According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), around one out of every 10 adults in the United States used an illicit drug in the month leading up to the 2014 survey. This means that nearly 30 million American adults were classified as currently using illicit drugs in 2014.
Illicit drugs are both illegal drugs and prescription medications that are being misused. They are mind-altering, changing the way the brain produces, moves around, and absorbs its natural chemical messengers. This can result in elevated moods, relaxation, lowered inhibitions, distorted senses and perceptions, and trouble thinking clearly and making good decisions. Too much of a drug, a dangerous interaction between the drug and the body, or as a result of more than one drug can overwhelm the system and result in a potentially life-threatening overdose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes that overdose deaths reached an all-time high in 2015, as more than 50,000 Americans lost their lives to overdose. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that in 2011, over 5 million Americans received medical care in an emergency department (ED) for drug use, around half of which involved drug abuse or misuse (2.5 million).
Depending on the type of drug used, life-sustaining functions of the central nervous system may be heightened or suppressed. These functions include breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and heart rate. Long-term drug use can cause damage to the heart, lungs, brain, gastrointestinal system, and more, leading to many possible health complications, diseases, and disorders.
Drug abuse can also complicate any co-occurring mental health disorders or medical conditions, and interfere with treatment protocols. In addition to physical side effects, drug use can also cause mental strain, altering thought processes and therefore behaviors and actions as well. Long-term use of many drugs can lead to physical drug dependence, major withdrawal symptoms, and addiction.
Drug addiction is a brain disease that impacts not only the wiring and chemical makeup of the brain, but also a person’s emotional wellbeing, behaviors, relationships, home life, and much more. Drug use can have both immediate and lasting adverse reactions and consequences.
Effects of Specific Drugs on Health
The use of psychoactive drugs can increase the risk for falling down or being injured, as drugs often interfere with motor coordination and body control. Drug use can also contribute to lowered inhibitions and increased risk-taking behaviors that can have negative outcomes as well. Questionable sexual contact can raise the odds that a person may contract a sexually transmitted or infectious disease or have an unwanted pregnancy.
Drug use can also increase crime rates. Many drugs in and of themselves are illegal to possess and use, and obtaining, using, or having them can lead to arrest and prosecution. Since drug use alters the mind, it may also lead to the commission of a crime while under the influence. Drugs can incite aggression, violence, or even make a person more likely to fall victim to sexual assault or other crimes. A person may also resort to criminal behavior in order to obtain more drugs. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) publishes that drugged driving is another criminal behavior that can have deadly consequences.
The way a drug is abused can impact the potential side effects. For example, drugs that are ingested (swallowed) may wreak havoc on the gastrointestinal system, leading to issues there and possible stomach ulcers or intestinal blockages. Snorting drugs can lead to respiratory issues and damage to a person’s sense of smell and nasal and sinus cavities. Chronic nosebleeds and a perpetually runny nose may be side effects of long-term drug snorting. Smoking drugs irritates the lungs and may cause a person to suffer from a chronic cough as well as increase the odds for respiratory distress, infections, and diseases.
Injecting drugs is highly dangerous, and the sharing of unclean needles raises the risk for transmitting infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, the CDC warns. Drug injection can also lead to collapsed veins, skin infections, and damage to the lining of the heart.
Different drugs will have variable effects on a person’s physical health and mental state. Specific types of drugs and some of the risk factors of their use and abuse are outlined below.
Opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers)
Opioid drugs fill up opioid receptors in the brain, making them effective pain relievers that help to induce relaxation and sedation. They slow respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate, and can cause euphoria, or a high, when abused.
Opioid drugs kill 91 Americans every day due to fatal overdoses, the CDC warns. They can quickly overwhelm the body and brain, and cause vital life functions, such as breathing, to become difficult or stop altogether.
Opioids are habit-forming. With regular use, a person can become tolerant to their effects and take more with each dosage for results. This can quickly lead to drug dependence, and serious cravings and withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t active in the bloodstream. Opioid withdrawal is physically similar to a terrible case of the flu, and emotional side effects can include depression, irritability, agitation, anxiety, memory issues, troubles thinking straight, and sleep issues. Opioids are highly addictive when used regularly.
As the most regularly abused illicit drug in the United States, marijuana alters the senses and perceptions while creating a mellowing and relaxing high, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. The psychoactive element THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) in marijuana interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain to distort the senses and perceptions of time; to impair memory, thinking, and body movement; and to elevate moods.
Marijuana elevates heart rate, even for a few hours after use, which may raise the risk for a heart attack. It can also cause breathing problems, and it may potentially increase the odds for developing cancer when the drug is regularly smoked.
Marijuana interferes with normal brain development, and when it is used before the brain is fully developed in early adulthood, individuals may suffer from lasting damage to parts of the brain necessary for learning, memory, and thinking. Early use can also increase the odds that a person will suffer from addiction later in life, NIDA warns.
Around 30 percent of those who use marijuana will battle addiction to it, as the drug can be habit-forming and lead to compulsive drug use. Marijuana abuse may also contribute to increased or early schizophrenia symptoms, and potentially cause paranoia or hallucinations when used regularly for a long time.
Benzodiazepines (prescription sedatives and tranquilizers)
Prescribed to treat anxiety, lower tension, and induce sleep, benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system by increasing the presence of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. These drugs are not generally designed to be taken long-term, as they are extremely habit-forming and drug dependence can set in quickly.
Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepine drugs can be significant and even possibly life-threatening, as the central nervous system functions that have been regularly suppressed may come rebounding back, resulting in possible seizures and/or delirium. Benzodiazepines also carry a high risk for fatal overdose and are often mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol with tragic results. Effects of benzodiazepine intoxication may be similar to alcohol intoxication, including sluggishness, slurred speech, cognitive deficits, and coordination issues.
