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The Real Physical Effects of Drug Abuse

Drugs affect the mind and body in various ways. The exact effects will vary among individuals, the substance used, and even delivery methods. But, when considering the real physical effects of drug abuse, the long-term consequences can be fatal. Chronic drug use can change someone’s brain structure and function, which results in long-term psychological effects. Still, drug use can take a toll on the body leading to physical impacts that can significantly impact someone’s quality of life. 

Different Drugs, Different Effects

Most drugs have chemical compounds that directly play with your central nervous system. They instantly alter how you feel, think, and behave. However, different drugs produce different effects. This is partly because of their chemical makeup. However, the way you ingest them also plays a role in the long-term effects of drug abuse. 

Drugs can be sectioned into three different types:

  • Depressants: these types of drugs slow down the functions of the central nervous system. In small amounts, they also cause relaxation and lower inhibitions. Alcohol, cannabis, opiates, and benzodiazepines are all examples of depressants. 
  • Hallucinogens: these types of drugs distort or alter your sense of reality. They also cause psychological euphoria, hallucinations and create an out-of-body experience for users. Ketamine, LSD, PCP, and mushrooms are examples of hallucinogens. 
  • Stimulants: these types of drugs speed up the functions of the central nervous system. They also cause increased heart rate, agitation, and alertness. Caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines are common stimulants. 

Physical Effects of Drug Abuse

Drugs cause many short- and long-term physical effects. Some short-term effects of drug abuse include changes in heart rate, psychosis, strokes, and overdose. These physical effects can happen even after just one use, especially for illicit drugs combined with different substances. 

Long-term effects of drug abuse include cancers, mental illness, VID/AIDS, hepatitis, and other conditions. Long-term drug abuse can also lead to addiction, which is a brain disorder. 

Cardiovascular Effects

Many drugs alter heart rate and can have direct cardiovascular effects that lead to long-term disease. For example, smoking tobacco increases heart disease, stroke, heart attack, and vascular disease. Researchers are also pointing at e-cigarettes, which can have similar effects and increase the risk of asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Even injected drugs can lead to cardiovascular problems, including collapsed veins and bacterial infections of the heart valves and the heart’s blood vessels. Cocaine and amphetamines are associated with many cardiovascular risks, including:

  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Disease of the heart muscle
  • Hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke
  • Vascular inflammation
  • Endocarditis (infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers)

Drugs that affect the cardiovascular system:

Respiratory Effects

Many drugs can be smoked, which can lead to bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. Beyond cigarettes and tobacco, smoking marijuana, for example, can cause similar respiratory problems. Smoking crack cocaine can lead to lung damage and permanent respiratory problems. Even the use of drugs like opioids can also cause breathing to slow, block air from entering the lungs, and worsen asthma symptoms. 

However, people are often surprised to find out that central nervous system depressants like alcohol, sedatives, and benzos can also cause respiratory depression. Intravenous drug use can also increase the risk of pneumonia, pulmonary edemas, and septic embolism. 

Drugs that affect the respiratory system:

Gastrointestinal Effects

Countless drugs cause nausea and vomiting after use. In rare cases, some drug users can lead to severe gastrointestinal damage. For example, marijuana abuse can lead to Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, which produces severe nausea and dehydration. Cocaine users can struggle with abdominal pain and bowel tissue decay. Opioid users are likely to experience acid reflux and constipation. 

Chronic alcohol users are also at higher risk of gastric and duodenal ulcers, esophageal varices, and gastrointestinal bleeding. There’s a risk of esophageal cancer as well, especially among polysubstance chronic users. Some of the most devastating gastrointestinal effects of drug abuse include:

  • Chronic constipation
  • Acid reflux
  • Abdominal pain
  • Esophageal cancer

Drugs that affect the gastrointestinal system include:

Musculoskeletal Effects

While not mentioned often, drugs can lead to many long-term musculoskeletal effects, particularly muscular control and skeletal strength. For example, steroid use during adolescence can result in bone growth alteration. PCP can cause muscle contractions, while other drugs can lead to overall muscle weakness and severe muscle cramping. 

Chronic drug users also lack many essential vitamins and minerals to support a healthy musculoskeletal system. It’s common for long-term abusers to struggle with arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, and other conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. 

