Sadly, substance dependence is fairly common in our world today. It’s likely that many individuals throughout your local community are suffering. It’s also likely that someone in your family or circle of friends is struggling with substance use disorder. Perhaps you are dealing with this problem yourself. Maybe you’ve been suffering from alcohol use disorder or drug use disorder. If so, know that you are not alone. Also, know that there’s no time like the present to seek help. Without getting treatment for your substance use problem, it is likely that you will eventually (if you haven’t already) see the negative effects chemical dependency can have on your physical health.

Developing a Substance Use Disorder: A Slow Process

Substance use disorder, often called “addiction”, doesn’t develop overnight. It takes time and continuous substance use. But, despite its gradual development, many people fail to realize its presence until it is full-blown. It can be difficult to recognize the signs of a developing substance use disorder because many of the signs occur subtly. They don’t just pop up, clear as day. Many times, the signs and symptoms of addiction show themselves slowly over a period of time. So, the individuals who are suffering from substance use don’t really notice what’s happening. Their family members and friends may not notice either.

This is unfortunate because, if individuals can catch addiction before it worsens, it’s likely that they will be able to “nip it in the bud” as the saying goes. However, again, it’s not that simple. Individuals who are suffering from substance use disorder may:

  • Stop spending time with their loved ones.
  • Become more irritable and agitated.
  • Become very secretive and private.
  • Spend more and more time alone.
  • Begin to struggle at school or work.
  • Start to avoid/forget about certain responsibilities.
  • Show signs of financial instability. 

These signs don’t usually just occur all at once. They happen one day at a time and many of them can be associated with other things. For example, a family may think that an individual is simply going through a “phase” when he or she stops spending so much time around them. They may think the individual has simply “fallen on hard times” if there are signs of money problems. In reality, however, the individual might be spending his or her money on drugs and alcohol

Do You Have a Substance Use Disorder?

It’s important to recognize the signs we mentioned earlier and even ask questions. It’s possible that a person who is showing these signs is developing a substance use disorder. If you’ve noticed any of these signs in your life but you’re not sure what they mean, ask yourself these following questions:

  • Have I had trouble limiting the amount of alcohol I drink?
  • Is it hard for me to function throughout the day without alcohol/drug use?
  • Do I think about alcohol or drug use often?
  • Do I spend a lot of time drinking alone? 
  • Have I visited multiple doctors in order to get prescription drugs?
  • Do I get defensive or offended when people approach me about my substance use?
  • Do I sometimes feel ashamed or embarrassed because of my substance use?
  • Is it hard for me to have “fun” without alcohol or drug use?
  • Am I spending less time with family or friends because of my drug/alcohol use? 
  • Do I tend to spend money on drugs/alcohol instead of rent, food, etc.?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, you may be suffering from substance use disorder. While these signs and behaviors may seem harmless now, it’s important to be aware that substance use can have a very negative effect on your health and your life in general. 

How Addiction Affects Your Physical Health

When it comes to substance dependence, the effects can be life-changing. In some cases, the results of drug or alcohol use can be life-threatening. So, it’s important to be aware of the health issues that can arise as a result of addiction. 

Of course, there is no list containing all of the possible outcomes when it comes to addiction. After all, each individual who suffers from substance use disorder is different and unique. Each individual has a unique genetic makeup. Also, other things determine the way in which substance use affects people. For example, a person who has co-occurring disorders may experience different physical health changes than someone who does not have a dual diagnosis. Still, there are some physical health complications that may occur in most cases of addiction, depending on the substance. 

Heroin Use: Physical Health Complications

An individual who is suffering from heroin dependence may experience a range of physical health complications. Many of those who use heroin do so intravenously. This means that they inject the drug into their bodies using a needle. As a result of this method of heroin use, individuals may be subject to collapsed veins. They may also develop various infections. It’s also common for people to share needles when using heroin. This can lead to infections and issues such as HIV and tuberculosis. 

Sometimes, people snort or smoke heroin. This makes them subject to different physical health complications. Individuals may have lung problems and difficulty breathing. Constipation and loss of appetite may also occur. Tooth decay and other dental problems may develop. Other physical health complications that might arise due to heroin dependence include the following:

  • Itching
  • Cold sweats
  • Memory loss 
  • Weak muscles
  • Gum inflammation
  • Weak immune system

Women who misuse heroin may develop menstrual problems and/or infertility. Some people may have kidney disease, skin infections, or hepatitis. In some extreme and intense cases, heroin use can even result in coma. 

The Negative Physical Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol is a legal substance, making it more accessible. Most people enjoy an occasional drink or two. However, alcohol use can eventually become problematic. Some individuals develop a problem that prevents them from being able to limit the amount of alcohol they consume. They lose the ability to stop drinking, even when their alcohol use poses a threat. This can lead individuals to drink and drive or drive after they’ve had far too much to drink. It can also cause dangerous or risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex which can lead to some serious consequences like STDs. 

