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Effects of Drug Use on Physical Health

People abuse drugs for various reasons, often stemming from a combination of factors.

Navigation: The Physical Deterioration Caused by Drug Use, The Long-Term Consequences of Drug Use on Physical Health, Seeking Help for Drug Use, Treatment Options, Conclusion, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


We all know that millions of people are struggling with substance abuse and addiction around the world. But the effects of drug use are still not well-known.

People may be more familiar with the consequences of drug use on mental health. However, most people do not understand the impact of substance abuse on physical health.

This is part of the reason why people keep abusing various substances. People abuse drugs for various reasons, often stemming from a combination of factors. Some may use drugs to feel good, relax, and escape from stress, emotional pain, or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. But other factors like peer pressure, curiosity, or social influences can also play a role, especially among younger people. [1]

But if you understand the potential drug use effects on physical health, you will not succumb to your triggers or stressors as easily. Knowing the dangers can help protect you from substance abuse.

Here we will explore the various ways in which drug use can impact physical health as well as the long-term consequences it can have.


The Physical Deterioration Caused by Drug Use

First we need to emphasize that different types of drugs may cause different effects. Different people may respond differently to different substances. Different circumstances may lead to different dosages, etc.

A person’s body size, health condition, mood, environment, etc., are all contributing factors to the physical health effects of substance abuse. With that said, drugs may have short-term and long-term effects. They can also have physical and psychological effects. They can change the way you feel, think, and behave. [1]

Drugs can wield significant influence over the body, altering its natural functions and processes in various ways. When introduced into the system, drugs interact with the body’s chemistry, often mimicking or interfering with neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain.

These substances can provoke a range of effects, from heightened sensations and euphoria to sedation or altered perceptions. They can impact heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, sometimes leading to dangerous fluctuations.

Drugs can also affect cognition, altering thought patterns, impairing judgment, and impacting memory. They may influence emotional responses, leading to mood swings or intensified emotions.

Repeated drug use can result in tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same effects.

Long-term drug use can lead to even bigger health consequences. Understanding the impact of drugs on the body is crucial, as it helps in devising effective preventive measures, treatments, and support systems for those affected. Let’s take a closer look.

Damage to Organs

It’s common for people who have a substance use disorder to have one or more health issues. This can range from heart disease to cancer to mental health disorders. The long-term effects of drug abuse throughout the body are often assessed using imaging scans, blood tests, and chest X-rays. [2]

Many drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine, can cause damage to vital organs like the liver, kidneys, and heart. These organs are responsible for filtering out toxins and waste from the body, and when they are damaged, it can lead to serious health issues.

Let’s talk about each organ and how they are impacted by drug abuse, starting with the liver. The liver metabolizes substances, but excessive drug use can overwhelm its capacity, leading to inflammation (hepatitis) or even liver failure. Substances like alcohol and certain medications can be particularly damaging.

Drugs can also strain the heart, leading to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeats. Long-term drug abuse may lead to cardiovascular diseases or heart failure.

As for the lungs, smoking drugs like tobacco or inhaling substances can harm lung tissue, leading to conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer.

Drug abuse also affects brain chemistry. It changes the way the brain functions, leading to addiction and cognitive function. Some drugs can cause seizures or strokes.

The kidneys are also impacted. Certain drugs, especially when abused, can damage the kidneys and impair their ability to filter waste from the blood. This can lead to kidney failure or other complications.

Some drugs even irritate the digestive system, leading to ulcers, inflammation, or gastrointestinal bleeding.

The extent of damage depends on factors like the type of drug, the method of use, the dosage, individual health, and duration of use. Seeking help and avoiding drug abuse is crucial to preventing severe damage to organs and overall health.

Weakened Immune System

Drug use can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses. This is because drugs can suppress the body’s ability to produce white blood cells, which are essential for fighting infections. For instance, chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer can affect bone marrow, where white blood cells are produced, leading to a decreased immune response.

