Drug misuse, abuse, and addiction can all lead to both short-term and long-term health effects.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fourth edition (DMS-4) defines drug abuse as “a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

The effects of drug abuse depend on the type of drug, any other substances that a person is using, and their health history.

In this article, we discuss the impact of drug abuse and explain how to treat drug addiction.

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Drugs are chemical compounds that affect the mind and body. The exact effects vary among individuals and also depend on the drug, dosage, and delivery method.

Using any drug, even in moderation or according to a medical prescription, can have short-term effects.

For instance, consuming one or two servings of alcohol can lead to mild intoxication. A person may feel relaxed, uninhibited, or sleepy.

Nicotine from cigarettes and other tobacco products raises blood pressure and increases alertness.

Using a prescription opioid as a doctor has instructed helps relieve moderate-to-severe pain, but opioids can also cause drowsiness, shallow breathing, and constipation.

Abusing a drug, or misusing a prescription medication, can produce other short-term effects, such as:

  • changes in appetite
  • sleeplessness or insomnia
  • increased heart rate
  • slurred speech
  • changes in cognitive ability
  • a temporary sense of euphoria
  • loss of coordination

Drug abuse can affect aspects of a person’s life beyond their physical health. People with substance use disorder, for example, may experience:

  • an inability to cease using a drug
  • relationship problems
  • poor work or academic performance
  • difficulty maintaining personal hygiene
  • noticeable changes in appearance, such as extreme weight loss
  • increased impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors
  • loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities

Drug abuse, especially over an extended period, can have numerous long-term health effects.

Chronic drug use can alter a person’s brain structure and function, resulting in long-term psychological effects, such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • panic disorders
  • increased aggression
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations

Long-term drug use can also affect a person’s memory, learning, and concentration.

The long-term physical effects of drug use vary depending on the type of drug and the duration of use. However, experts have linked chronic drug use with the following health conditions:

Cardiovascular disease

Stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamines, can damage the heart and blood vessels.

The long-term use of these drugs can lead to coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, and heart attack.

Respiratory problems

Drugs that people smoke or inhale can damage the respiratory system and lead to chronic respiratory infections and diseases.

Opioids slow a person’s breathing by binding to specific receptors in the central nervous system that regulate respiration. By depressing a person’s respiration, these drugs can lead to slow breathing or heavy snoring.

A person may stop breathing entirely if they take a large dose of an opioid or take it alongside other drugs, such as sleep aids or alcohol.

Kidney damage

The kidneys filter excess minerals and waste products from the blood. Heroin, ketamine, and synthetic cannabinoids can cause kidney damage or kidney failure.

Liver disease

Chronic drug and alcohol use can damage the liver cells, leading to inflammation, scarring, and even liver failure.


Taking too much of a drug or taking multiple drugs together can result in an overdose.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose caused 67,367 deaths in the United States in 2018. Opioids contributed to nearly 70% of these deaths.

Although there is no fixed definition, many experts believe that drug use becomes abuse when it starts to damage or impede aspects of a person’s daily life, such as work or parenting.

Drug misuse is different and, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), refers to the “intentional therapeutic use of a drug product in an inappropriate way.”

Prescription drugs are among the most commonly misused drugs in the U.S.

Opioid-related overdoses have tripled within the last decade. According to the CDC, prescription opioids misuse accounted for 32% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2018.

Drug abuse and drug misuse can lead to addiction. Substance use disorder occurs when a person no longer feels in control of their need to use a substance and becomes dependent on it.

It is important to note that not everyone who misuses or abuses a drug will develop substance use disorder.

Finding the right treatment program can be a daunting task. Here are a few things to think about when seeking treatment for drug abuse, misuse, or addiction:

  • consider whether inpatient or outpatient services would be the best fit
  • find local treatment centers using this resource from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • note that state-run treatment centers and programs can be free of charge
  • look for programs that use evidence-based treatment strategies

Anyone providing drug addiction treatment should tailor it to suit a person’s individual needs to ensure that it is effective.

Treatment may involve some of the following components:

  • Behavioral therapy, which helps people build positive coping strategies and develop problem-solving skills.
  • Group therapy, which gives people the chance to acknowledge, share, and work through the psychological aspects of recovery with a group of peers under professional guidance.
  • Medications to help minimize withdrawal symptoms.
  • Additional medical care, which may include vocational training and other resources that address problems associated with chronic drug abuse, such as mental health conditions, unemployment, and medical conditions.

Drug abuse can affect several aspects of a person’s physical and psychological health.

Certain drugs can lead to drowsiness and slow breathing, while others may cause insomnia, paranoia, or hallucinations.

Chronic drug use is associated with cardiovascular, kidney, and liver disease.

In addition to its physical effects, drug abuse can adversely affect a person’s relationships, home and work life, and mental health.

Care providers should tailor treatment to a person’s needs. Community-based organizations and state-funded treatment programs usually involve a combination of behavioral therapy, group therapy, and medication.