Causes, Signs & Effects of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse, also known as drug abuse, is a pattern of using psychoactive substances in amounts or ways that are harmful to oneself or others.

More About Substance Abuse

Learn More About Substance Abuse

After a prolonged period of use, these drugs, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, or meth, can cause an individual to become dependent upon the substance, which leads to a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological changes. These changes are associated with strong drug cravings and a desire to continue to use the drug despite the negative consequences. Eventually the drug usage becomes a higher priority than any other activity or obligation.

It can be challenging to understand why some individuals become addicted to drugs. It’s often assumed that people who abuse drugs lack the willpower to stop. However, the reality is that drug addiction is a complex disease that requires much more than just a strong desire to quit. Usage of substances changes the brain in ways that promote compulsive drug use, which makes quitting a challenge, even for individuals who really want to stop using. Today we know that drug abuse and addiction is a treatable condition that can successfully be overcome through appropriate support and treatment.

There are a number of types of drugs that are commonly abused. These categories of drugs produce different effects and are abused in different manners. The most common categories of drugs that are abused include:

Marijuana (also known as “grass,” “pot,” and “weed”) is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Pot can be smoked or swallowed and produces feelings of euphoria, impairs memory and coordination, and distorts reality.

Narcotics and opiates, including heroin, prescription painkillers, and opium, can be injected, smoked, snorted, or swallowed. These drugs lead to feelings of euphoria and relaxation as well as an overall sense of well-being.

Stimulants, including cocaine (“coke”), amphetamine (“uppers”) and methamphetamine (“meth”), can be snorted, injected, smoked, and swallowed to produce feelings of increased energy and mental acuity.

Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs, also known as psychedelics, include PCP, LSD, peyote, ecstasy, ketamine, and psilocybin. These drugs cause changes in sensory and thought perceptions. They can be swallowed, absorbed through oral mucosa, and smoked.

Inhalants, including solvents (such as gasoline and glues), aerosols (spray paint), gasses (propane, butane), nitrous oxide, and nitrates (poppers), are chemicals that cause intoxication when sniffed or inhaled (a process known as “huffing”).

CNS depressants and downers are drugs that slow down the central nervous system and include tranquilizers, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, GHB, and Rohypnol. These drugs cause relaxation and sedation.

Statistics

Statistics on Substance Abuse & Addiction

Worldwide, at least 15.3 million people struggle with drug abuse. IV drug abuse is reported in 148 countries, of which 120 countries report increased amounts of HIV/AIDS infection among this population.

In the United States, illegal drug use is on the rise. In 2011, about 22.5 million people in the U.S. (or 8.7% of the population) had abused an illegal or psychotherapeutic drug in the previous month.

What Causes Substance Use?

Learn About the Causes and Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There is not one single factor identified that can determine whether or not a person will become addicted to drugs. The causes for addiction involve the influence of a combination of factors working together. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance they will develop an addiction.

Genetic: Our inborn genes combined with environmental influences account for approximately half of vulnerability to addiction.

Physical: Drugs contain certain chemicals that act on the body’s communication system and disturb the ways in which nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. The longer an individual abuses drugs, the more likely that the drugs will cause lasting damage to this system and may lead to the body reducing the naturally occurring neurotransmitters (the brain’s way of communication), causing a physical dependence upon drugs.

Environment: People who begin to experiment with drugs at an earlier age are at an increased risk for developing an addiction later in life. In addition, those who belong to a peer group in which drug use is prevalent can lead to experimentation with drugs and may eventually lead to abuse and addiction. Others will find that effects from certain substances temporarily alleviate some of the unpleasant stresses associated with life and then become dependent on these substances as a way to cope with negative life events.

Risk Factors:

  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Lack of parental supervision and involvement
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Poor social skills
  • Availability of drug
  • Aggressive behaviors

Signs of Substance Abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Addiction

The symptoms of drug abuse will vary depending upon the substance being abused, the frequency of use, individual genetic makeup, length of use, and presence of physical dependence. Symptoms of common drugs of abuse follow:

Marijuana:

  • Euphoria and relaxation
  • Decreased ability to concentrate and learn
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Psychosis
  • Cough
  • Impaired reaction time
  • Distorted sensory perception
  • Impairment in balance, coordination, and memory
  • Increased heart rate and appetite

Opiates:

  • Drowsiness and dizziness
  • Euphoria
  • Sensation of heaviness in extremities
  • Impaired memory and increased confusion
  • Syncope
  • Respiratory depression and arrested breathing

