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Often times we think about drug abuse in terms of all the immediate harmful effects it causes, such as violent and irrational behavior, irresponsible driving, and the short-term physical changes that accompany a high. But it’s also important to remember that long-term drug abuse can also cause serious medical problems, dependence, and addiction if it goes unchecked.

Despite the harmful consequences of long-term drug abuse, addiction and dependence are growing issues in the U.S. A 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center found that nearly half (46 percent) of all Americans have a friend or family member who has been addicted to drugs.1

To further understand the growing drug addiction problem in America, let’s take a look at the basic nature and causes of addiction.

Defining Drug Dependence and Addiction

Drug dependence and addiction are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not one in the same.

  • Drug dependence occurs when the body develops a tolerance for a drug as it becomes accustomed to its presence over time. You can be dependent on an illicit drug without being addicted. Drug dependence may display some or all of the same signs of addiction, and when a dependent person stops using the drug, he or she will experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.2
  • Drug addiction is characterized by a physical and mental inability to stop taking a drug, despite its harmful consequences. It is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as a chronic, relapsing brain disease. A person can be addicted to a drug without being dependent, and symptoms typically include being unable to stop using the drug and neglecting other important life obligations as a result of the drug use.3

Both drug dependence and addiction can be caused by repeated drug abuse and these conditions are physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging to a person. Long-term abuse of illegal drugs will tear down a person’s health and wellness over time, causing a multitude of problems that won’t just go away on their own. Most (if not all) people who are dependent or addicted to drugs will need professional drug detox and rehab treatment to safely stop all drug use before entering a rehab program.

Causes of Addiction

There are many risk factors that increase a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder and/or mental disorder, but minimizing these risks can help prevent addiction and influence the overall health and wellness of a person. These factors may be biological, psychological, cultural or they may even be related to family and community environments.

Common risk factors include:4,5,6

  • Genetics
  • Adverse childhood experiences (physical/sexual/emotional abuse and/or neglect)
  • A family history of mental illness
  • Parents who abuse drugs and alcohol
  • Poor social coping skills
  • Lack of parental supervision and involvement (for children and teens)
  • Poverty
  • Affiliations with drug-using peers
  • Chaotic home environments
  • Unemployment/financial strain
  • Low self-worth
  • Conduct problems

Alternatively, protective factors can reduce the risk of drug abuse and addiction and increase a person’s overall wellness. Protective factors include:

  • Prioritizing good physical health
  • Education about drug use and addiction
  • Stable home environments
  • Parental involvement
  • Positive social and community involvement
  • Positive self-image

How Does Drug Abuse Start?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers have suggested several different potential causes for substance abuse, both early and later in life.7 A person may get involved with drugs and then end up abusing them for one or several of the following reasons:

  • Having a family history of drug or alcohol abuse – Genetics and biological factors such as having parents or grandparents with substance use problems may increase a person’s likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem themselves.
  • Living in an unstable home environment – Living in an environment that condones drug abuse or having older family members who abuse drugs and alcohol can increase a person’s risk of developing a substance use problem. Family members who participate in criminal activity and do not provide adequate supervision are also risk factors for young people. Physical or sexual abuse and neglect may also contribute to an unhealthy home environment.
  • Affiliating with drug-abusing peers – Trying a drug once with a group of friends may provide more opportunities to use again. It can also lead to more exposure to other addictive substances.
  • Using a drug for the first time at an early age – Kids who use drugs for the first time at an early age are much more likely to develop a substance use problem as teens or adults. This may be true for a variety of reasons, including the harmful effects of drugs on the developing brain, mental illness, social and biological factors, and exposure to addictive substances and/or physical or sexual abuse at home.

Commonly Abused Drugs in the U.S.

In 2016, about 20.1 million people had a substance use disorder and approximately 7.4 million of those people struggled with illegal drug abuse. Marijuana was the most commonly abused illegal drug with 4 million abusers. (Though it is now legal in many states, it is not yet legal in the eyes of the U.S. government.) Opioids are also commonly abused, with 1.8 million people abusing prescription pain relievers and 0.6 million abusing heroin.8

Although marijuana and opioids are two types of drugs that are frequently abused, there are many others. According to the NIDA, some of the most commonly abused illegal drugs in the U.S. include:9

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • K2/Spice
  • Marijuana
  • Methamphetamine
  • LSD
  • MDMA (Ecstasy)

The long-term effects of each of these drugs will vary depending on the person, but most often, they will include some or all of the following symptoms.

