed direct, loose, and indirect associations regarding the following substances:

Explore more info about substance use and cancer.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Health conditions resulting from or worsened by substance use will likely not improve without reducing substance use. This can be difficult for someone who can’t control their use of substances, but addiction treatment can help.

Similar to medical treatment for other chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, substance use disorder treatment is customized to the unique needs of individuals. Multiple levels of care are available, including:85

American Addiction Centers offers the full spectrum of care via its various U.S. treatment centers, which are in-network with myriad insurance providers that typically cover part or all treatment costs.

Contact an AAC admissions navigator at to learn more about treatment and payment options, or fill out our insurance verification form to check insurance benefits. Treatment professionals are available 24/7 for a confidential conversation to answer your questions and help you or a loved one take the first step toward recovery today.


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