Slipping Away: What Are the 7 Consequences of Substance Abuse?

in Health & Well-being

Addiction is a disease, just like heart disease or cancer or asthma. It is not something that just goes away on its own. And even those who manage to achieve sobriety on their own, are still addicts and in danger of relapsing. Of course, there are recovering addicts who have been consistently sober for decades, but there are always little triggers and temptations present. Anyone who has had problems with substance abuse can attest to the fact that staying sober is a choice they have to make almost daily and that it is not always easy, but it is always worth it.

1. Shorter Lifespan

There are many things that can contribute to a shorter lifespan as a result of substance abuse. Accidental death, violence, overdose, liver damage, heart damage, and respiratory trouble are just a few things that can shorten an addict’s lifespan significantly. The sooner an addict finds sobriety, the sooner their chances of these conditions will decrease. It should be noted that living a sober life after addiction may not exempt a recovering addict from experiencing health complications related to substance abuse.

Cardiovascular effects are common for most users, no matter the substance. It is possible to develop an abnormal heart rate, an increased risk of heart attack, collapsed veins and infections of blood vessels or valves. Gastrointestinal effects are more common with cocaine addiction and opioid abuse. Bowel tissue decay, acid reflux, and chronic constipation are just some conditions that may crop up. Kidney and liver damage can also occur. This is due to dehydration, changes in body temperature and an overall breakdown of muscles.

Neurological effects are also very common because almost all substances ultimately affect the brain and its processes. It is important to understand that not all neurological changes are reversible. Addiction occurs with repeated substance use, and it alters the way a user’s brain processes pleasure, stress management, rewards and more.

2. Prenatal and Fertility Health

Babies born to addicted mothers will undoubtedly have a rough start in life. These babies are sometimes born dependent on a substance or substances. These babies spend the first days of their lives (outside of the womb) going through withdrawal. A disproportionate number of babies born to addicted mothers have a low birth weight in comparison to non-addicted mothers.

Babies that are born prematurely will often have lower birth weights. When this is the case for a baby born to an addicted mother, the infant may also suffer birth defects, jaundice, respiratory problems, bleeding in the brain and more. And although all babies who have a low birth weight are not subject to negative outcomes, a low birth weight will often result in some serious health conditions. Some other adverse effects include an inability to gain weight, trouble eating and a decreased ability to fight off infection.

Many people might think that prenatal health and fertility issues only pertain to ladies with substance abuse history, but men are also affected. Substance abuse can affect male fertility as well as the quality, motility and cellular and genetic composition of the sperm.

3. Mental Health

Some substances can wreak havoc on a person’s mental health. For those who have a history of mental illness in their family, exposure to drugs or alcohol can unlock a mental health disorder. Some substance abusers will experience traumas or major stresses as a result of their addiction that may scar them or cause them to fall into depression or other debilitating mental disorders. Some drugs are more likely to cause issues with hallucinations, paranoia, and things of that nature long after the addict stops using. Some of these drugs include LSD, PCP, and methamphetamine.

Many drugs can cause quite a bit of damage to the brain with prolonged or excessive use. Heroin, cocaine, and opioids have shown to damage the white matter of the brain. This can lead to a decrease in cognitive functioning and other behavioral issues. Heroin has been found to affect gray matter in the frontal lobe, which can affect decision making, behavior, memory, and problem-solving.


Because drug and alcohol use is tied to risky behavior, contracting HIV/AIDS or another infectious disease is an all too common consequence of substance abuse. Whether it is contracted through needle-sharing or sexual activity, this condition can change the way a person lives their life forever. Medications and lifestyle changes are a major part of managing HIV/AIDS and living a longer and healthier life.

Other common infectious diseases among substance abusers include hepatitis. Hepatitis affects the liver and there are several types. Hepatitis C, the more common strain of hepatitis found in substance abusers, is spread through blood contact. The trouble with hepatitis is that it can go unnoticed for decades. Symptoms include itchy skin, dark urine, bleeding and bruising easily, fatigue and fluid build-up. Half of the battle is knowing you have Hep C. That way you can take measures to ensure you don’t complicate it by contracting Hepatitis A or B.

5. Arrest/Criminal History

Drug use can earn an addict a criminal history, another consequence that is impossible or very difficult and expensive to get rid of. If an addict encounters law enforcement and is arrested or charged, their public record will reflect these events. It may make getting a job or finding a place to live more difficult, since many management companies, landlords and employers will want to run a background check on potential tenants and employees. If they see there is a history of run-ins with the law or jail time, they are likely you put you lower on their list of prospects. Whether you are a current addict or a recovering addict, a criminal history can certainly dampen many constructive opportunities.

Although it may be possible to have a criminal record expunged or wiped clean, there are different factors that determine whether or not you are eligible for expungement. Juvenile records can usually be sealed, but adult infractions may not be as easily dealt with. Because criminal history is public record, you may notice your past creeping up on you when you least expect it.

6. Damaged Personal Relationships

Rifts in personal relationships are an unavoidable consequence of substance abuse. Substance abusers most often damage the trust of those in their lives. Family, friends and community members do not feel like they can call on the addict in their life for anything of importance, as there is always a fair chance that the addict will disappoint. Addicts who have stolen from or physically assaulted someone they love may have a more complex obstacle to overcome as far as repairing that relationship.

There are plenty of relationships that are trampled in the wake of addiction. An addict’s relationship with their community, employer, family, friends, neighbors and other persons can be severely impacted. Some relationships will never be mended, but those that are will take time. Recovering addicts have to do what they can to make amends and then be patient with the healing process. Social health is very important. It partners with physical, mental and spiritual health to create a productive and whole being.

7. Death

By far, the most unfortunate consequence of substance abuse is death. It can be the death of the user or the death of someone else as a result of an addict’s actions. Many people are of the opinion that addicts are degenerates, a portion of society that is unworthy, but this is so far from the truth. Substance abusers have families and people who love them and are pulling for them to recover. Substance abusers are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, friends and so much more. There is so much potential for their lives and the larger society’s inability to see that is disheartening.

Whether an addict dies due to an overdose, violence, accident or disease, they are leaving behind family and friends that will miss their presence. For many people, an addict’s death does not take this into account. A circle of people is missing a vital and important part of their existence. Every life has a purpose and a role to play.

It is quite difficult when an addict is the cause of another person’s death. This will undoubtedly affect the family of the deceased as well as the addict. Death is a permanent state and in this case, will affect two families. Whether jail time is invoked or not, both families are burdened with the loss.

Substance abuse definitely comes with a lot of risks. The consequences very often touch more people than just the substance abuser. There are some addicts who make it into sobriety and maintain sobriety with no adverse effects at all, and then there are some who are not quite as fortunate. If you you are an addict or the family or friend of an addict, there is no shame in reaching out for help and support. Conquering substance abuse is a communal activity.

Image Credits: Thom Masat

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