Some drugs, particularly immunosuppressants like corticosteroids, work by dampening the immune system’s activity. While these drugs might be used to treat conditions where the immune system is overactive (such as autoimmune diseases), they can also reduce the body’s ability to fight off infections.

We mentioned that drug abuse can damage the liver, and this also has an impact on your immune system. Alcohol abuse can damage the liver, for example. This can compromise the body’s ability to defend against infections.

Certain drugs, such as painkillers or anti-inflammatory medications, can mask symptoms of infections. While this doesn’t directly weaken the immune system, it can delay proper diagnosis and treatment, allowing infections to progress unchecked.

There are also certain indirect effects on the immune system caused by substance abuse. For example, drug abuse can lead to poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and risky behaviors, all of which can make someone more susceptible to infections.

As a result, drug users are more likely to develop respiratory infections, pneumonia, and other illnesses. This can also make it harder for the body to recover from these illnesses, leading to more severe and prolonged symptoms.

Ultimately, a weakened immune system due to drugs can leave the body more vulnerable to infections, making it harder to fight off illnesses and increasing the risk of complications.


One of the less acknowledged physical health effects of drug abuse is malnutrition. Many drugs can suppress appetite and interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, which are necessary for maintaining good health.

Some drugs, especially stimulants or medications used for conditions like ADHD or weight loss, can suppress appetite. When people don’t feel hungry or have reduced cravings for food, they may not consume enough nutrients, leading to malnutrition.

Certain drugs can cause gastrointestinal problems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. These issues can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, even if a person is eating adequately.

Some drugs can even alter the body’s metabolism, affecting how it processes nutrients. For instance, some medications can impact the way the body uses or stores fats, carbohydrates, or proteins, leading to imbalances and deficiencies.

Since drugs can damage the liver and kidneys, the body’s ability to metabolize nutrients properly can be disrupted. Over time, this can also lead to malnutrition.

Sometimes drug abuse leads to malnutrition simply because of lifestyle changes that addicted individuals adopt. They may make poor choices when it comes to their diet or simply have irregular eating patterns.

Malnutrition can cause a range of health issues, including weakened bones, muscle weakness, and anemia.

Drug Overdose

When it comes to physical health effects, one of the most dangerous consequences of drug abuse is a drug overdose.

An overdose can happen when someone takes a toxic level of a certain substance or combines multiple substances. The effects of an overdose can interfere with the brain and body’s functionalities. In fact, drug overdose can even be fatal. Even when it isn’t, a drug overdose can result in many different health problems. [3]

For example, overdosing on drugs can have severe immediate health consequences, such as respiratory depression, heart failure, seizures, coma, and in extreme cases, death.

Some overdoses can cause irreversible damage to vital organs like the brain, liver, or kidneys, leading to long-term health issues or disability.

Over time, people may develop a tolerance to a drug, requiring larger doses to achieve the same effects. This cycle increases the risk of overdose as they may inadvertently take a dose that their body can’t handle. But even more dangerous is mixing substances like opioids and alcohol. This significantly increases the risk of an overdose. Their interactions can intensify their effects and strain on the body, sometimes resulting in a fatal overdose.

Keep in mind that overdose symptoms may vary. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate less severe side effects and life-threatening ones. [3]

In some cases, immediate medical intervention with drugs like naloxone can reverse the effects of an overdose, but timing is critical. Access to emergency medical care is still crucial for survival.

Prevention and education are essential in addressing drug overdose. Understanding the risks, seeking help for substance abuse, and having access to resources such as naloxone kits or emergency hotlines can save lives.

Increased Risk of Injuries

It’s no secret that substance abuse can make driving a car unsafe. Drugged driving, just like drunk driving, puts everyone on the road at risk. Back in 2016, nearly 12 million people ages 16 or older reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs. [2]

But it’s not just vehicular accidents. Drug abuse significantly heightens the likelihood of accidents and injuries across various settings. This is due in part to the fact that drugs affect cognitive function. They make it difficult to perform these tasks safely.

