In the United States, an estimated 67% of people aged 12 and older consumed alcohol in 2014, while about 6.4% of people met the criteria for alcoholism.1 Additionally, more than 10% of people aged 12 and older reported past-month use of illegal drugs in 2014.1 Of those approximately 27 million illicit drug users, 7.1 million people met the criteria for addiction.1
Though the short- and long-term effects of drug and alcohol abuse may vary from person to person, clearly many people currently suffer from the effects of abusing drugs and alcohol every day. Factors affecting the exact symptoms that are experienced may depend on a person’s age, gender, individual physiology, genetic make-up, and mental health condition.
And while some side effects are relatively mild, many abused substances lend themselves to severe and life-threatening outcomes, particularly as a person’s pattern of use progresses. Addiction is a particularly debilitating result of drug or alcohol abuse that can lead to significant impairment in many areas of a person’s life—from work to school and interpersonal functioning.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Substance Use?
Different substances affect the body in different ways, but all psychoactive drugs have chemical effects in the brain. The short-term effects that occur in drug users depend on the amount used, the potency or purity of the drug, and whether it is mixed with any other mind-altering substances. Drugs can affect a person’s thinking, mood, energy level, and perception.2 They may impair motor functioning, interfere with decision-making and problem-solving, and reduce inhibition, as well as cause a host of physical health problems.2
Some of the more common substances of abuse include alcohol, hallucinogens, opiates, barbiturates, and inhalants, each of which produce their own unique short-term effects.
A few factors impact the speed at which alcohol’s effects are felt. If someone consumes alcohol on an empty stomach, he or she will feel the effects far quicker than someone drinking after a large meal. Weight and body composition also affect alcohol metabolism and intoxication levels.
Some common short-term effects of alcohol include:2
- Mood swings.
- Impaired judgment.
- Coordination issues.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Memory problems.
- Slurred speech.
- Uncontrolled eye movements.
Low levels of intoxication are likely to result in increased sociability and euphoria, while higher levels of consumption can result in sedation and dangerously low pulse and breathing rate.2 Drinking large amounts of alcohol can result in blackouts, or amnesia for the events that occurred while intoxicated.2
Hallucinogens, such as DMT, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and peyote (mescaline), may all differ slightly in short-term effects and intensity of intoxication, but overall, they elicit many of the same mind-altering side effects.
Possible short-term effects of hallucinogens include:2
- Synesthesia, or mixing of senses.
- Intensified perceptions.
- Significant anxiety or depression.
- Increased heart rate.
- Heart palpitations.
- Dilated pupils.
- Blurred vision.
- Excessive sweating.
- Impaired judgment.
- Impaired motor control.
Hallucinogen intoxication is commonly referred to as a “trip,” and a negative experience is called a “bad trip.” Tripping on a hallucinogen may increase the risk of suicide, although it is rare.2
Using opiates, such as heroin or prescription painkillers, like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, can be particularly dangerous because it often leads to respiratory depression. Heroin is usually injected or snorted (and sometimes smoked), while opiate painkillers are most often taken orally, yet may also be crushed and snorted, or mixed with liquid solution and injected.
Some side effects typical of opiates include:2
- Euphoria followed by apathy.
- Dysphoria, or unease.
- Pinpoint pupils.
- Itching skin.
- Inattention to the environment.
- Slowed thinking and movements.
- Attention problems.
- Memory impairments.
- Slurred speech.
Drowsiness experienced by an opiate user is often called “being on the nod.” The decreased breathing rate caused by opiate intoxication can result in oxygen deficiency and overdose.2
Barbiturates, such as phenobarbital, are prescription sedatives that depress the central nervous system and induce sleep or reduce anxiety.3 They have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines, due to the severe side effects and risk of dependence associated with barbiturate use.3 Users may take more pills than prescribed or inject the drug to achieve increased euphoria or pleasure.