A potent stimulant drug, cocaine speeds up the central nervous system while increasing alertness, energy, and euphoria. The high is short-lived and followed by a significant “crash” that causes fatigue, depression, sluggishness, and drug cravings. Cocaine significantly disrupts dopamine levels in the brain (the neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation) and can therefore severely alter moods. For this reason, cocaine is considered very addictive.
Stokes, seizures, and heart attacks are potential side effects of cocaine abuse, as the drug increases blood pressure rates, stiffens the aorta, and thickens the heart’s ventricle walls, the American Heart Association reports. NIDA warns that chronic use of the drug can lead to malnutrition, the possible onset of a movement disorder like Parkinson’s disease, and possible hallucinations and paranoia.
Increased energy and wakefulness, decreased appetite, and elevated functions of the central nervous system accompany methamphetamine use, as the drug is a stimulant. Meth can impair the way a person thinks and may lead to bouts of aggression and violence as well as other out-of-character behaviors.
Meth use is often compulsive as the drug is powerfully addictive, and long-term use can cause significant weight loss, sleeping issues, irregular heart rate and blood pressure, hallucinations, paranoia, irritability, itching of the skin that can lead to abscesses and sores, dental problems and tooth decay (often called “meth mouth”), mental confusion and cognitive deficits, and worsening HIV symptoms. Long-term methamphetamine use can cause damage to the brain, lessening learning, thinking, processing, and memory functions that may take years to regain. Some of this damage may be irreversible, NIDA warns.
A synthetic drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, MDMA increases feelings of emotional closeness while enhancing the senses and inciting hallucinations and pleasure. MDMA use commonly increases sexual contact, which can raise the risk for disease transmission.
Often referred to as a “club drug,” ecstasy can have unpredictable side effects that can last for several hours. Molly, which is often marketed as “pure” MDMA but is far from it, regularly contains adulterants and additives that a user may be unaware of. These additives may be toxic and cause overdose in as little as one use. MDMA can raise body temperatures to extremely high levels. Dehydration and kidney, liver, and heart failure may result, which can be fatal, NIDA warns. Long-term health risks of MDMA use include decreased appetite, loss of interest in sex, irritability, anxiety, memory and learning issues, sleep difficulties, impulsivity, aggression, and addiction.
Hallucinogens (LSD, PCP, ketamine, etc.)
This class of drugs can be unpredictable. The “trip” from a hallucinogenic drug may be good or bad, lasting several hours in some cases. Hallucinogenic drugs interfere with the way the brain processes things, causing distortions of the senses, time, sense of self, and the surrounding environment. Moods, muscle control, body temperature, ability to think clearly, pain perceptions, memory functions, and responses to the environment are all affected by hallucinogenic drug use. Nausea, irregular blood pressure, dry mouth, sleep issues, sweating, detachment from oneself and the environment, panic, paranoia, psychosis, episodes of aggression and violence, and increased heart rate may occur.
Hallucinogenic drugs are not considered to be addictive; however, they are not without long-term side effects. Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, memory loss, weight loss, and speech issues may be the result of repeated PCP (phencyclidine) use, NIDA warns.
The journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology publishes that 5-50 percent of those who abuse hallucinogenic drugs will suffer at least one flashback. A flashback is a reoccurrence of the drug trip several weeks, months, or even years later. Some people may even suffer from hallucinogenic persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a condition in which continuing hallucinations interfere with daily life.
Inhalants (commercial and household solvents, nitrates, gases, and aerosol sprays)
Typically found in regular household products like glues, paints, and cleaning supplies, inhalant drugs can lead to sudden sniffing death syndrome with one use. These products, when inhaled, can cause the heart to stop without warning, NIDA explains. Seizures, brain damage, coma, hallucinations, and delusions may also occur. Long-term health risks of inhalant drug use can lead to bone marrow damage, hearing loss, loss of coordination, cognitive delays or decline, kidney and liver damage, and addiction.
The Cost of Drug Abuse and Addiction
Abuse of illicit and prescription drugs costs American society around $300 billion each year in costs related to healthcare, crime, and lost production in the workplace, NIDA publishes. Health risks related to drug abuse and addiction are numerous, and the behavioral, emotional, and social costs may be immeasurable. Drug abuse can cause a person to behave in ways that are unpredictable and uncharacteristic. A person may become unreliable and not keep up with their normal everyday obligations. Significant amounts of time and money may be spent obtaining and using drugs. Finances commonly suffer, and bills and necessary expenses may be left unattended to. In addition, mood swings can be pronounced and difficult to anticipate.
Secrecy, irritability, agitation, and even aggression can be side effects of drug abuse and addiction. Relationships and communication efforts often become strained, and home life can be difficult. Social circles shift to mostly those who also engage in drug use. Legal problems and run-ins with law enforcement may occur. Individuals may shirk work or school duties, and absences related to drug use may crop up. Children and spouses are often neglected.
Personal hygiene declines, and eating and sleeping patterns may be highly irregular. For these reasons, a person who is regularly using drugs or who battles drug addiction may lose their job or be kicked out of their living situation.
Unemployment and homelessness are possible side effects of both drug use and addiction. Around two-thirds of homeless people surveyed reported that drug (and/or alcohol) abuse was a significant contributing factor to their situation, the National Coalition for the Homeless publishes.
Addiction can have lasting consequences for individuals, families, and society as a whole. Fortunately, it is a disease that can be effectively managed with treatment and ongoing aftercare.
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