Drug Abuse Causes Physical and Mental Health Risks

It is no secret that drugs have side effects. The point of taking a drug is to change or alter a sense of pain, reality, loss, etc. Even the most socially-acceptable drugs, such as alcohol and marijuana, can have serious side-effects (wanted and unwanted).

People drink alcohol or take pills in order to alter their sense of reality. Even if it to “relax” or “take the edge off”, these substances can have short and long-term effects on behavior, brain function, and body chemistry. Even prescription and over-the-counter medications (such as hydrocodone, aspirin, or ibuprofen) can have negative long-term effects if not used correctly.

There are physical and mental health risks associated with drug abuse. When picturing addiction, many people focus on the idea of someone in a back alley with a needle, but the fact is most addicts can appear “normal” on the outside and are going to great lengths to keep it that way. However, the negative effects of drug abuse will always rear their ugly head, and this abuse can have far-reaching consequences on health, livelihood, and relationships.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a complex brain disease that is manifested through continued, uncontrolled substance use that persists despite harmful consequences. People who struggle with addiction seem to be unable to control their use of a certain substance (Alcohol or drugs) to the point where their life seems to be irrevocably altered physically, mentally, or socially. 

Addiction occurs when someone is unable to stop using a substance even when they are consciously aware it is causing them harm. Despite the seriousness of substance addiction, there are many effective treatments available that can help people return to full health and normal life. 

General Signs Addiction

The telltale sign of addiction (substance use disorder) is a distortion of thinking, behavior, and bodily function. Any substance, no matter how benign it may be on the surface, can cause changes in brain and body function if abused. 

These changes in brain function are what cause people to have intense cravings for the substance and thus make it harder to stop using the substance. Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show intense changes in the areas that control impulse control, judgment, decision making, and learning. 

Intoxication (or high) is the intense pleasure that comes from an over-use of a certain substance, such as alcohol. The symptoms of intoxication are different with every substance, but most substances produce some type of euphoric “high” that users begin to crave more and more. Over time people with addiction build up a tolerance, meaning they need larger amounts of a substance to achieve the same level of high. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are many reasons why people may begin using drugs, including:

  • To feel good —seeking the feeling of pleasure, or “high”
  • To feel better — e.g., relieve stress or anxiety
  • To do better — improve performance (performance-enhancing or focus enhancing drugs)
  • Curiosity and peer pressure

People struggling with addiction may be aware of the problem but are generally unable to stop it even if they are trying. Escalating addiction will lead to serious health problems, as well as complications at work and with family and friends. The abuse of drugs and alcohol is the single leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in America. 

Categories of Symptoms of Substance Abuse/Addiction

Every substance produces different symptoms, but there are general categories to which these symptoms fall into. The symptoms of substance use disorder are grouped into the following four categories:

  • Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to cut down or control substance use
  • Social/relational problems: substance use causes failure to complete major tasks at work, school, or home; social, work, or leisure activities are given up or cut back because of substance use
  • Dangerous use: the substance is used in risky settings; continued use despite known problems
  • Drug effects: tolerance (need for larger amounts to get the same effect); withdrawal symptoms (different for each substance)

Many addicts experience both the symptoms of a mental health disorder and addiction. The presence of two or more disorders is called a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. These co-occurring disorders are especially dangerous and difficult to treat because the symptoms may overlap and exacerbate one another. Treatment of a dual-diagnosis requires an expert in this type of overlapping illness. 

Immediate and Short Term Health Concerns 

Most users will face acute health risks immediately after drinking alcohol or ingesting another drug. Research shows there are many different types of immediate health “consequences” ranging from mild ( drowsiness, confusion) to severe ( loss of consciousness, tremors). These short term effects can lead to long term issues with continued or increased substance use. 

While some of these effects may be “desirable” (reduced inhibitions with alcohol consumption, for example) there are often harmful physical effects that might go unnoticed. Some of these immediate concerns include increased heart rate, altered perception of reality, headaches, nausea, and overdose. 

It is important to note that different substances produce different levels of intoxication and various symptoms. Some substances, such as cocaine, are “uppers” (stimulants) and others, such as alcohol, are “downers” (depressants). As your body becomes more accustomed to substance use (tolerance), it will take more and more of a substance to produce the desired result. 

