The Many Health Risks of Substance Abuse

Reports state 23 million Americans need treatment for substance abuse. Because substance abuse can lead to physical and psychological damage, that means millions of people could be suffering from additional health problems.

You may be wondering why someone would continue to use drugs or alcohol if the substances have so many health risks. One thing is for sure; if it were easy to stop using, most would have already stopped.

They can’t stop because the first health risk includes the brain and what drugs and alcohol do to the brain to make it hard to quit.

Substances Hijack the Brain

When you drink alcohol or use drugs, the substances make their way to your bloodstream and then to the brain. Once they reach the brain, they signal “feel-good chemicals,” or neurotransmitters like dopamine, to activate and flood the reward center in the brain.

When they flood the reward center in the brain, you feel an overwhelming sense of calm and comfort. You may experience euphoria and a high that you have never felt before. The high doesn’t last long. As soon as the brain recognizes the high is fading, it starts doing whatever it can to get you to use again.

The brain can signal the body to have withdrawal symptoms. This starts the cycle of substance abuse that, over time, leads to many physical, psychological, and behavioral health risks.

Keep reading to learn more about each risk.

Physical Risks

Physical risks start with building a tolerance to drugs or alcohol. Tolerance means you must consume more and more of a substance to feel the same effects you felt when you first started using it.

As your tolerance builds, your body may show signs of dependence when you try to stop or cut back on using. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach pains or spasms, shakiness, and cravings. Dependence on substances means your body has adapted to the higher amount of drugs in your system and needs that higher amount to function.

Because the withdrawal symptoms become more severe, you start to make your drug or alcohol use a priority. You may even lie, cheat, and steal to continue using. You may even experience negative consequences like the loss of job, broken relationships, or legal issues. Yet, you cannot stop using because you are addicted.

At the same time, many other physical health risks can happen. Each substance you consume creates its own set of physical health risks. In general, your immune system weakens, your lungs become diseased, and you become malnourished.

Additional physical health risks include sleep disturbances, skin problems; sexual dysfunction; irregular heartbeat; cognitive decline; coordination problems, changes in weight, respiratory issues; kidney damage; heart disease; and overdose or overdose death.

Psychological risks can accompany physical health risks.

Psychological Risks

Because drugs and alcohol alter the structure and chemistry in the brain, you can expect many psychological health risks. Research shows people abusing substances are twice as likely to develop a mental illness than those who don’t use drugs or alcohol. Over 8 million people at the time of the research had both a substance use disorder and mental illness.

Mental illnesses can include depression, anxiety, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunctions, and more.

Other psychological risks include the following: altered perceptions and emotions; irritability; confusion; paranoia; aggressiveness; violent and erratic behavior; hallucinations; delusions; delirium; psychosis; and impaired memory.

Despite risks like these, people often put themselves at risk behaviorally when seeking and using drugs or alcohol.

Behavioral Risks

Maintaining a substance use disorder can sometimes mean putting yourself and others at risk for harm. Behavioral risks refer to actions like meeting a drug dealer in a dangerous location, using or sharing dirty needles, and stealing items to pawn to get money for drugs or alcohol.

Behavioral risks may also include driving while intoxicated, having unprotected sex with strangers, trading sex or prescriptions for drugs or alcohol, or continuing to use drugs or alcohol even though you have an underlying medical problem that is not being treated.

Behavioral risks are any actions that can cause you harm or take your life, but you do them anyway to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Substance use disorders bring about another category of risks that affect your relationships, social risks. While they may not be considered health risks, they are still important.

Social Risks

Substance use disorders change relationships between friends, lovers, coworkers, family members, and anyone else in your life. Social risks contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle and help you continue using drugs and alcohol.

Examples of negative social behaviors include isolating yourself so you can use in private, avoiding social outings, no longer participating in activities you once enjoyed, dropping out of hobbies or extracurricular activities, using money that is supposed to pay for bills to purchase drugs or alcohol, skipping work or losing your job due to using, and hiding stashes of drugs or alcohol around your home.

You may also cause disorder and danger in the community, like driving while drunk or high, making a scene, starting fights with strangers, or passing out in public places.

Unfortunately for some, the risks listed above are not enough to help someone quit using drugs or alcohol. In such cases, help from professional addiction treatment specialists is needed.

How To Stop Using Drugs and Alcohol

You don’t have to wait until you hit rock bottom or until you have an “Aha Moment.” Those may never come. What you must do is start a treatment program that begins with intensive services and, over time, tapers to less structured treatment.

Give yourself the gift of long-term treatment that involves medication-assisted detox, inpatient rehab, sober living, intensive outpatient, and finally, individual counseling. Reports claim the more time you spend in treatment, the higher your chances of recovery success.

By entering treatment, you can prevent future health risks and heal from the effects substances have caused so far. As a result, you can get your life back, starting today.