What to Know about Prolonged Drug Use

More than 21.4% of the American adult population, or 59.3million people, use illicit drugs, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Long-term drug use can lead to a myriad of social, emotional, physical, financial, and interpersonal problems. In addition, drug abuse costs the American society nearly $600 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs, lost workplace production, and criminal costs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes.

Our guide will explain the impact of long-term drug use and how to get help for yourself or a loved one struggling with addiction.

Health Consequences of Chronic Drug Use

Man struggling with depression and addiction

The type of drug, amount abused, how it is used, and frequency of abuse all play a role in potential health complications that can arise as can biological, genetic, and environmental factors.

Drugs can have toxic effects on the brain and body, damaging nerve and brain cells in the process. Different drugs may impact a person’s health in a number of ways. According to NIDA some of the risks of chronic drug use include:

  • Stroke.
  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Cancer.
  • HIV/AIDS.
  • Lung disease.
  • Hepatitis B and C.
  • Mental health concerns.

The manner in which a person uses drugs can cause different health complications.

  • Injection drug use can lead to collapsed veins, scar tissue (or “track” marks), skin infections, and an increased risk for contracting an infectious disease.
  • Snorting drugs can damage nasal and sinus cavities, and lead to lung infections and respiratory complications. Chronic nosebleeds and runny nose are common side effects of snorting drugs as well. Individuals who regularly snort drugs may lose their sense of smell altogether, become hoarse, and have trouble swallowing.
  • Smoking drugs can cause extensive damage to the lungs and respiratory system, leading to a chronic cough, bronchitis, lung disease, and cardiovascular issues.
  • Ingesting drugs can damage the gastrointestinal system and may cause stomach ulcers or other irritations and health problems.

Chronic drug use changes brain wiring and circuitry related to reward, motivation, learning, memory, and decision-making by changing some of the brain’s neurotransmitters, leading to drug dependence. When the drugs then wear off, withdrawal symptoms can occur. These side effects can be significant and even potentially life-threatening in the case of some drugs (e.g., benzodiazepines and alcohol).

Drug withdrawal symptoms can be both physical and emotional in nature and include symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Restlessness.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Tremors.
  • High blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Depression.
  • Seizures.

Side Effects of Long-Term Use of Specific Drugs

Depending on the substance, there are different effects and health risks. Some of the more common drugs of abuse and potential risks of using them are:

Marijuana

The most commonly abused illicit drug, marijuana alters perceptions and interferes with learning and memory functions. Many of these side effects wear off as the drug does; however, some of them may linger long after the drug processes out of the body. There has been research indicating that heavy marijuana use in adolescence may interfere with normal brain development, NIDA reports.

Heavy and perpetuated marijuana use may cause:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Breathing problems.
  • Hallucinations and paranoia (when taken in high doses).
  • Impaired memory problems.

Cocaine

A powerful and potent illegal stimulant drug, cocaine drastically interferes with the brain’s reward system while speeding up functions of the central nervous system. Heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure all increase with cocaine use. Prolonged use of cocaine can:

  • Raise the risk for heart attack or stroke.
  • Cause inflammation of the heart muscle or aortic ruptures.
  • Contribute to the deterioration of the heart’s ability to contract normally.
  • Cause seizures.
  • Cause decreased blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially causing ulcerations and tears.
  • Decreased appetite, leading to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss;
  • Cause bleeding in the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage) and bulges in blood vessels.
  • Contribute to the onset of movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, NIDA warns.

Chronic cocaine abuse can also cause cognitive deficits, such as difficulties performing motor tasks, making decisions about punishments or rewards, and controlling impulses. Memory functions and the ability to pay attention and concentrate are also affected.

Methamphetamine and amphetamines (such as those contained in ADHD medications)

Methamphetamine (meth) and amphetamines are stimulant drugs that increase alertness, excitement, energy levels, and wakefulness. They also lead to increased pleasure and decreased appetite. When they wear off, the opposite effects occur, causing a “crash” that is signified by fatigue, lethargy, hunger, difficulties concentrating and thinking clearly, and depression. This encourages individuals to keep taking these drugs.