In addition to immediate physical health issues, substance abuse can also produce very strange, altered states of perception, as well as disturbing auditory or visual hallucinations ( seeing things others can’t see or the hearing of voices others cannot hear).

Those under the influence of various substances have been known to behave in erratic and dangerous ways-exhibiting behavior such as dangerous driving, risky sexual behaviors, or violent outbursts. While these are not directly “health concerns”, they can lead to serious injury or even death. 


The most significant short term health concern stemming from substance use is an overdose. In 2017 alone, more than 17,000 people died due to an overdose of prescription opioids. Many thousands more succumbed to overdoses from other illicit drugs such as fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin.  

An overdose occurs when the chemical compounds in a substance overwhelm the body of the user, producing catastrophic effects. Sometimes the substance can stop or drastically alter breathing or stop it altogether. Occasionally, substance abuse can rapidly increase heart rate or blood pressure, taxing the cardiovascular system to the point of producing a heart attack. In extreme cases, drugs produce such powerful sedation that a user can lose consciousness for an extended period of time.  

Long Term Health Concerns 

Immediate health issues are relatively obvious and happen soon after partaking of various substances. Long-term health effects are more difficult to discern and are tied to continued substance abuse over long periods of time. These long term effects, which can take weeks or months to materialize, can be dangerous or even deadly if left untreated and if substance abuse continues. 

There are many long term consequences associated with continued substance abuse. Most are dependent on the strength and amount of the substance abused as well as the length of time of the abuse. Any substance use, even in moderation, can result in a higher risk of acute or chronic health concerns. For example, alcohol consumption or cigarette smoking (even done at legal levels and intervals) can result in long term negative health effects such as lung cancer or liver issues.  

 A 2017 study found 19 common health conditions were higher in patients with substance use disorders vs. demographically matched patients without a history of drug or alcohol abuse, including arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, congestive heart failure, hypertension, pneumonia, and stroke. These patients also had an elevated risk of dying—and at a younger age—than those without a substance use disorder.

Drug-seeking behavior also presents a serious longer-term side effect of drug use. This refers to spending increased time and money on the procurement of substances. Drug abusers may also begin to neglect self-care in the form of hygiene, sleep, or diet. Family or friends may notice wide fluctuations in weight, sleep schedule, or other erratic behaviors. Many addicts will find it difficult to maintain a job or personal relationships. 

Treatment for Addiction

While addiction presents a clear danger, effective treatments for addiction are available.

The first step in addiction treatment is recognition of the problem. Denial often accompanies addiction, and many substance abusers require confrontation from friends and family to make life changes. The recovery process can be hindered when a person denies having a problem and lacks an understanding of substance misuse and addiction. The intervention of concerned friends and family often prompts treatment.

Treatment begins after an assessment (or intake) by a licensed health professional. Counselors, social workers, or psychiatrists can make recommendations/referrals for formal substance abuse treatment and their help may be necessary to force someone struggling with addiction over the hump. Due to Covid-19, online therapy has become a popular option for all levels of addiction treatment as well. 

Because addiction affects many aspects of a person’s life, multiple types of treatment are often required. For most, a combination of medication and individual or group therapy is most effective. Treatment approaches that address an individual’s situation and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems can lead to sustained recovery.

Medication (in conjunction with therapy) can be a valuable tool in the fight against addiction. Even substances that are themselves addictive (methadone) can be used in the fight against abuse. 

The most common treatments for addiction are group and individual therapy. Twelve-step programs and intense therapeutic methods (Such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) have proven effective in conquering addictive behavior. These are facilitated in both inpatient (overnight stay at a rehab facility) or outpatient (temporary visits to counselors) settings. Those with more serious addiction may require the more directed care of an inpatient option. Extreme cases may require extended detoxification. At Unity Behavioral Health, we are prepared to help you from diagnosis to sobriety, no matter the severity of your addiction. 

Begin Your Journey at Unity Behavioral Health Today

At Unity Behavioral Health, our trained professional staff are standing by to help you or your loved one overcome addiction. Whether you need the intensely supervised care of our inpatient or detoxification options or the flexibility of our outpatient treatment, we have an option that can help you begin your journey today. Contact us today to begin your journey to sobriety!

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Speak to one of our experienced and caring representatives at Unity Behavioral Health to learn about how our rehab programs can help your loved one defeat addiction.


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