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Medical Consequences of Substance Use Disorders

by Cathy Garwood

When someone is addicted to drugs, their body will experience a wide range of long-term and short-term health concerns, both directly and indirectly. Every case will depend on the substance they use, how long, and how often they ingest the drug, but health effects can begin as quickly as after one dose.

Short-term symptoms will cause smaller changes in appetite, restlessness, sleeping patterns, blood pressure, and more. The most troubling short-term effects from the chemicals in drugs will begin to degrade internal organs and mental health potentially leading to dangerous or fatal psychosis, heart attacks, or overdose death. Long-term effects include serious issues like lung and heart disease, organ failure, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and cancer.

Once someone is addicted to their drug of choice, the brain is drastically affected and often rewired in such a way that even painful conditions will not discourage them from continuing to take drugs. Without professional drug treatment, people who face these side effects have a statistically shortened lifespan.

HIV/AIDS

HIV is a virus that is transmitted from person to person through bodily fluids. Drugs that are taken intravenously carry the highest risk of HIV/AIDS transmission among users. Although you can’t get HIV/AIDS from the drugs themselves, it can be contracted by sharing needles and participating in unprotected sex with someone who has the infection. When someone is exposed to HIV, the virus infects the person’s white blood cells, which are in charge of the body’s immune response to various infections. The virus begins to destroy these white blood cells, and within weeks, the infection abruptly becomes more severe as the virus starts replicating, making it much easier to infect other people.

Within the first month of infection, people will notice swollen lymph nodes and flu-like symptoms that include fever, joint pain, and aches. The chronic phase of HIV can last years, and with proper treatment, some can even live with the virus for decades, delaying the onset of AIDS. Though it’s possible for people to live a normal quality of life with HIV treatment, they are prone to diseases like cancer, and due to compromised immunity and white blood cell count, they are also more vulnerable to infections like pneumonia and kidney disease.

Hepatitis C Virus

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is transmitted through bodily fluids or blood, putting intravenous drug users particularly at risk for infection when sharing needles or having unprotected sex. According to the World Health Organization, 45%-85% of those exposed to hepatitis C virus will develop chronic hepatitis C. There are treatments for this disease, but many people are not aware that they have been exposed until the disease is far advanced. Also, because HCV is common among those with substance use disorders and poverty, many do not have regular access to healthcare, making treatment less available. Left untreated, HCV can cause liver failure, cirrhosis, and even death.

Hepatitis C can be cured, but addiction can complicate the process. The latest approved cure is a series of medications taken multiple times a day, often costing a significant amount of money if not covered by insurance. Some side effects of these treatments can include depression, which can exacerbate drug-seeking behavior, potentially causing someone to relapse. Therefore, those that have a substance use disorder (SUD) and HCV need to comply with treatment and follow-up with medical care for both diseases for a positive outcome.

Strokes or CVA

Cerebrovascular disorders (conditions that affect the blood vessels of the brain) are very common among drug users, increasing their chances of strokes significantly. While strokes are often thought to be a condition of the elderly, many young people who participate in drug misuse are at high risk of high blood pressure as well as hemorrhagic and ischemic strokes. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, drug misuse has been involved in 15%-40% of strokes in people under the age of 35, making it the leading condition for strokes in that age group. These stokes are caused by a blockage in a blood vessel that supplies oxygen to the brain. Because of the way some drugs affect the body’s blood pressure and heartbeat patterns, frequent use can cause complications with blood flowing through the cardiovascular system, leading to fatal strokes. While strokes are most commonly caused by amphetamine misuse like meth or cocaine, opioids have also been shown to affect the chances of stroke caused by intravenous use of the drug potentially leading to blood diseases and infective endocarditis.

Neurological Problems

Once ingested, the main effect of drugs happens inside the brain, including the euphoric high that users will experience. This can cause medical emergencies like seizures, stroke, and direct toxic effects leading the brain to change and rewire its main circuits. When an addiction is forming, it becomes a brain disorder that leads to an alteration of the reward pathway that controls stress, pleasure, decision making, and impulse control. The changes that occur in the brain caused by repeated drug misuse make it more difficult for the user to resist using the drug, regardless of how harmful the consequences are. This is what makes treating addiction more challenging than just the chemical dependence. Rebuilding the brain’s natural function can take a lot of time and therapy, sometimes never returning to its original state after long-term use.

Both long-term and short-term effects of drug use can quickly damage a person’s health. Drugs can affect every part of someone’s life, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Substance use disorders are a brain disease that is caused by the changes drugs make to the mind after repeated exposure. These health effects can also cause indirect damage to their children and loved ones, as well as their societal health like employment, housing, and potential issues with criminal involvement. Because addiction is such a vast and overreaching disease, holistic patient care is the best treatment in improving quality of life to those diagnosed with substance use disorders.

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