NIDA warns that brain structure and function are damaged by long-term meth use. Meth drastically impacts dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Abusing high amounts of meth can cause mental health symptoms, including:

  • Hallucinations.
  • Paranoia
  • Repetitive motor functions (e.g., skin picking).
  • Mood disturbances.
  • Aggression and violence.
  • Memory loss.

Additionally, the physical effects of meth abuse include:

  • Motor function impairment.
  • Tooth decay.
  • Weight loss.
  • Skin sores.

Opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers)

Opioid drugs are considered to be highly addictive central nervous system depressant drugs. These drugs block pain sensations and create a mellowing and euphoric “high” as they interfere with the brain’s reward circuitry.

Since opioids depress respiration, long-term use of these drugs can lead to lung infections and complications like tuberculosis and pneumonia. NIDA warns that prolonged opioid abuse may also cause

  • Arthritis.
  • Infections of the lining of the heart and its valves.
  • Kidney and liver disease.
  • Bacterial infections.
  • Decreased sex drive in men.
  • Disrupted menstrual cycle in women.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Mental health concerns, such as despression.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are sedatives and tranquilizers that are used to treat anxiety or help people sleep. They can slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and lower other functions of the central nervous system. Though they are prescription drugs with legitimate medical uses, they are commonly misused.

Prolonged use of benzos can cause a person to become tolerant to them and need to increase their dosage to feel the drug’s effects, which can lead to drug dependence and addiction. Benzo abuse can cloud thinking, judgment, and the ability to concentrate while also impairing motor coordination and control.

Typically, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use due to the potential severity of dependence and possibly life-threatening withdrawal side effects that can occur.

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Side Effects of Prolonged Drug Use

Physical problems are only one aspect of the possible issues that can arise as a result of prolonged drug use. Emotional and mental health concerns are common as well. High stress levels, self-destructive and risk-taking behaviors, and potential suicidal tendencies and ideations can be normal side effects of regular drug abuse and drug withdrawal.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that over 17 million people struggle with addiction as well as one or more mental health disorder. Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders can each exacerbate the symptoms of both disorders and complicate the treatment and recovery of each other. Specialized, comprehensive, and integrated care is the most effective treatment.

The Effect of Drug Use on Families

Addiction is considered a family disease because it impacts every member of the family. They are less likely to consistently fulfill work and home obligations as behaviors may be erratic and unpredictable. Tensions can be high at home, and interpersonal relationships suffer as individuals battling addiction are often withdrawn, secretive, irritable, and commonly isolate themselves socially.

The Effects of Drug Use on Work and School Performance

Grades and academic performance can take a hit as chronic absences and a declining interest in producing good work may be direct consequences of drug abuse. NIDA publishes that marijuana abuse increases the odds that a person will drop out of school, for example. Work production often slides and unemployment may be the result of perpetuated drug abuse as well. Finances can then become strained as drug abuse can lead to loss of a job and significant sums of money are spent on obtaining drugs.

Without question, prolonged drug use can have lasting side effects that impact daily life functioning and overall quality of life. Drug addiction is a brain disease; like other chronic and relapsing diseases, it can be treated with specialized care for a long and sustained recovery.

Alcohol and Drug Rehab Near Dallas, TX

If you or someone you love are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, we can help. The knowledgeable and compassionate addiction specialists at our inpatient drug and alcohol rehab in Grand Prairie, TX have decades of experience helping individuals get on the road to recovery.

Greenhouse Treatment Center’s treatment team uses effective evidence-based therapies to help build a foundation of meaningful recovery, and provide the tools to support you through your journey and beyond. We even offer an alumni support app to keep you connected with your recovery community after you leave treatment.

Contact our helpful admissions navigators at to learn more about our different levels of care, how to start the admissions process, and ways to pay for addiction treatment. They can even help make travel arrangements. Call us to being your journey to a new life in recovery.

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