Health Impact of Drug Abuse

Risks Of Drug Abuse

The risks of drug abuse are not limited to the immediate dangers of overdose, toxicity, or injury. Long-term health and wellness are adversely affected by misuse or abuse of both illicit and prescription drugs, including:

  • Slowed or impeded physical growth.
  • Skin, hair, and other aspects of appearance.
  • Extreme weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Bacterial infections in the circulatory system and collapsed veins.
  • Anxiety and extreme paranoia.
  • Irritability and violent behavior.

As explained in an article from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug abuse over long periods of time makes changes to the brain and body that can have negative effects on a person’s overall health and well being, both physically and mentally. The pathways through which drugs of abuse deliver a “high” are the same mechanisms that can cause damage to the body’s various functional systems, having a cumulative negative effect to health in the long-term.

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Effects of Drug Abuse on Long-Term Health

Many people are aware of changes in appearance that can be associated with drug abuse; however, these are not the only physical effects of drug abuse. Over time, damage to the brain occurs that can result in psychological disorders. Drug toxicity and the repeated physical changes that take place during substance use can take a toll on physical functions as well. For example, the increased heart rate caused by use of stimulants can injure the heart muscle; if this injury is repeated regularly over many months or years, it can lead to heart disease later on.

Depending on the drug, this type of damage can occur in various body systems, including:

  • The nervous system, brain, and cognition.
  • Hormonal functions.
  • The heart, lungs, and circulation.
  • The digestive system, including liver and kidneys.
  • Skin, hair, and other aspects of appearance.

Drug abuse causes damage to these systems that can result in infection or disease, mental health disorders, injury, and even death.

This long-term effect can be complicated further if the person already has some sort of co-occurring physical or mental health disorder. For example, a study from The American Journal of Psychiatry demonstrates that people with severe mental illness who abuse drugs are more likely to engage in extremely violent behaviors over time.

Specific drugs carry specific risks. Whether abuse involves illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine, or prescription drugs like Xanax and Vicodin, long-term drug abuse takes a noticeable toll on a person’s health.

Health Effects of Drug Abuse during Pregnancy

The health effects of drug abuse are not just a concern for the individual using drugs. In the case of a woman who is abusing drugs while pregnant, the long-term health of the child can be adversely affected as well. A study from Pediatrics reports that babies born to women who abuse drugs during pregnancy may have physical, emotional, and mental health issues during childhood and even throughout their lives, including:

  • Slowed or impeded physical growth.
  • Delayed development of language abilities.
  • Slowed cognitive development, learning disabilities, and decreased intellectual capabilities.
  • Increased risk of behavioral issues, including hyperactivity, attention deficit, and delinquency.
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders later in life, including substance abuse.

The drug of abuse may determine which of these issues appear, but many of them occur across the spectrum of drug types. Alcohol and nicotine can also cause these issues.

Illicit Substances

When it comes to illegal substances, many people have some sense of the short-term physical and mental health effects that can result from abuse. In particular, when drug abuse is discussed in the news or popular media, it usually emphasizes the risk of overdose or odd behaviors that occur when the person is actively using.

However, not everyone is aware of the more pervasive health effects of these substances. While there is limited research available on the newest synthetic drugs, much is known about the effects that develop after months or years of use of the most well-known illicit drugs.


A recent review of various studies on the effects of marijuana demonstrates that the biggest health effect of the drug is loss of cognitive function. This review, from the Journal of Addiction Medicine, covers a range of research showing that using marijuana can result in long-term impairment to brain functions. This impairment ranges from simple coordination problems to major reasoning and complex functions, such as being able to organize, plan, and make decisions. Research also shows that a person who uses marijuana heavily for a long time may lose some language capabilities; this loss may not be fully recovered even after the person has abstained from the drug for a long time.

There are also physical health effects from marijuana use, according to NIDA. Those who smoke the drug may end up with damaged airways and breathing problems. Also, marijuana causes an increase in heart rate during use that can result in a heart attack. This is a particular risk for older people and those with heart problems. Heavy, long-term use of marijuana can have a cumulative effect on the heart’s ability to function well.

Babies born to women who smoke marijuana during pregnancy have been shown to have problems with brain development and may have behavioral issues and cognitive disabilities in childhood and beyond.


An article in Psychology Today describes a number of short- and long-term physical and psychological health effects of cocaine. These include:


  • Heart disease, including irregular heartbeat, racing heart, and increased blood pressure
  • Breathing problems, including respiratory failure
  • Muscle spasms, convulsions, and seizures
  • Nasal irritation or damage if snorted, including loss of sense of smell, infections, and nosebleeds
  • Damage to the digestive system if ingested, including gangrene in the bowels
  • Mal-nourishment due to loss of appetite


  • Mood disturbances
  • Irritability and violent behavior
  • Paranoia and restlessness
  • Hallucinations, particularly hearing things that aren’t there
  • Psychosis

An article from Addiction Science & Clinical Practice also demonstrates that cocaine use over time can cause changes in the gene expression of some cells in the brain. These changes are thought to contribute to the high level of addiction to the drug that can persist even after years of abstinence, resulting in a much higher chance of relapse to cocaine use. This may increase the chances of becoming addicted to other drugs.


