Each year, thousands of lives are lost in the U.S. due to substance use disorders. According to the CDC, approximately 140,000 deaths are attributed to alcohol use and another 100,000 fatalities are due to drug overdoses in 2021. In addition to that, thousands will succumb to diseases that are a direct result of long-term substance use.
In fact, the life expectancy in the U.S. has decreased while other countries have seen their life expectancies increase. This is thought to result from rising rates of substance use disorder and its adverse health effects. So, how does substance use affect your overall health? Let’s start with defining some core concepts.
What is substance use disorder?
A substance use disorder occurs when the recurrent use of any substance causes health problems, disabilities and impairs your ability to perform your daily tasks and responsibilities. This happens when the amount and frequency of the substance use increases to the point when dependency or addiction develops. The severity of the substance use disorder is determined by the level of impairment caused by the substance abuse. There are two terms used to describe substance use, with each having distinct meanings.
Dependency: Long-term exposure to alcohol or drugs that results in brain alterations, leading to increased tolerance. This causes the individual to increase their consumption to experience the initial effects. Over time, the brain becomes chemically dependent, causing withdrawal symptoms to emerge when not consuming the substance.
Addiction: When the substance use becomes ingrained into the brain’s reward system, it can result in addiction. This is characterized by the compulsive behaviors that accompany addiction, as the individual continues consuming the substance regardless of the mounting negative consequences.
That said, dependence and addiction are only part of the story. Since drugs and alcohol are toxic to the human body, a substance use disorder also has the potential to cause serious health issues.
6 health consequences of substance use
Adverse health effects caused by a substance use disorder will differ depending on the specific substance involved. Some of these long-term health effects include:
- Heart damage: Substances like alcohol, cocaine, LSD and meth, can cause serious heart damage, including conditions such as heart arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure or an enlarged heart.
- Liver damage: The most prevalent cause of liver injury is associated with alcohol addiction, although cocaine and meth use can also be highly toxic to the liver. Additionally, intravenous drug use increases the risk of contracting hepatitis or inflammation of the liver.
- Brain damage: Several substances have the potential to cause damage to the brain. This includes the devastating condition called Wernicke encephalopathy that is caused by severe alcohol addiction. Other substances that can cause brain damage include cannabis, LSD and opioids.
- Cancer: Alcohol addiction may increase the risk of various cancers, including colorectal cancer, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer and liver cancer.
- Lung damage: Most people are well aware of the damage caused to the lungs by chronic tobacco use. They may not know, however, that lung damage can also be caused by other substances, including cocaine, cannabis, meth and heroin.
- Reproductive damage: There are many substances that can cause long-term fertility problems or even permanent reproductive issues in both men and women. These include cannabis, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine and benzodiazepines.
If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder and you’re concerned about long-term health consequences, help is available. Begin the pathway to health and wellness — reach out for support today.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call 866-313-6307.