Drug Addiction Effect on Health
“In 2017 there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States” (Hedegaard M.D., Minino M.P.H, & Warner Ph.D., 2018, Data Brief No. 329). For many drug users, death is an all too likely consequence of addiction. Addiction is defined as “a compulsive, chronic physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity” (Merriam & Webster, 2019). While death is the most severe consequence, it isn’t the only consequence drug users face. Addiction has a host of negative impacts on the mental and physical health of a user, many of which will last long after a person stops using drugs.
“Drug abuse has devastating effects on the mind, behavior, and relationships, but the permanent effects of drugs on the body can slowly destroy vital systems and functions, culminating in permanent disability or even death” (The Permanent Effects of Drugs on the Body, 2019, par. 1). The effects a drug has on the health of a user vary based on the drug in use, the length of drug use, and the method of drug use. Some commonly abused drugs include crack cocaine, heroin, phencyclidine (PCP), fentanyl, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), prescribed pain medication, alcohol, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Furthermore, the methods of use are injecting, inhaling, and ingesting. It’s important to note that though the type of high varies from drug to drug, many of the impacts they have on the health of the body are the same.
Drugs like fentanyl, heroin, crack cocaine, and prescription pain medication are called narcotics and have many common effects on the body. They are constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, headaches, and dry mouth. Additionally, narcotics slow down the Central Nervous System or CNS. “The Central Nervous System is made up of the brain and spinal cord, which also includes the respiratory and cardiovascular systems” (Corzine, Faupel, & Weaver, 2014, pg. 235). Consequently, narcotic addiction slows down the respiratory system which limits the amount of oxygen the brain receives. “This quality of the narcotics might put a user in danger, in an overdose situation, resulting in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems virtually shutting down” (Corzine et al., 2014, pg. 235). Narcotic addiction can also lead to brain disorders like embolism, thrombosis, and brain hemorrhage. Notably, these are just the physical effects on the body as narcotics also impact a user psychologically.
Narcotics give the user a sense of euphoria. “Euphoria is an intense feeling of elation and excitement” (Merriam & Webster, 2019). While some users experience reduced anxiety or a feeling of calmness, other users report hallucinations or feeling like they cannot get through the day without using drugs. Because of how narcotics affect the brain, narcotic abuse also causes mental health problems. Not to mention many users quickly develop a tolerance to narcotics and as such, they need a higher dose to achieve the same effect. Thus, causing further damage to the brain. However, narcotics are not the only drugs that are abused by users.
“Alcohol is, ironically, a legal drug for adults in the United States, although pharmacologically it is one of the most dangerous of all recreational drugs” (Corzine et al., 2014, pg. 237). Alcohol abuse leads to several types of liver dysfunction, two examples are cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholic hepatitis. Cirrhosis occurs when healthy liver cells are replaced with nonfunctional fibrous tissue which causes limited blood flow in the liver. Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver which impairs the overall function of the liver. Alcohol abuse is also linked to heart disease and cancer. As previously mentioned, alcohol is a drug and drug abuse psychologically impact’s a user.
“The mental effects of alcohol are wide-ranging” (Psychological Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse, 2019, par. 2). Alcohol abuse leads to impaired judgment, lowered inhibitions, impulsive behavior, anxiety, confusion, and memory loss or impairment. As such, alcohol is like narcotics in that it slows down function in the brain and spinal cord. “Much of the long-term mental impact of alcohol dependence is related to shrinkage in crucial brain areas” (Psychological Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse, 2019, par. 13). As a result, alcoholics are at risk for mental health problems. Additionally, another classification of drugs that has a large impact on the brain is hallucinogens.
LSD, DMT, and PCP all fall into the hallucinogen category. “Hallucinogens are drugs that cause hallucinations” (Merriam & Webster, 2019). Hallucinations are images or sensations that seem real to the user though they are not. These drugs are known specifically for their psychological effects and many users report using them to expand their minds. Users report rapid and intense mood swings, with many users reporting that the changes in mood happen so quickly that they feel like they are experiencing many emotions at the same time. Moreover, hallucinogens cause changes in a user’s perception of consciousness, time, and space. Equally important are the effects these drugs have on the user’s body.
Hallucinogen use leads to increased heart rate or tachycardia, high blood pressure, rapid breathing, elevated body temperature, loss of appetite, lack of coordination, and excessive sweating. “If left untreated, tachycardia can disrupt normal heart function and lead to serious complications, including heart failure, stroke, sudden cardiac arrest, and death” (Mayo-Clinic, 1998-2019). High blood pressure, if left uncontrolled, puts a user at higher risk for stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, and heart attack. The effects of high blood pressure and increased heart rate are similar, as such, a person using hallucinogens increases the likelihood of experiencing more severe health effects. Considering all the negative health impacts drug users face, a commonly asked question is why don’t they stop?
The best way to answer that question is to explain how addiction works. “Drugs tap into the brain’s communication system and tamper with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information” (NIDA, 2019). Over time, the brain adjusts to the drugs and limits the number of chemicals, like dopamine, it naturally releases. To clarify, the brain now depends on the drugs for the chemicals because it is no longer producing them itself. The absence of those drugs does not cause the brain to immediately return to its old means of communication.
Naturally, the brain triggers a craving or sends a message to the user that it needs the drugs to function and without them, many users experience physiological and psychological problems until they feed the craving. “Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences” (Harvard Medical School, 2011). Because of the impact drugs have one the brain, many are not safe to detox from without medical supervision. The effects of withdrawal are brutal with many users experiencing insomnia, dysphoria, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and heart failure caused by high blood sodium levels. Nevertheless, many users do seek help, and several are successful in obtaining sobriety. However, being sober does not mean that the health issues a user faces have disappeared.
“The researchers behind the current study drew from 2017 National Recovery Survey data and developed a sample of more than 2,000 adults in the U.S. who were recovering from substance use addiction. Of this group, 37 percent had received a diagnosis of one or more of the following health problems: liver disease, tuberculosis, HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, cancer, hepatitis C, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes” (Chiara, 2019). In addition, many recovering users suffer from anxiety or depression and as a result, many feel their quality of life has diminished and some need medication. Thus, a recovering user’s health is impacted well after they no longer abuse drugs.
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