Long-Term Effects of Drug Addiction

Drugs offer an easy escape from pain, boredom, and the stress of daily living, which is why many turn to them. They provide an immensely pleasurable sensation that prompts a boost in mood and causes problems to fade into the background. But these pleasurable effects wear off, and unfortunately, the ramifications of drug use can last a lifetime.

If you need more information about how substance abuse can affect the brain and behavior, please reach out to us today.

Changes in the Brain

Drugs feel good for the same reason their consequences are so bad–because they activate the brain’s reward system. When someone injects heroin or snorts cocaine, their brain experiences a rush of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals. The jolt of pleasure is far more powerful than natural rewards, like food or social interactions. At first, the brain is pleasantly shocked by this level of excitement, but as the drug use continues, it starts to expect it, and so the same amount of the drug cannot recreate the same initial effect.

Addicts’ personalities change the longer they’ve taken the drug. The neural pathways in an addict’s brain rewire themselves to cope with the constant presence of drugs. Not only is the “rewards center” no longer stimulated by the substance, but other parts of the brain, like those responsible for learning, memory, and decision-making, are also affected. Some connections in the brain, including the ones affecting judgment, become weaker. Others, like those that trigger cravings, become stronger. The desire for drugs becomes a reflex–one that’s incredibly hard to resist.

Fortunately, just as the brain can adapt to the presence of drugs, it can retrain itself to function without them. Even in old age the brain can shift to change its structure and function. While enduring the withdrawal period and resisting cravings can be incredibly difficult, it is possible for addicts to rewire their brains back to a pre-substance abuse state.

Psychological Effects of Addiction

The brain compensates for a drug’s “high” with its own period of “low,” which can be manifested in a number of psychological effects. The effects vary in severity, but even the more mild symptoms can interfere with a person’s life and compel them to keep using. The most common psychological effects of long-term drug use include:

  • Paranoia. Addicts, especially those addicted to stimulants like cocaine, often report feeling spied on or conspired against. Users tend to become more and more paranoid over time.
  • Depression. Prolonged substance abuse physically alters the user’s brain so it begins to expect a steady presence of drugs. Once the drugs are removed, the brain stops producing dopamine, triggering a feeling of profound depression. Chemical changes aside, many addicts also suffer from feelings of shame and remorse. Unfortunately, many keep using to avoid these feelings, and the cycle of addiction continues.
  • Anxiety. Many addicts report feeling consistently anxious and struggle to stay focused or sit for a long period of time. This behavior often interferes with work performance, relationships, and many other aspects of daily life.

Prolonged drug users may experience psychological effects for days after taking the drug, but sobriety will help these feelings dissipate and encourage the brain to return to normal.

Physical Effects of Addiction

It’s not just the brain that’s affected by drug use. Whole systems of the body are put in jeopardy, and some of these physical effects can last a lifetime.

  • The kidneys. Habitual drug use has been known to cause kidney damage. Long-term use of heroin and crystal meth puts one at a greater risk for long-term damage, including kidney failure.
  • The liver. Liver failure is often equated with alcoholism, but it’s also concurrent with abuse of prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin.
  • •The heart. Cocaine and other stimulants damage the heart with every use, even in low doses. This class of drugs prompts the heart to beat erratically, which can cause the heart to stop beating altogether. Heart disease and heart failure are particularly common among those with stimulant addiction.
  • •The lungs. Like nicotine, every puff of crystal meth puts the user’s lungs at risk. However, it only takes a short period of crystal meth use to damage the lungs to the same degree as a long-term smoker.

A timely intervention can mean the difference between life and death, and can mitigate long-term damage. Many of these physical effects are not permanent, as long as the user gets the help they need before it’s too late.

Risk of Overdose

Addicts face the risk of an overdose each and every time they partake in the drug. It can happen to anybody and for a number of reasons, including miscalculation of the amount of drugs they took, the strength of the drug, and how much they could handle. A major issue is that street drugs aren’t subject to quality control; an addict used to cocaine cut with baking soda could easily overdose when they take the same amount of something pure-cut.

Some of the worst effects of drug use, however, aren’t related to physical health. Drug addiction tears apart families and friendships, empties bank accounts, and robs years of life. People battling substance abuse are more likely to partake in risky sex and criminal behavior and put themselves in dangerous situations. While many of the consequences are reversible with sobriety, the chances of a full recovery wane the longer the drug use continues.

If you or a loved one is struggling with prolonged drug abuse, reach out for help. Please contact us today with your questions and to find out how to start the path towards healing.