Cocaine – Short-Term and Long-Term Effectscocaine addiction

Short-term effects of cocaine abuseLong-term effects of cocaine abuse
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
  • Contracted blood vessels
  • Quickened breathing
  • Sleeping problems
  • Nausea
  • Hyperstimulation
  • Bizarre, erratic, and/or violent behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Depression
  • Intense drug cravings
  • Panic and psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Death (even one high dose can cause death)
  • Bowel decay
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart attack
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of bloodborne diseases
  • Loss of smell
  • Lung disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Mood swings
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Nosebleeds
  • Paranoia
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Heroin – Short-Term and Long-Term Effectsheroin effects

Short-term effects of heroin abuseLong-term effects of heroin abuse
  • Flushed, warm skin
  • Impaired mental functioning
  • Heavy feeling in arms and legs
  • Drowsiness
  • Intense itching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slowed cardiac system function
  • Slow breathing
  • Damaged nasal tissues
  • Constipation
  • Collapsed veins
  • Lung disease
  • Increased risk of bloodborne diseases
  • Skin infections
  • Miscarriage
  • Mental illness
  • Stomach cramping
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

K2/Spice – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Short-term effects of K2/spice abuseLong-term effects of K2/spice abuse
  • Agitation
  • Altered perception
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Elevated mood
  • Hallucination
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased or slowed heart rate
  • Slowed breathing
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Violent behavior
  • Vomiting
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Kidney damage
  • Memory problems
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory problems
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

LSD – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Short-term effects of LSD abuseLong-term effects of LSD abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Disturbed sleep or inability to sleep
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Increased body temperature
  • Tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Flashbacks
  • Vision problems
  • Mood swings
  • Communication problems
  • Irrational thinking
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Intense depression
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Suicidal thoughts and tendencies
  • Violent behavior
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Marijuana – Short-Term and Long-Term Effectsmarijuana

Short-term effects of marijuana abuseLong-term effects of marijuana abuse
  • Increased heart rate
  • Altered sense of time
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired senses
  • Impaired coordination
  • Increased appetite
  • Memory problems
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Higher risk of lung infections
  • Impaired brain development
  • Respiratory problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Weakened immune system
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

MDMA (Ecstasy) – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

ecstasy

Short-term effects of MDMA abuseLong-term effects of MDMA abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Increased activity and alertness
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Involuntary teeth clenching
  • Increased sensitivity to touch
  • Muscle cramps
  • Paranoia
  • Sweating
  • Brain damage
  • Convulsions
  • Drug cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Impaired emotional responses, memory, and learning
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Heart failure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Kidney damage
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Methamphetamine – Short-Term and Long-Term Effectsmethamphetamine abuse

Short-term effects of methamphetamine abuseLong-term effects of methamphetamine abuse
  • Intense itching
  • Loss of appetite
  • Violent behavior
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased respiration
  • Increased body temperature
  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Dental problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased risk of bloodborne diseases
  • Memory problems
  • Sleeping problems
  • Paranoia
  • Weight loss
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Prescription Drug Abuse

Most of us have all gone to the doctor at one point or another and have been prescribed a drug that alleviates the uncomfortable symptoms of a particular health problem. When used in this way, prescription drugs are a highly beneficial and positive tool. But sometimes, a prescription drug can be abused in a way that is harmful to a person’s health and may lead to physical dependence or addiction.

Why Do People Abuse Prescription Drugs?

Many prescription drugs were designed to be taken on a short-term basis. They are meant to be taken under the guidance of a doctor, in carefully monitored and measured doses until the physical ailment is resolved. If any of the prescription drugs are left over after treatment, the user should discard the medicine in a safe way. Unfortunately, even when a prescription drug is taken as directed, it can still cause physical dependence.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), there are many reasons why a person may abuse prescription drugs.10 Some of the most common are:

  • To fit in with friends
  • To feel good or get high
  • To relax and relieve anxiety
  • To reduce appetite
  • To appease curiosity
  • To supplement an already existing addiction

What Does Prescription Drug Abuse Look Like?