Some of the health issues that can arise from alcohol dependence include the following problems:

  • Stroke
  • Heart trouble
  • Liver cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Fertility problems
  • Memory problems
  • Fibrosis of the liver
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • High blood pressure
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Pancreatic problems
  • Problems with coordination
  • “Wet Brain” (Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome)

Excessive alcohol use can also lead to alcohol poisoning. This is a serious problem that requires immediate attention and treatment. When a person is poisoned by alcohol, he or she may experience nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness, confusion, and breathing problems.

How Cocaine Impacts Physical Health

Cocaine often causes very serious short-term effects. But, when people use this drug for a while, it’s likely that they will develop major health complications. Some of the physical effects of cocaine use may include:

  • Seizures
  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Depression
  • Convulsions
  • Kidney damage
  • Fertility problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Damage in the lungs
  • Symptoms of psychosis

Individuals may use cocaine in various ways. Some may snort the drug, which can lead to nasal damage and loss of smell. People may also experience frequent nosebleeds or have trouble swallowing. Those who smoke the drug might experience respiratory failure. Sometimes, people use this drug by injecting a cocaine-water mixture using a needle. This can cause various infections to develop. People may suffer from hepatitis or HIV. It can also lead to the development of abscesses. Users may also rub the drug on their gums, which might lead to other health complications such as tooth decay.

Treatment for Substance Dependence and the Health Conditions it Causes

When individuals find themselves suffering from substance use disorder, they may begin to seek help. Unfortunately, some of the health complications that occur as a result of substance dependence are irreversible. However, individuals can receive treatment to help them manage many of these conditions. For example, certain medications may help people who are suffering from high blood pressure, heart problems, or immune system problems. Depression and anxiety that may arise from substance misuse can be treated through therapy.

Substance use disorder itself can be treated, too. Individuals who are suffering from this issue can find freedom and hope through professional treatment. Those who go through treatment for addiction usually engage in a detox process. Then, they can go through treatment programs such as inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, or an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Throughout these programs, people learn more about their struggle with substance dependency and how to overcome the challenges of recovery. They can also gain the skills they need in order to avoid relapse and continue living a life that is free from substance dependence.

While in treatment for substance use disorder, people can get the support and guidance they need through individual therapy, group therapy, and even family counseling. Holistic approaches are also helpful as they are non-medicinal ways to obtain healing and freedom from the effects of addiction.

Debunking the Myths That Surround Substance Use

After using drugs or alcohol for a long time, individuals can expect to experience various effects. Again, the type of symptoms a person experiences will depend heavily on the type of substance he or she uses and how long the person misuses that substance. 

But, regardless of the type of substance a person is using, it’s important to debunk unhealthy and false ideas that may surround substance use. After all, unhealthy thought processes often prevent people from getting the help they need, even when the consequences of substance use are evident.

“Prescription drug use is less likely to lead to addiction.”

This is absolutely false. Yes, many types of prescription drugs and medications help to alleviate pain, treat mental health disorders, and manage other symptoms. But, the idea that an individual can use these substances excessively with no consequences is simply untrue. While these drugs are meant to be helpful, they can sometimes cause issues.

Many times, people who use these substances develop a dependence on them. After all, these drugs help to deal with the issues people may be facing in their bodies. However, this dependence and tolerance may eventually lead people to use more medication than the recommended amount. Or, they may begin to mix their medication with other substances, such as heroin or alcohol, in order to strengthen the effects. This is known as drug misuse. Eventually, the person may develop a full-blown addiction.

“Alcoholism is not as likely as other drug use problems.”

Since alcohol is a legal substance and fairly easy to access, people struggle with the reality of its dangers. In some cases, the fact that alcohol is so easily accessible only makes it more likely to become problematic. Unfortunately, alcohol is a substance that many people tend to use in excess. This can lead to very serious and life-altering consequences. 

“It won’t hurt to just try cocaine or heroin.”

Substance use disorder often develops as a result of experimentation. Individuals who seek the opportunity to simply “try” a drug or two often find themselves doing much more than just trying these substances. Before they realize what is happening, they’re suffering from substance misuse. 

Addressing these harmful thought processes can help to end denial and encourage people to get treatment for substance use disorder. 

Get the Help You Need Today at Discovery Institute

If you are suffering from substance use disorder, know that there is hope for you. You can overcome this problem with help from people who truly understand. Your struggle with substance use may cause you to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But, here at Discovery Institute, we can assist you as you work to take your life back. With help, support, and guidance from our compassionate team, you can gain the skills you need in order to leave addiction in your past. 

You don’t have to fight drug or alcohol dependence alone. Allow us to help you today! If you’re ready to take the first step toward freedom from substance use disorder, just contact us today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.