The damage that can occur from long-term use of drugs or alcohol, and short-term use of some forms of drugs, can extend to numerous organ systems as well as increase the risk that one will develop infectious diseases and/or mental health disorders.

With respect to the general effects of having a long-term substance use disorder, the major organ systems affected are the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system (including the excretory system), the respiratory system, and the central nervous system. Cancers and infectious diseases are also a concern.

health conditions caused drugs

Conditions Affecting Body Systems

Drug Use and Cardiovascular Disease

The chronic use and abuse of most drugs can lead to cardiovascular issues. Abnormal heart rhythms, heart attack, and collapsed veins or increased susceptibility to blood-borne infections can result from the chronic use of drugs and/or alcohol. The information below is gleaned from professional sources, such as the American Heart Association (AHA).

  • Alcohol: Individuals who chronically abuse alcohol suffer from numerous insults to the cardiovascular system. While there is some evidence that very light drinking may have protective effects, there is far more substantial evidence that the chronic use of alcohol raises levels of fats in the blood (triglycerides) that contribute to increased blood pressure and the potential to develop numerous cardiovascular issues, such as arrhythmias, cardiac arrest (heart attack), cardiomyopathy, and stroke. Chronic alcohol abusers also have an increased risk to develop diabetes, which can also lead to increased issues with the cardiovascular system.

    AHA does not suggest individuals begin drinking alcohol to lower the risk of cardiovascular issues. They suggest that individuals choose other healthier options to reduce risk, such as watching one’s diet, getting exercise, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

  • Stimulant drugs: Individuals who chronically abuse prescription stimulants, such as amphetamines and illicit stimulant drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, may have issues with hardening of the arteries, thicker muscles in the heart wall, and hypertension. Prolonged use of stimulant medications can lead to a chronic condition where the veins and arteries are constricted, causing the heart to work harder and increasing blood pressure. Hypertension is a risk factor for numerous serious cardiovascular issues, including stroke and heart attack.

    Chronic use of cocaine has empirically been demonstrated to lead to significantly higher risk of developing a heart attack due to increased thickness of the walls of the ventricles in the heart and hardening of the arteries.

  • Tobacco products: It has been suggested that smoking cigarettes directly causes at least 10 percent of cardiovascular diseases in the world, and it is the second leading cause of cardiovascular disease after hypertension. The use of tobacco products increases blood pressure and results in a constriction of arteries and veins, leading to scarring, plaque buildup, and damage to the heart.

  • Narcotic drugs: When prescription narcotic medications are taken according to their prescribed purposes and under the supervision of a physician, they can be useful to control pain and other conditions. Individuals who chronically abuse narcotic drugs can damage the cardiovascular system as a result of respiratory suppression, which leads to decreased oxygen to the heart, increased risk of blood-borne diseases as a result of injecting opiate drugs, and increased development of blood clots, which can lead to stroke.

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The Gastrointestinal System and the Excretory System

The gastrointestinal system breaks down food. In addition, the excretory system helps to remove waste products from the bloodstream. Drugs of abuse have numerous effects on these two systems. For more information refer to The American Gastroenterological Association.

  • Alcohol: Chronic use and abuse of alcohol can lead to numerous issues. The organ that is particularly affected by chronic abuse of alcohol is the liver. When an individual drinks alcohol in excess, the liver prioritizes the metabolism of alcohol and begins to break it down. This leads to an increase in the number of free radicals in the liver, leading to scarring over time. Scar tissue results in liver damage, and if extensive, it cannot be repaired. This leads to cirrhosis.

    Drinking large quantities of alcohol on an empty stomach increases the acidity of the stomach and can lead to issues with internal bleeding and ulcers. Chronic alcohol use can also damage the salivary glands, which can lead to issues with the ability to digest food. This can affect the stomach and intestines.

  • Stimulants: Chronic use and abuse of stimulant drugs also affect the liver, as it attempts to rid these drugs from the system. Stimulant abuse, particularly abuse of illicit stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, can lead to significant liver damage. Stimulant abuse can also lead to the development of blood clots, and these can affect the stomach and intestines by blocking blood flow, leading to tissue damage and increasing the risk for ulcers or even gangrene. Decreased appetite is a result of stimulant abuse; this can result in later bingeing, which can also lead to gastrointestinal issues.

