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Often times we think about illegal 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.

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.1
  • 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.2

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 illicit 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:3,4,5

  • 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
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Harmful Long-Term Effects of Illegal Drug Abuse

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.6

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 illicit drug with 4 million abusers. Opioids were a close second, with 1.8 million people abusing prescription pain relievers and 0.6 million abusing heroin.7

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:8

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.

Click on each illegal drug listed in the chart below to see its long-term effects.

Bowel decay
Cardiac arrest
Cognitive impairments
Collapsed veins
Damaged nasal tissues
Dental problems
Heart attack
Heart disease
Higher risk of lung infections
Impaired brain development
Increased blood pressure
Increased body temperature
Increased energy and physical activity
Increased heart rate
Increased respiration
Increased risk of bloodborne diseases
Kidney damage
Loss of appetite
Loss of smell
Lung disease
Memory problems
Mental illness
Mood swings
Respiratory problems
Sexual arousal
Skin infections
Sleeping problems
Stomach cramping
Suicidal thoughts
Violent behavior
Weakened immune system
Weight loss


Withdrawal and Addiction Recovery

Withdrawal symptoms of these drugs will vary depending on the person, their circumstances, and their drug abuse history, but most often, abusers will experience the following symptoms.

Click on each illegal drug listed in the chart below to see its withdrawal effects.

Bone pain
Constricted blood vessels
Difficulty concentrating
Dilated pupils
Feelings of hopelessness
Increased activity and alertness
Increased appetite
Increased blood pressure
Increased body temperature
Increased energy and physical activity
Increased happiness
Increased heart rate
Increased sensitivity to sight
Increased sensitivity to sound
Increased sensitivity to touch
Loss of appetite
Mood swings
Muscle cramps
Muscle pain
Muscle spasms
Muscle stiffness
Panic attacks
Suicidal thoughts

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.



  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/drug-dependence
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics
  3. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/risk-protective-factors
  4. https://archives.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/risk-protective-factors-in-drug-abuse-prevention
  5. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/sites/default/files/resources/factors-substance-abuse-mental-health.pdf
  6. 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/
  7. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm
  8. https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/cadchart.pdf
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