In the case of alcohol, it can slow reflexes and impair cognitive functions, leading to poor decision-making and diminished motor skills. Similarly, opioids and certain prescription drugs can cause drowsiness, confusion, and decreased alertness, making tasks requiring focus and attention, such as driving or operating machinery, extremely hazardous.

Additionally, the abuse of stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine can induce reckless behavior, agitation, and an inflated sense of confidence, contributing to impulsive actions that can result in accidents.

Ultimately, drug abuse disrupts a person’s capacity to function effectively, significantly amplifying the risk of accidents and injuries in daily life.


The Long-Term Consequences of Drug Use on Physical Health

Drug abuse can have dangerous short-term effects, but they also have a long-lasting impact on a person’s health and well-being. Understanding these consequences is crucial for comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies.

Chronic Health Conditions

Prolonged drug use can cause significant physical damage throughout the body, affecting various organs and leading to different chronic health conditions.

Chronic health conditions resulting from drug addiction can encompass a wide spectrum of physical and mental issues. These manifest as long-term consequences of substance abuse.

One of the most prevalent conditions is cardiovascular disease, which includes an increased risk of heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, and hypertension. We mentioned earlier how drugs can put a strain on the heart and blood vessels.

Chronic respiratory conditions are also common, especially among those who smoke drugs or use substances through inhalation methods. It could sometimes lead to conditions like chronic bronchitis or even lung cancer.

Liver damage is another significant concern, as substances like alcohol or opioids can lead to conditions like cirrhosis or hepatitis. This even puts the person at risk of liver failure.

Mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and psychosis, often co-occur with substance abuse, sometimes persisting even after achieving sobriety. Neurological disorders such as seizures, stroke, or cognitive impairments may arise due to the direct impact of drugs on the brain’s structure and function.

It’s worth noting that addiction itself is considered a chronic and relapsing medical condition. It is not a sign of weakness nor is it a moral failing.

Addressing chronic health conditions resulting from drug addiction often requires comprehensive medical intervention, behavioral therapy, and support systems to manage both the physical and psychological aspects of these conditions. Long-term recovery plans that include medical monitoring, lifestyle adjustments, and ongoing support are crucial for mitigating the lasting effects of drug abuse on one’s health.

Cognitive Impairment

Drug addiction can significantly impact cognitive functions, leading to various forms of cognitive impairment. Substance abuse, depending on the type of drug and its frequency of use, can disrupt normal brain activity, affecting memory, attention, and decision-making.

Chronic drug use alters the brain’s structure and function, particularly in areas related to reward, motivation, and self-control, which can lead to impaired cognitive performance. For instance, substances like alcohol, opioids, and meth can cause long-term cognitive deficits, affecting reasoning, problem-solving skills, and the ability to process information efficiently.

Additionally, substance abuse may also increase the risk of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. This only worsens cognitive function. Treatment and rehabilitation programs often focus not only on overcoming addiction but also on addressing and mitigating the cognitive challenges individuals may face in their recovery journey.

Drug Dependence and Withdrawal

If you use drugs regularly for a prolonged period of time, you may develop tolerance and dependence. Tolerance is when you need to take more of a certain drug just to get the same euphoric effects. Meanwhile, drug dependence is when your body has adjusted to the drug’s constant presence. If you try to quit or reduce your intake at this point, you may suffer from withdrawal. [1]

Drug dependence is often used interchangeably with the term addiction, but they are not exactly the same. Drug dependence refers to a state where a person relies on a substance to function normally. On the other hand, addiction is when a person compulsively takes a drug despite the consequences. They will keep abusing the substance even if they are already suffering from the various health effects we mentioned above.

Withdrawal occurs when a person who is dependent on a substance suddenly reduces or stops using it. This cessation triggers a set of physiological and psychological symptoms as the body and mind attempt to readjust to the absence of the substance. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include physical discomfort, cravings, mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and in some cases, can be life-threatening.

When it comes to drug abuse, there is no safe level of intake. Be careful when taking any kind of drug.

Both dependence and withdrawal are related to substance use disorders. They can significantly impact a person’s health and well-being. Treatment often involves a combination of medical intervention, therapy, and support to manage withdrawal symptoms and address the underlying issues contributing to dependence.