Barbiturate abuse can result in the following short-term effects:2,3
- Mood swings.
- Poor judgment.
- Cognitive dysfunction.
- Slurred speech.
- Trouble with coordination.
- Unsteady gait.
- Uncontrolled eye movements.
Barbiturate’s short-term effects can resemble those of alcohol intoxication, particularly the blackouts or episodes of amnesia.3 Further, barbiturate abuse increases the risk of suicidal ideation or attempts.3
Inhalants are everyday household products, such as cleaning fluids, spray paint, glue, and markers. Users typically inhale the chemicals in through the mouth or nose, either directly or from a soaked rag.4 Sometimes individuals inhale the chemical from a plastic bag or balloon.4 These drugs are often abused by children or adolescents because they are so easily accessible.4 The short-term effects of inhalants are short-lived, only lasting a few minutes.4 The possible side effects of inhalant abuse include:2,4
- Poor judgment.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Blurred vision.
- Slurred speech.
- Impaired coordination.
- Muscle weakness.
- Slowed or delayed reflexes.
- Slow movement and thought.
Even short-term use of inhalants can have fatal consequences, though. People who inhale from a closed container, such as a plastic bag, may experience unconsciousness, coma, and death.2 There is also a condition called “sudden sniffing death” that may occur shortly after inhalant use that is likely due to resulting irregular heartbeats or a heart attack.2
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Substance Use?
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Long-term drug and alcohol abuse can have disastrous physical and mental health consequences. As the body adapts to the presence of a substance, it requires increasing amounts of it to experience the desired results, a process known as tolerance. As a user continues to increase doses, physical dependence may develop, which may subsequently give rise to unpleasant and sometimes deadly withdrawal symptoms once the person stops using the substance.
Physical dependence is not the same as addiction, but chronic and persistent use may lead to the development of an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Addiction is characterized by compulsive use despite negative consequences. People who suffer from an addiction are unable to control their use and may experience significant impairment in their daily lives.
Some general consequences associated with long-term use or addiction include interferences with work, school, or home life, such as job loss, poor work or school performance, suspension or expulsion from school, legal problems, loss of close friends, divorce, and child neglect. Of course, not every user is going to experience these long-term effects, but chronic use increases the likelihood of adverse consequences.
Alcohol use is widespread and has become almost inextricably linked with a number of social, cultural, and religious events. When consumed in moderation, alcohol can be relatively safe and, in some cases, even provide the user with limited health benefits. However, as is often the case, recreational use gives way to compulsive misuse, and when it is used heavily and over a long period of time, alcohol can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. Some of the potential long-term effects of alcohol abuse or addiction include:2,5
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Liver cancer.
- Cardiomyopathy (stretching and weakening of heart muscle).
- Irregular heart rhythm.
- High blood pressure.
- Mouth and throat cancer.
- Breast cancer.
- Weakened immune system.
- Suicidal ideation.
Those suffering from alcohol dependence may experience uncomfortable and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, with cessation of use. Severe alcohol withdrawal is referred to as delirium tremens and is a life-threatening condition that requires medical care.
Individuals who use hallucinogens can develop tolerance to their specific drug of choice, as well as cross-tolerance to other types of similar hallucinogens. For instance, a chronic user of LSD may experience diminished effects when using psilocybin or peyote.6 There is limited research available as to the long-term health effects of hallucinogen abuse, but there are two conditions that have been documented.
- Persistent psychosis: Chronic psychotic symptoms that don’t dissipate once intoxication wears off. These symptoms include paranoia, mood and visual disturbances, and disorganized thought.6
- Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD): Characterized by the re-experiencing of symptoms experienced while under the influence of a hallucinogen (i.e., “flashbacks”). These symptoms could include hallucinations, intensified colors, and other visual disturbances.2,6
MDMA, or Ecstasy, is a unique hallucinogen that also possesses stimulant qualities and can have a number of long-term consequences. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) reports effects associated with nervous system toxicity, such as:2
- Persistent memory impairments.