  • Tobacco products: Chronic smokers may experience heartburn as a result of smoking’s effect on the function of the esophagus and stomach acid pooling into the esophagus. There is been in a direct relationship between smoking and decreased functioning of the liver, and smoking is also linked to numerous gastrointestinal diseases, such as Crohn’s disease (inflammation in the linings of the intestine) and peptic ulcers, which are open wounds in the stomach and intestines. Chewing tobacco can result in similar effects as smoking, and also increases the risk of cancers of the throat and mouth.

  • Narcotic drugs: Chronic use of narcotic drugs results in significant issues with constipation, even for many individuals who use these drugs medicinally. This can result in numerous issues with the intestines and excretory system. Many prescription narcotic medications of abuse also contain the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug acetaminophen, which can damage the liver when taken in large quantities. Chronic abuse of narcotic drugs often leads to neglect of personal hygiene, which can also affect numerous organ systems.

The Respiratory System

Many drugs of abuse affect the respiratory system, particularly if they are smoked; however, most drugs of abuse can affect the respiratory system even if they are not smoked. The following information is gathered from the book Functional Respiratory Disorders and the American Lung Association:

  • Alcohol: As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol lowers one’s breathing rate. Chronic use of alcohol can lead to increased susceptibility to numerous respiratory conditions and infections. In addition, individuals who drink alcohol in excess are more likely to use tobacco products, and this can lead to serious issues with the respiratory system.

  • Stimulants: Major respiratory damage can be associated with smoking stimulant drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. This includes damage to the nasal passages and trachea, pulmonary edema, hemorrhages in the lungs, and an increased risk of lung infections. Chronic users of crack cocaine develop significant swelling and fluid in the lungs, often referred to as “crack lung.”

  • Tobacco: Most of the damage caused by tobacco products occurs to the respiratory system as a result of smoking these products. The respiratory system will continuously cleanse itself by trapping dirt with mucus and small hairs known as cilia. As individuals continue to smoke tobacco products, this results in numerous effects, including the destruction of these tissues, collection of waste products in the lungs, collection of microbes, and even the loss of elasticity in the respiratory system.

    Cigarette smoke alone has hundreds of toxic chemicals that are harmful to the lungs. The use of tobacco is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer; about 80 percent of all lung cancer cases are related to cigarette smoking and less than 15 percent of individuals diagnosed with lung cancer live five years after the initial diagnosis. In addition, tobacco use can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which consists of numerous conditions, such as bronchitis and emphysema; about 80 percent of these diseases are related to chronic cigarette smoking. Finally, asthma, a chronic lung disease that makes breathing very difficult, is associated with tobacco use.

  • Narcotic drugs: These drugs are also central nervous system depressants. Chronic abuse of these drugs can result in pulmonary edema, which is an increase of fluid in the lungs that can result in other respiratory diseases, hypoxia (decreased oxygen supply), or anoxia (a lack of oxygen) that can lead to tissue and organ damage, particularly in the brain. In addition, use of these drugs can exacerbate other disorders, such as bronchitis and emphysema.

Neurological Issues

According to National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the World Federation of Neurology, abusing drugs increases the risk of the following neurological issues:

  • Cerebrovascular accidents: A cerebrovascular accident, or CVA, is often referred to as a stroke. Ischemic CVAs occur over time as a result of reduced oxygen to a specific area of the brain. Hemorrhagic CVAs occur as an acute rupture of a vessel or artery in the brain. The prognosis is often better for hemorrhagic CVAs than it is for ischemic CVAs, but all drugs of abuse, including tobacco, alcohol, stimulants, narcotics, etc., lead to increased risk of neurovascular disease that can result in stroke.

  • Dementia: Numerous neurological conditions fall under this umbrella term, and they all inevitably result in a decline in intellectual functioning of an individual and decreased cognitive functioning. Drugs of abuse that have been associated with an increased risk for dementia include alcohol, benzodiazepines, stimulants, and narcotic drugs.