Seeking Help for Drug Use

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug use, it is essential to seek help as soon as possible. The longer drug use continues, the more damage it can cause to physical health and overall well-being.

Unfortunately, many people refuse to seek treatment for a number of reasons. One prominent reason is the stigma associated with addiction. Society’s perception of addiction as a moral failing rather than a medical condition can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, deterring people from admitting they have a problem and seeking assistance.

Additionally, there’s a fear of judgment and negative repercussions, both socially and professionally. People worry about being labeled, losing relationships, or facing consequences at work or in their community if their struggle with substance abuse becomes known.

This fear can be paralyzing, causing people to hide their issues instead of seeking help.

In some cases, denial plays a substantial role. Many of those who are struggling with addiction might not fully recognize the severity of their problem. Some people think they can overcome it on their own. This sense of self-deception can prevent them from acknowledging the need for external support and professional treatment.

Access to appropriate resources and treatment can also be a significant obstacle. Limited financial means and lack of knowledge about available services can prevent addicted individuals from accessing the help they need.

Lastly, the nature of addiction itself contributes to the reluctance to seek help. Substance abuse alters brain chemistry, impairing decision-making abilities. Not to mention addiction makes you crave for the substance. If you are addicted, you may not even want to quit.

Overcoming these barriers requires a collective effort. Increasing awareness and education about addiction as a disease, reducing stigma, providing accessible and affordable treatment options, and fostering supportive environments are crucial steps towards encouraging people to seek the help they need to overcome substance abuse.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, it is important to seek help. A close family member may be your biggest supporter in your recovery efforts. Reach out for help either from your family, your friends, your colleagues, or your community. You may even go directly to your doctor or an addiction specialist. [4]

Treatment Options

The first step to overcoming drug abuse and addiction is admitting that you have a problem. Once you have overcome that barrier, you can start your recovery journey. Committing to sobriety involves changing many aspects of your life such as your relationship with drugs and alcohol, your codependency, your friends who are enabling your addictive behavior, etc. [5]

There are various treatment options available for drug use, including therapy, medication, and support groups. The most effective treatment will depend on the type of drug used, the severity of the addiction, and the person’s individual needs. Here are some common treatment options:

Detoxification: This is often the first step and involves removing the substance from the body, typically in a supervised setting to manage withdrawal symptoms safely.

Behavioral Therapy: Various forms of therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Motivational Interviewing, and contingency management are used to help patients change their behaviors and attitudes towards substance use.

Medications: Some addictions can be treated with medications that help reduce cravings or lessen the effects of withdrawal. For instance, medications like methadone or buprenorphine for opioid addiction, or medications for alcohol addiction like naltrexone, disulfiram, or Acamprosate.

Support Groups: Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) offer peer support and a structured approach to recovery through group meetings.

Residential or Inpatient Treatment: Some individuals may benefit from staying in a treatment facility where they receive intensive care, counseling, and support 24/7.

Outpatient Treatment: This involves attending therapy sessions, counseling, and other treatments while living at home. It offers flexibility and allows individuals to continue with work or school.

Family Therapy: Involving family members in therapy sessions can be crucial, as family support can greatly impact the success of recovery.

Aftercare and Relapse Prevention: Planning for life after formal treatment is essential. Aftercare programs, ongoing therapy, and support groups help individuals maintain sobriety and prevent relapse.

Treatment plans should be individualized to address the unique needs of each patient. It’s often beneficial to combine multiple approaches for a comprehensive and effective treatment strategy.


Drug use can have a significant impact on physical health, leading to physical deterioration and long-term consequences. It is essential to seek help for drug use as soon as possible to prevent further damage to physical health and overall well-being.

By understanding the effects of drug use on physical health and seeking appropriate treatment, individuals can overcome addiction and lead healthier, happier lives. Remember, it is never too late to seek help and make positive changes for a better future.

Look for a rehab near you today to learn more about addiction treatment options.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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