Long-Term Effects of Drug Addiction

Drug addiction can cause many long-term negative consequences, including physical health problems like liver damage and heart disease as well as mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders. Drug abuse also causes long-term changes to the brain that make quitting so difficult and that take years to change back to normal. Indirect long-term effects of drug addiction include broken relationships, legal problems, financial problems, injuries, and poor overall health.

There are many potential long-term effects of drug addiction and abuse. Long-term substance abuse changes the brain, leading to addiction and making it nearly impossible to stop using. These brain changes can then lead to mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. Drug use impairs thinking and memory, and impacts how a person learns.

Drug abuse also affects the body and overall health, causing potentially lasting issues like heart disease, lung cancer, kidney failure, and liver damage. Some of these long-term effects may be permanent, but many can be reversed by quitting and getting treatment.

While recovering from drug addiction is challenging, there is hope for anyone struggling with this disease. It is possible to recover with effective and long-term treatment, and for the body and brain to re-adapt to living without drugs.

Long-Term Effects on the Body


Abuse of drugs can cause serious harm to physical health. Some of the effects of drug abuse on the body include damage that lasts for years and in some cases forever. The impact on the body can range from mild symptoms to serious health problems. Nearly every system and organ in the body may be affected by drug abuse:

  • Cardiovascular system. Stimulants like cocaine are particularly hard on the heart, causing damage every time they are used. Stimulant abuse can lead to long-term heart disease, including heart failure. Injectable drugs like heroin can cause veins to collapse and even infections in blood vessels or the heart.
  • Respiratory system. The lungs can be damaged by any drug that is smoked, causing diseases like emphysema, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis. Opioids depress breathing, which can worsen asthma.
  • Kidney damage. Many drugs can cause long-term kidney damage, including kidney failure, which is life threatening. This is caused by increased body temperature, breakdown of muscle tissue, and dehydration.
  • Liver damage. Heroin and prescription opioids can cause liver damage. This damage is more severe when the drugs are combined with alcohol. In severe cases, a person may have life-threatening liver failure.
  • Gastrointestinal damage. Many kinds of drugs cause damage and decay in the stomach or intestines. This can result in chronic pain, acid reflux, and constipation.

The sooner a person gets the help needed to stop abusing any type of drug, the better the chances are of being able to minimize these physical health problems. While permanent effects of drugs on the body are possible, the body can also recover in many ways. Quitting and getting treatment has great benefits for physical health.

Long-Term Effects on the Brain


Drug addiction is such a difficult disease to overcome because drug abuse actually changes the brain. Drugs produce a sensation of pleasure because of how they act in the brain. Whether directly or indirectly, drugs of abuse target and activate the reward system in the brain. They cause a neurotransmitter called dopamine to be released in large quantities, triggering an extreme sensation of pleasure or euphoria. In other words, drugs overstimulate the part of the brain that naturally produces pleasure and rewards a person for doing something positive, like socializing or hugging a loved one.

Because of that extreme sense of pleasure, drugs work in such a way that a person is inclined to use them again and again. Over time, the continual overstimulation of the dopamine reward system can lead to lasting, even permanent changes in the brain. One important change is that the brain begins to produce less dopamine. This is a way to compensate for the flooding of the brain with dopamine that drug abuse causes, but the result is that a person will begin to struggle to feel any pleasure at all. This change explains why long-term drug users begin to feel depressed and lifeless.

These changes in dopamine levels are what cause a person to develop a tolerance to a drug and the need to take more and more of a substance just to get a normal or elevated sense of pleasure. How drugs impact the brain is complicated and involves more than just dopamine. There are other ways in which the brain is changed from long-term drug abuse:

  • Impaired cognitive function. Another neurotransmitter involved in the reward system, glutamate, is affected by drug abuse. The brain’s attempt to compensate for that causes changes to how a person thinks, making it more difficult to think and learn.
  • Changes in memory. Drug abuse causes changes in memory and learning, actually conditioning a person to crave and use drugs. Cues in a person’s environment act as triggers that make them crave and want a drug reflexively.
  • Changes in brain connections. It is not just the reward system in the brain that is affected by drug use. Over time, drug abuse changes other areas too, actually making physical changes to the connections between neurons, or brain cells. In some areas, more connections develop, while in others they decrease.
  • Brain cells die. Many drugs are actually toxic, and they can kill brain cells. These cells will never come back to life, and the damage is permanent.

While substance abuse does trigger lasting changes in the brain, there is hope. These changes make it very difficult to stay away from drugs, but over a period of time the brain can recover and once again adapt to functioning without drugs. It takes a lot of time, though. Imaging studies of brains of drug abusers have shown that even after 100 days of no longer using a drug, the brain has still not fully recovered. This is why treatment for addiction has to go well beyond detox and should be long-term.

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The Lasting Psychological Effects of Drug Abuse


Drug abuse and addiction often occur alongside mental illness. This can be explained by the fact that the risk factors for both are similar, but there is also evidence that drug abuse can trigger, contribute to, or worsen mental health conditions. According to statistics, people who abuse drugs are twice as likely to struggle with mood disorders, like depression, or anxiety disorders. Drug abuse may trigger any mental illness or make any condition worse, but the most common and lasting mental health issues from drug abuse are anxiety and depression.

Indirect Effects of Drug Addiction


People who abuse drugs or become addicted to drugs typically make decisions and do things—or fail to do things—that they otherwise wouldn’t. These choices are not directly caused by drugs, but they are a result of drug abuse and addiction and can have serious and lasting impacts on a person’s life. For instance, a person may get in legal trouble or even go to prison over drug-related activities. The repercussions will follow someone for years to come.

Other poor decisions someone may make while abusing drugs include having unprotected sex or sharing needles, which can lead to diseases like HIV or hepatitis. Drug abuse can lead to someone dropping out of school or losing a job, with lasting financial consequences. Trauma, assault, and injury from violence may also result from drug abuse and addiction. Relationships often suffer during periods of drug abuse, causing damage that is difficult to repair.

Drug abuse and addiction can also lead to generally poor health in indirect ways. For instance, someone abusing drugs may not eat well and may suffer from weight loss, weight gain, malnutrition, or nutritional deficiencies. Sleep can also be an issue, and someone who is addicted to drugs may not get enough sleep for long periods of time, which can trigger more health problems.

The Risks of Overdose


The most serious potential long-term effect of drug abuse and drug addiction is death. Drugs can kill slowly over time, but they can also cause a fatal overdose. Any misuse of any type of drug puts a person at risk for having an overdose that may be fatal. That risk increases when using street drugs, because the strength or purity is impossible to know. The risk also increases when combining drugs or using drugs with alcohol. For example, combining substances that depress breathing, like opioids and sedatives, greatly increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

Drug abuse and drug addiction have serious and lasting impacts on all aspects of a person’s health, as well as other areas of life, like relationships and finances. But anyone who abuses drugs has reason to hope in spite of these effects. Good, effective, long-term treatment can help reverse much of the damage caused by drugs and gives a person a chance to put his or her life back together.