Stimulants:

  • Tachycardia
  • Paranoia
  • Violent, erratic behaviors
  • Psychosis
  • Hypertension
  • Hyperthermia
  • Increased metabolism and decreased appetite
  • Feelings of exhilaration and increased energy
  • Increased mental acuity
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety, panic attacks

Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs:

  • Altered states of perception and total disorientation
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Panic attacks and increased anxiety
  • Increased heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure

Inhalants:

  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Loss of memory
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Brief intoxication
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Syncope
  • Headache

Depressants and downers:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Decreased respiration and heart rate
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory and judgment
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Overall feelings of relaxation and wellbeing
  • Lowered inhibitions

Effects of Substance Abuse

The Effects of Substance Addiction

The long-term effects and complications of substance abuse will vary depending upon the type of substance abuse, presence of other health-related conditions, frequency of use, individual genetic makeup, and length of drug abuse.

The most common effects of drugs of abuse are grouped by substance of abuse:

Marijuana:

  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Decline in mental health
  • Increased risk for cancer

Opiates and narcotic drugs:

  • Hypotension
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Mood swings
  • Addiction
  • Collapsed veins
  • Septicemia
  • Abscess at injection site
  • Constipation
  • Endocarditis
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • HIV/AIDS infection
  • Fatal overdose
  • Coma
  • Death

Stimulants:

  • Psychosis
  • Malnutrition
  • Insomnia
  • Cardiac and cardiovascular complications
  • Addiction
  • Nasal perforation
  • Severe dental problems (“meth mouth”)
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures

Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs:

  • Cardiac complications
  • Liver damage
  • Violent, erratic behaviors
  • Break with reality
  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Consequences of impulsive, risky behaviors
  • Continuing hallucinations
  • Memory loss

Inhalants:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory impairment
  • Damage to cardiovascular and nervous system
  • Delusions
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Coma
  • Seizures

CNS depressants and downers:

  • Addiction
  • Consequences of risk-taking behaviors
  • Amnesia
  • Hypotension
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal

Withdrawal & Overdose

Learn What Happens During Substance Withdrawal & Overdose

Each different substance can lead to presence of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if an individual abruptly stops using or goes a long period of time between doses. The withdrawal symptoms can be very severe depending on the type of drug and if not properly monitored can even end in death.

Marijuana Withdrawal:

  • Anger
  • Loss of concentration
  • Headaches
  • Agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Nightmares, night sweats, and vivid dreams

Opiate Withdrawal:

  • Tremors and spasms
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Tachycardia
  • Irritability, agitation, restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Chills and sweating
  • Goosebumps
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Opiate Overdose:

  • Miosis – constricted pupils
  • Decreased, erratic, sometimes absent respiration rate
  • Cyanosis
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Slurred speech
  • CNS depression
  • Ventricular arrhythmias
  • Slowed, erratic, or stopped heart rate
  • Acute mental status change, decreased response to stimuli
  • Hypotension
  • Coma

Stimulant Withdrawal:

  • Drug cravings
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Depression
  • Tremors and chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Psychosis

Stimulant Overdose:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chills and profuse sweating
  • Tachycardia
  • Erratic breathing
  • Paralysis
  • Heart attack
  • Extreme anxiety, panic, agitation, aggression, restlessness
  • Passing out
  • Tightening in chest or chest pain
  • Hyperthermia
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Hallucinogenic and Dissociative Withdrawal:

  • Cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anhedonia
  • Suicide

Hallucinogenic and Dissociative Overdose:

  • Self-injury or suicide attempts
  • Tachycardia
  • Tachypnea
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Acute psychotic behavior
  • Psychotic break
  • Hallucinations

Inhalant Withdrawal:

  • Syncope
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Cravings for the drug

Inhalant Overdose:

  • Sudden heart failure
  • Hypoxia
  • Cardiac failure
  • Coma
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome

CNS Depressants Withdrawal:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Tachycardia
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety, agitation, and irritability
  • Headache
  • Seizures

CNS Depressants Overdose:

  • Increased risk of death when combined with alcohol
  • Ataxia, weakness, and hypotonia
  • Paradoxical agitation
  • Respiratory depression
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Confusion and drowsiness
  • Diplopia and nystagmus
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Hypotension
  • Amnesia
  • Coma

Co-Occurring Disorders

Substance Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who struggle with substance abuse and addiction also have another co-occurring mental health disorder. Some of the most commonly co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Polysubstance abuse
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • PTSD

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