Long-term heroin use causes damage to the brain, not only in the dopamine pathway that it directly affects, but also to the brain’s white matter, which is nerve tissue that helps in coordinating communication between the different regions of the brain. This results in psychological difficulties, such as having trouble making decisions and being unable to control behavior or manage stress.

One of heroin’s immediate effects is to suppress the respiratory system. With continued use, this can result in a condition called hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen to the brain. This can also result in permanent brain damage, coma, or even death.

According to NIDA, other health issues that can develop with heroin use include:

  • Bacterial infections in the circulatory system and collapsed veins
  • Lung disease, including pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • Diseases transmitted by injection, such as HIV or hepatitis
  • Liver or kidney disease

In addition to these issues, street heroin often contains impurities that can create toxicity and interrupt blood flow to vital organs, causing damage and disease. This also results in the potential for miscarriage in pregnant women who use the drug.

Crystal Meth

Methamphetamine, known as crystal meth in its most common form, has perhaps some of the most visible signs of abuse. Terms such as meth mouth and meth mites refer to some of the physical manifestations of meth use.

As described in a study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, these physical health effects include severe tooth decay and damage caused by gum disease, tooth grinding, and malnutrition.

In addition, users can develop open wounds and skin sores as a result of hallucinations of bugs under the skin and subsequent picking at skin, as well as a diminished ability for sores to heal. Resulting scarring and other skin damage can change the person’s outward appearance drastically.

Other physical health issues from meth use can quickly lead to physical injury or death, and include:

  • Extreme weight loss and malnutrition
  • Heart rhythm problems and heart attacks
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Psychological health effects of meth use include:

  • Anxiety and extreme paranoia
  • Depression
  • Mental fatigue and confusion
  • Psychosis and mental health disorders

Prescription Drugs

Many people make the mistake of believing that drugs that are approved for use by doctors to treat illnesses or injuries are completely safe. This can lead to people misusing these drugs for various reasons, including using them longer or more often than prescribed to manage troublesome symptoms, or using them for recreational purposes. In turn, this misuse can lead to abuse and addiction and, if the abuse is continued for months or years, more adverse physical and mental effects.

Opioid Painkillers

Abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, has many of the same physical and psychological health effects as heroin abuse. When taken as directed, prescription drugs have a lower addiction or abuse potential; however, people who take higher doses, or more frequent doses, than directed, who take them without a prescription, or who use them for the euphoric feeling they create may become addicted as well as increase their risk for the same physical and psychological problems that are caused by heroin abuse.

According to NIDA, these health issues include hypoxia, brain damage, and destruction of the brain’s white matter. The health risks of injection are not as prevalent with prescription drug use; however, they do still happen when people crush their medications and inject them (after mixing them with water) rather than ingesting them.

Research has also shown that opioid abuse can result in a loss of dopamine receptors in the brain, making it harder to feel pleasure after opioid use is discontinued,

according to a study in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.

Abuse of these painkillers has also led, in recent years, to increases in heroin use. About one in 15 people who abuse opioid painkillers will begin to abuse heroin as well.


As described in a study from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, benzodiazepine drugs prescribed for anxiety and depression – represented by brands like Xanax and Valium, and known alternatively as benzos – have a high addiction potential if misused or abused. Even low doses, taken for too long, can change brain chemistry enough to result in addiction. In fact, overuse and abuse of these drugs can result in damage to cognition, including problems with:

  • Visual spatial abilities
  • Verbal learning and capabilities
  • Thought processing

While it was originally thought that these issues would resolve after stopping use of the drugs, a study from Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology indicates that recovery may not be complete, and brain damage may be a long-term adverse health effect of abusing these drugs.

Recently, researchers have also determined a potential connection between benzo use and the development of Alzheimer’s disease, according to an article from Harvard Health Publications.

Drug Abuse: A Public Health Issue

The health issues of drug abuse do not just apply on the individual level. The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, among other organizations, considers drug abuse to be a public health risk, because of its effects on public safety and happiness, and the public’s burden of managing the social and financial costs of drug abuse. These long-term, adverse public health effects include:

  • Increased rates of teenage pregnancy
  • Transmission of diseases through drug paraphernalia and drug-induced sexual behaviors
  • Car accidents resulting in injury, fatality, and property damage
  • Increased rates of violent behavior and abuse
  • Complications of mental health disorders
  • Increased crime rates

Many of the efforts to bring awareness to substance abuse as a public health issue focus around the fact that substance abuse often begins before adulthood. Aiming to prevent substance abuse in young people can decrease rates of abuse by adults later in life. Because of this, viewing substance abuse as a public health issue, as well as an individual health issue, can keep people informed about the effects of drug abuse not only on the people who use drugs, but also on the world around them.

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