  • Seizures: Seizures result from changes in the electrical activity of the brain that often occur as a result of brain damage or some metabolic issue. Numerous drugs of abuse are associated with an increased risk of seizures, including use of all stimulants and alcohol, withdrawal from benzodiazepines, and mixing drugs of abuse.

  • Encephalopathy: This refers to an alteration in mental state that is due to some type of brain damage. Several drugs are associated with a diagnosis of encephalopathy, including alcohol (both its direct effects on the brain and its effects on the liver), drugs that decrease breathing rate like narcotic drugs, and stimulant drugs.

  • Ataxia: This refers to a loss of coordinated body movements. Chronic abuse of many different drugs, including alcohol, PCP, narcotic drugs, and stimulants, can result in the development of ataxia.

Infectious Diseases

Chronic use of alcohol or drugs increases one’s susceptibility to numerous infectious diseases as a direct result of the effects of the individual’s substance abuse or due to secondary effects, such as an individual’s lack of self-care or an increased probability of engaging in risky behaviors.

  • Alcohol: There is some research that suggests that light alcohol use may actually strengthen the immune system in some people; however, the more stable observation is that people who chronically consume alcohol at moderate to high rates have higher incidences of infectious diseases. Chronic alcohol use results in liver damage and deficiencies in the immune system. This can lead to increased risk for numerous diseases, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV, and various forms of hepatitis. Chronic use of alcohol increases the risk for numerous other infectious diseases.

  • Stimulant drugs: Chronic use of stimulants affects the immune system and leads to increased susceptibility to infections. Stimulants like cocaine suppress the functioning of the thymus gland. This gland produces T lymphocytes that attack foreign cells, and the use of cocaine hinders the ability of the body to produce these important cells.

  • Tobacco: Chronic use of tobacco products is associated with a decrease in the production of lymphocytes and antibodies in animal models. Chronic tobacco use is also associated with an increased susceptibility to nearly every type of infectious disease that researchers have evaluated with regard to tobacco use and infectious disease.

  • Narcotic drugs: Chronic use of opiate drugs results in a decreased ability of the individual’s immune system to fight off infections. Research has suggested that chronic opiate use also compromises both the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, which can lead to an increased risk to develop infectious diseases.

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Cancer

Cancer is a general term that is used for a number of related diseases where abnormal cells develop, proliferate, and spread in an uncontrollable fashion, resulting in the disruption of normal functioning and potential fatalities. According to information from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, numerous drugs of abuse are associated with an increased risk for cancer.

  • Alcohol: Chronic alcohol abuse increases the risk for nearly every form of cancer.

  • Tobacco: Chronic use of tobacco products increases the risk for nearly every form of cancer. Obviously, the risk for cancer of the lungs, throat, mouth, tongue, etc., is particularly increased with use of tobacco products.

  • Alcohol and tobacco: Chronically abusing alcohol and tobacco products together results in a significant increase in the risk of nearly all types of cancer, even greater than would be expected if one were to simply add up the risk for a specific type of cancer for chronic alcohol users and chronic tobacco users.

  • Stimulants: Chronic abuse of stimulants may result in chromosomal abnormalities that are associated with an increased risk for certain types of cancer. Combining stimulants with other drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, results in a significant risk for all types of cancer.

  • Narcotic drugs: Chronic use of narcotic drugs is associated with an increased risk for numerous forms of cancer. This may be due to the effect the drugs have an individual’s personal hygiene, nutrition, and other habits.

This article only represents the tip of the iceberg. Various conditions and communicable diseases can be associated with chronic abuse of almost any type of drug. For example, osteoporosis is a condition that occurs when a person’s bones have decreased in density due to calcium and mineral loss. Chronic alcohol abuse increases the risk for developing osteoporosis across gender and age.

Individuals who chronically abuse drugs of any type are often more vulnerable to infections and health conditions as a result of poor physical maintenance, poor nutrition, and engaging in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex or needle sharing. Chronic users of all types of drugs are at increased risk to develop mental health disorders, which in turn leads to an increased risk of disease.