When it comes to drug abuse, the main concern is often the immediate health impacts of drug use. However, there are also several long-term effects of drug abuse on various systems in the body. For example, prolonged exposure to certain drugs can cause changes in vital organs like the heart, lungs, liver, and brain.
These changes can lead to serious health problems like liver disease, liver failure, brain damage, mental illness, heart disease, and in some cases, death. Chronic drug use can increase susceptibility to other diseases like cancer or infections due to suppressed immune function.
This article will take a closer look at some of the more common long-term effects of drug abuse on various systems in the body.
Different Classes of Drugs and Their Long-Term Implications on the Body
There are three types of drugs; depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens. Each one has a different effect on the body.
Depressants like alcohol, cannabis, benzodiazepines, heroin and other opioids slow down the function of the central nervous system (CNS). Depressants may cause slower reflexes, dizziness, and poor coordination and balance when taken in small quantities.
Large doses may lead to nausea, drowsiness, and loss of consciousness. When taken over a long period, depressants may cause changes in brain structure, creating long-term imbalances in hormonal and neuronal systems that are not easily reversed. Other common effects include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Sexual problems
- Breathing difficulties
- Sleep problems
Stimulants like amphetamines, cocaine, and MDMA increase the activity of the central nervous system. In small doses, stimulants may increase heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure and cause reduced appetite, sleeplessness, and agitation. Large doses may lead to anxiety, paranoia, aggression, panic, stomach cramps, and seizures. Long-term use has been linked to the following:
- Chest pain
- Heart failure
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Chronic insomnia
- Increased blood pressure
- Irregular heart rate
Hallucinogens like LSD, ketamine, and magic mushrooms alter a person's perception of reality. They may cause visual and auditory hallucinations, confusion, paranoia, anxiety, and panic. Long-term use has been linked to the following:
- Persistent psychosis (paranoia, disorganized thinking, visual disturbances, and mood changes)
- Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)
- Speech problems
- Weight loss
- Memory loss
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Heart and Circulatory System
One of the most common long-term effects of drug abuse is damage to the heart and circulatory system. Drugs particularly harmful to the heart include stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, which can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure. This strains the heart and can lead to conditions like aneurysms, heart attacks, and death.
Stimulant use can cause cardiomyopathies, myocardial infarctions, aortic dissection, and endocarditis. In other cases, they may exacerbate pre-existing heart conditions, speeding the heart damage.
Other drugs like opioids and alcohol can slow heart rate and circulation to dangerous levels. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high heart failure, blood pressure, or stroke. It can also cause cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects the heart muscle. Alcohol has also been linked to obesity and the long list of health problems that can go along with it.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Respiratory System
Another common long-term effect of drug abuse is damage to the lungs. This is particularly true for smoked drugs like marijuana, tobacco, and crack cocaine. Repeated exposure to toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause inflammation and promote oxidative stress in the outer lining of the lungs. Over time, this leads to chronic inflammation and scarring, making it more difficult for oxygen to flow through the lungs and into other organs.
Likewise, drugs like heroin can cause significant damage to lung tissue due to their direct impact on blood vessels. In particular, these substances constrict blood vessels and inhibit oxygen delivery to vital organs like the brain and heart. Drug use has been linked to different respiratory problems, including bronchitis, chronic cough, emphysema, and lung cancer. Inhalation of these drugs can also damage the airways and make breathing difficult.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Brain
Drugs interfere with the normal functioning of neurotransmitters, which are responsible for transmitting signals from one neuron to another. In particular, drugs affect the release of dopamine and other key neurotransmitters that regulate mood, reward processing, decision-making, and movement.
As these chemicals are disrupted by drug use, users can experience various unpleasant side effects, including intense cravings, confusion, altered consciousness, and impaired motor control. Moreover, prolonged drug use can have lasting impacts on brain development, particularly in adolescents and young adults who are still experiencing significant neurological changes throughout their formative years.
Drugs affect the brain in different ways, including:
- Impaired cognitive function - Difficulty with learning and memory, as well as decision-making and executive function.
- Altered mental state - Changes in perception, mood, and consciousness.
- Changes in memory - Short-term memory loss and long-term changes in how information is stored and retrieved.
- Damage to brain cells - Toxic drugs kill brain cells, causing permanent damage.
- Changes in brain connections - Disruption of normal neural circuitry can lead to behavior changes.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Liver
The liver is responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood, so it's not surprising that drug abuse can significantly impact this vital organ. In particular, drugs like alcohol and heroin can cause liver damage by promoting inflammation and cell death.
Over time, this can lead to cirrhosis, a condition in which the liver cannot function properly. Other drugs, like methamphetamine, can also damage the liver by causing oxidative stress. These changes can lead to liver inflammation, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Kidneys
The kidneys are responsible for filtering waste and toxins out of the blood. Drug abuse can damage these organs and impair their ability to function properly. In particular, drugs like heroin, amphetamines, and cocaine can cause kidney failure or damage by causing inflammation and oxidative stress. These changes can lead to kidney disease, which can be fatal.
Long-Term Effects of Drugs on the Immune System
Chronic drug use can compromise the body's ability to fight off infections and disease, increasing an individual's susceptibility to illness. In addition, heavy drug use has been linked to conditions like HIV and hepatitis, especially among IV drug users. These conditions can compromise the immune system.
How to Quit Using Drugs
The best way to be healthy again is to quit using drugs. Your body and mind can return to normal when you stop using drugs. However, quitting is often the hardest part. Addiction changes the brain in ways that make it difficult to control cravings and resist the urge to use.
Withdrawal symptoms also make quitting difficult, as they can be uncomfortable and dangerous. So quitting is often more than just a matter of willpower. It requires a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the underlying causes of addiction as well as other possible health care issues.
That's why it's important to seek professional help when ready to quit. Addiction treatment centers like More Than Rehab provide the support you need to detox safely and overcome your addiction. With the right care, you can get your life back on track and restore your physical and mental health.