Drugs that directly impact the musculoskeletal system:

Kidney & Liver Damage

A widespread, long-term effect of drug use is kidney and liver damage. Unlike other consequences, kidney and liver damage is a silent impact of chronic drug use. Many users can go years, sometimes even decades, without noticing their liver and kidneys damage. Unfortunately, when they realize the damage, it’s often too late as their disease is usually in the late stages.

Many drugs can cause kidney damage or failure as the result of dehydration and increases in muscle breakdown. Overall, the most commonly abused substance that leads to kidney and liver damage is alcohol, which usually results in liver cirrhosis. 

Drugs that cause kidney and liver damage include:

Neurological Effects

Drug addiction is a disease of the brain, and it’s probably the most devastating neurological effect of drug abuse. All addictive drugs alter the brain’s chemical wiring, leading to seizures, strokes, and toxicity in the brain cells. Beyond addiction, drugs can also cause learning and memory disabilities, affect impulse control, and affect other functions. 

Marijuana, particularly in those who start before age 18, can cause neuropsychological decline that might not be reversible. Alcohol consumption can lead to wet brain, which increases the risk of dementia. As drug abuse continues, the damages to the brain are often irreversible. 

Drugs that affect the brain include:

Misuse, Abuse, and Addiction

The definition, by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, drug abuse is a “maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

Still, most experts believe that whenever someone’s drug use starts to damage or interfere with aspects of a person’s daily life, it becomes an addiction.

Drug misuse is a different concept. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines this as “the intentional therapeutic use of a drug in an inappropriate way.” Of course, this has many possible interpretations. For example, prescription drugs are among the most commonly misused drugs in the United States. People use more doses than prescribed, use them for longer, etc. 

Both drug abuse and misuse can lead to addiction. When someone is no longer in control of their need to use a substance or becomes dependent on it, they’re likely struggling with a substance use disorder, aka drug addiction. 

How to Get Help

It’s important to recognize someone has a problem. Anyone who’s starting to see signs of drug misuse and abuse should consider speaking with an expert. However, here are some common signs it’s time to seek help:

  • You’ve tried numerous times to control your drug use and failed.
  • Your personal and professional life is suffering the consequences of your drug use and still continue to use.
  • You continue to forget events while under the influence.
  • You are self-medicating or misusing a prescription.
  • You’ve experienced emotional and physical health problems as a result of your substance use.

As you get ready to seek substance abuse treatment, consider speaking with your healthcare provider for a referral. Look for programs with evidence-based treatment strategies that offer inpatient and outpatient services, so you can have flexibility in choosing the best fit for your needs and situation. 


The good news is that addiction treatment is available and highly effective. The sooner someone with a substance use disorder seeks treatment, the better. Overall, a drug addiction treatment center might have different therapies and services available. So, you’ll want to look for a comprehensive rehab center that’s able to adapt to your individual needs. 

Treatment for substance abuse usually includes the following components:

  • Behavioral therapy: a form of evidence-based treatment that helps people build problem-solving skills while developing positive coping strategies. Behavioral therapy addresses the root cause of addiction and also helps people understand the cause of their addictive behavior to control their impulses after treatment better. 
  • Group therapy: support is critical in addiction recovery and has many positive benefits to those in recovery. Group therapy also offers the opportunity to acknowledge, share, and find support to handle the psychological aspects of recovery in a safe and professionally controlled environment with positive therapeutic effects. 
  • Medications: when people choose to stop their substance use, they’re likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. Some withdrawal episodes are more manageable than others, which is why sometimes rehab centers offer medication-assisted treatment to make the withdrawal and detox process as comfortable as possible. Medications are also used to reverse opioid overdoses, help reduce cravings, and slowly help someone withdraw from a substance.
  • Medical care: substance use disorders and mental health conditions are tightly related. A dual diagnosis program helps address these conditions simultaneously to offer a greater chance of recovery. Also, some individuals might be in treatment while also struggling with the long-term physical effects of drug abuse; medical care gives them the treatment they need to manage these conditions. 

Getting Help Today

Drug abuse can lead to devastating health effects that might be irreversible. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please seek help. Contact us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs. Our unique, comprehensive, and personalized rehab programs are designed to adapt to meet your individual needs. We also offer a dual diagnosis program to help anyone struggling with co-occurring mental health conditions. When your life is at stake, don’t wait any longer. Recovery is possible, and we’ll help you get there. 

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