- Psychological dysfunction.
- Imbalance of hormone production.
- Serotonin malfunction.
- Sleep problems.
- White matter damage in the brain.
- Damage to axons, which impacts impulse conduction.
- Decreased connectivity between brain areas.
In addition to physical dependence and addiction, opiate abuse can cause brain damage due to respiratory depression.7 When the brain is injured as a consequence of being deprived of oxygen, it can result in lasting neurological and psychological effects. Furthermore, research suggests that chronic opiate abuse can lead to deterioration of the white matter in the brain, which impacts behavioral regulation, stress response, and decision-making.7
Additional long-term effects of opiate use include:2
- Severe constipation and related gastrointestinal conditions (e.g., bowel obstruction, bowel perforation).
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Irregular menses in women.
- Intravenous consequences:
- Track lines or puncture marks.
- Peripheral edema.
- HIV or hepatitis virus contraction.
- Infection of the heart lining.
- Intranasal effects:
- Irritation of nasal lining.
- Perforation of nasal septum.
- Nasal bleeding.
Opiate withdrawal syndrome occurs in those who are physically dependent on the drug. Although not life-threatening, these symptoms can be extremely unpleasant and may contribute to relapse in addicted individuals.
According to the DSM-5, the long-term consequences of barbiturate abuse resemble those of alcoholism. They both result in disinhibited behaviors, which can result in poor decision-making.
Chronic barbiturate users may experience the following long-term effects:2,8
- Physical injury resulting from accidents
- Assaults or fights
- Bullous (blistering) skin lesions
- Legal problems
- School or work difficulties
- Slowed pulse
- Decreased respiratory rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Changes in alertness
The chemicals in inhalants can be toxic or poisonous to the human body and can lead to many severe health problems. These long-term effects may include:2,4
- Liver damage.
- Kidney damage.
- Hearing loss.
- Bone marrow damage.
- Loss of coordination.
- Limb spasms.
- Brain damage.
- Sinus infections.
Inhalants may also contain a variety of chemicals and the long-term effects of each may vary, depending on its constituents.
Treatment Resources for Addiction
If you suffer from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, a professional detox program can help you to safely and more comfortably withdraw from the substance or substances you’re using, while providing you with around-the-clock medical and psychiatric care. A detoxification program is a relatively short-term form of treatment after which the majority of patients transition to ongoing substance abuse treatment offered through either an inpatient or outpatient program.
What to Consider When Looking at ProgramsData were collected in 2016 by Recovery Brands that asked patients who were leaving an addiction recovery center what clinic aspects they had come to see as the most valuable aspects to look for when examining programs. The most important priority was the center’s financial practices, like insurance accepted, payment options, and financial support. They also valued the facility’s offerings (comforts, amenities, facility housing) far more after finishing treatment. If you are considering programs, you may want to examine a program’s financial policies as well as the program’s offerings to help with your facility decision. Inpatient treatment programs require that the patient reside at the recovery center for the duration of the treatment program. This helps the individual to focus on his or her recovery without the distractions and triggers of everyday life. Although these programs vary depending on philosophy, the majority of them provide you with individual therapy, group counseling, drug education, medical care, medication-assisted treatment, and aftercare planning. Conversely, outpatient recovery programs provide you with the freedom to live at home while recovering from your addiction. Some programs, such as intensive outpatient (IOP) and partial hospitalization programs (PHP), require that the patient attend the center 3 to 5 times per week, for several hours each day. Other programs are less intensive and require a commitment of a couple times a week, for 1 to 2 hours each session.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2015). Barbiturates drug profile.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). DrugFacts: Inhalants.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2015). How Do Hallucinogens (LSD, Psilocybin, Peyote, DMT, and Ayahuasca) Affect the Brain and Body?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What are the possible consequences of opioid abuse?
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Barbiturate intoxication and overdose.