Prescription drug abuse can be defined as using a prescription drug for recreational purposes or taking a prescription drug in any way other than what it was prescribed for. Examples of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Using a prescription drug for recreational purposes
  • Taking more frequent doses of the drug than were prescribed by a doctor
  • Taking larger doses of the drug than were prescribed by a doctor
  • Taking someone else’s prescription drugs
  • Taking a prescription drug purely to get high or for the pleasant short-term effects

How Common Is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse in the U.S. is extremely common and can have serious physical and mental consequences. From 1991 to 2010, the number of opioid prescriptions skyrocketed from 76 million to 210 million.11 SAMHSA’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also reported 18.7 million Americans (or 6.9 percent of the population) misused psychotherapeutic prescription drugs in the past year. An additional 11.8 million people had an opioid use disorder, with 6.9 million people abusing hydrocodone, 3.9 million people abusing oxycodone, and 228,000 people abusing fentanyl.12

The misuse of prescription drugs has also significantly contributed to the number of overdose deaths and emergency room visits in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have more than quadrupled since 1999 and outnumber overdoses involving illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine.13

Opioid Pain Relievers – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Morphine, fentanyl, codeine, oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and Demerol

risk factors of opioid addiction

Short-term effects of prescription opioid abuseLong-term effects of prescription opioid abuse
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Slowed breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal distention/bloating
  • Constipation
  • Liver damage
  • Brain damage
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Central Nervous System Depressants (Sedatives and Tranquilizers) – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Xanax, Valium, Librium, pentobarbital (Nembutal), and phenobarbital (Luminal)

Misconceptions About Xanax

Short-term effects of prescription sedative and tranquilizer abuseLong-term effects of prescription sedative and tranquilizer abuse
  • Slowed breathing
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Problems with movement and memory
  • Impaired judgment and attention
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Weakness
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Coma
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Stimulants – Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall

stimulants

Short-term effects of prescription stimulant abuseLong-term effects of prescription stimulant abuse
  • Improved concentration
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved focus
  • Improved memory retention
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Extremely high body temperature
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

 

Drug Detox, Withdrawal, and Addiction Recovery

Withdrawal symptoms of these drugs will vary depending on the person, their circumstances, and their drug abuse history. The inability to cope with uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms may keep many people from overcoming drug addiction and dependence, but drug detox can help. Although medically-assisted drug detox is extremely effective, alone, it does little to curb or prevent ongoing long-term drug abuse.

Drug detox should be the first step in a comprehensive addiction treatment program comprised of inpatient or outpatient rehab, sober living, and aftercare. Suddenly stopping all drug use can be very dangerous or even deadly, so a person attempting to get sober should always seek the professional assistance of a medical detox team.

After a person has been properly stabilized, the drug detox process focuses on the medical management of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms as the body rids itself of the drug. This time is also used to address emotional responses to detox and begin group and individual counseling if the person is physically able.

Drug and alcohol detox programs at Briarwood are designed around the comprehensive needs of the client. Each detox program is a fluid program that is changed and updated as the client’s needs fluctuate. Upon completion of detox, our medical and clinical team provide personal recommendations for ongoing treatment. This gives each client the best opportunity for continued and ongoing success in sobriety.

Call Briarwood Detox Center today to learn more about our individualized drug and alcohol detox programs, for answers about detox for commonly abused drugs, or to enroll in a program at one of our detox centers in Houston in Austin, Texas.

 

References:

  1. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/10/26/nearly-half-of-americans-have-a-family-member-or-close-friend-whos-been-addicted-to-drugs/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/drug-dependence
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics
  4. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/risk-protective-factors
  5. https://archives.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/risk-protective-factors-in-drug-abuse-prevention
  6. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/sites/default/files/resources/factors-substance-abuse-mental-health.pdf
  7. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-abuse-among-children-adolescents-in-brief/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/when-how-does-drug-abuse-start-progress
  8. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm
  9. https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/cadchart.pdf
  10. https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/drugs/prescription-drugs
  11. https://www.projectknow.com/research/prescription-drugs/
  12. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/topics/data_outcomes_quality/nsduh-ppt-09-2017.pdf
  13. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/summary
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