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The Effects of Alcohol and Drug Abuse

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 140 million Americans aged 12 or older were current drinkers.Just a few years prior, in 2015, an estimated 86.4% of the adult population had consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, while 27% had engaged in binge drinking within the prior month.Additionally, in 2017, 30.5 million people 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days (which equates to current use), and approximately 19.7 million people 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) connect to their use of alcohol and/or illicit drugs.1

Though the short- and long-term impact of drug and alcohol abuse may vary from person to person, many people struggle with the ill-effects of abusing drugs and alcohol every day. Factors that influence the nature and severity of symptoms that are experienced may depend on a person’s age, gender, individual physiology, genetic make-up, and mental health condition, as well as environmental factors related to the family, school, and neighborhood.3,7

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 development associated with regular drug or alcohol use that can lead to significant impairment in many areas of a person’s life—from work to school and interpersonal functioning.4

What are the Short-Term Effects of Substance Abuse?

chemical effects of drugs on the brain

Drugs and alcohol have various effects on both mental and physical health. The short-term effects may depend on the amount used, the potency of purity of the substance, and whether it is mixed or used in combination with any other mind-altering substances. Drugs and alcohol can affect a person’s thinking, mood, energy level, and perception.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.6

Some of the more common substances of abuse include alcohol, hallucinogens, opioids, benzodiazepines, and inhalants, each of which produce their own unique short- and long-term effects.

Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

A few factors impact the speed at which alcohol’s effects are felt. If someone consumes alcohol on an empty stomach, he or she may feel the effects far quicker than someone drinking after a large meal. Weight and body composition also affect alcohol metabolism and intoxication levels.

Depending on the amount of drinking taking place, the short-term effects of acute alcohol intoxication can range from mild to devastating. Potential effects include:6

  • Mood swings.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Coordination issues.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Memory problems.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Uncontrolled eye movements.
  • Stupor.
  • Coma.

Find out more on alcohol abuse side effects here. 

Relatively mild intoxication can result in increased sociability and euphoria, while higher levels of consumption can result in sedation and dangerously slowed pulse and breathing rate.6 Drinking large amounts of alcohol can result in blackouts, or amnesia for the events that occurred while intoxicated.6

Side Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

Hallucinogens, such as DMT, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and peyote (mescaline), may all differ slightly in terms of the duration and intensity of their psychoactive and physiological effects, but there are some areas of overlap in the character of such effects.

Possible short-term effects of hallucinogens may include:6,8

  • Hallucinations.dilated pupils
  • Synesthesia, or mixing of senses.
  • Intensified perceptions.
  • Significant anxiety or depression.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Tremors.
  • Paranoia.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Impaired motor control.

Hallucinogen intoxication is commonly referred to as a “trip,” and a negative experience is called a “bad trip.” There have been some reports of an association between certain hallucinogens and suicidality, although such occurrences are very rare.6,8

Side Effects of Opioid Abuse

Using opioids, such as heroin or misusing prescription painkillers, like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, can be particularly dangerous because of their risks for profound respiratory depression and overdose.9 Heroin is commonly injected or snorted (and sometimes smoked), while opioid 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 opioids include:6,9

  • Initial euphoric rush followed by apathy.male experiencing the negative side effects of opioid abuse
  • Dysphoria, or unease.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Pinpoint pupils.
  • Itching skin.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Memory impairments.
  • Attention problems.
  • Inattention to the environment.
  • Slowed thinking and movements.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Coma.

Find out more on opioid abuse and side effects.

The pronounced drowsiness and intermittent dosing off exhibited by an opioid  user is often called “being on the nod.” The decreased breathing rate caused by opioid intoxication can result in overdose associated respiratory arrest, oxygen deprivation, and subsequent brain and vital organ injury.6,9

Side Effects of Benzodiazepines Abuse

Benzodiazepines are depressants that are prescribed in the treatment of muscle spasms, tremors, acute seizures, alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, and insomnia.16,17 Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin.18 Benzodiazepine misuse may result in the following short-term effects:6,16-18

  • Drowsiness.
  • Impacted physical coordination and balance.
  • Impaired attention and memory.
  • Depression.
  • Vertigo.
  • Tremors.
  • Respiratory depression.

Benzodiazepines have a high potential for abuse based on their sedative properties, especially when combined with other depressants including alcohol and opioids.16

Side Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants are a diverse grouping of psychoactive substances, with some examples including 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.12 Sometimes individuals inhale the chemical from a plastic bag or balloon.12 These drugs are often abused by children or adolescents because they are so easily accessible.12 The short-term effects of many inhalants are short-lived, only lasting a few minutes.12 The possible side effects of inhalant abuse include:6,12

  • Euphoria.
  • Apathy.
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations.
  • Slow movement and thought.
  • Lethargy.
  • Poor judgment.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Slowed or delayed reflexes.
  • Impaired coordination.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Tremors.
  • Stupor.
  • Coma.

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.6 There is also a condition called “sudden sniffing death” that may occur shortly after inhalant use that is likely due to the acute development of a fatal arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or a heart attack.6

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Substance Use?

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Let’s Talk Drugs Podcast

Let’s Talk Drugs is a new podcast that tackles common myths and themes about drugs and alcohol using the latest research and a sharp eye toward what’s really affecting people today. Read More

Chronic drug and alcohol abuse can have disastrous long-term 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.13 As use continues or escalates, physical dependence may develop, which places people at risk of an often unpleasant and sometimes deadly withdrawal syndrome when use of the substance slows or stops.14

While some degree of physical dependence may develop even in situations of therapeutic drug use, it is often present in addiction; chronic and persistent misuse may more quickly drive the development of 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.14

Long-Term Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Some of the potential long-term effects of alcohol abuse or addiction include:6,15

  • alcohol abuseAlcoholic hepatitis.
  • Cirrhosis.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching and weakening of heart muscle).
  • Irregular heart rhythm.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Mouth and throat cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Increased risk of accidents, violence, suicide.

Long-Term Side Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

There is limited research available as to the long-term health effects of hallucinogen abuse, but there are two conditions that have been documented.6,8

  • Persistent psychosis: Chronic psychotic symptoms that don’t dissipate once intoxication wears off. These symptoms include paranoia, mood and visual disturbances, and disorganized thought.
  • 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.

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:6

  • Persistent memory impairments.
  • Psychological dysfunction.
  • Neuroendocrine changes.
  • Disruptions in serotonin neurotransmission.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Damage to neuronal axons, which impacts impulse conduction.
  • Decreased functional connectivity between brain areas.

Long-Term Side Effects of Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse can result in brain damage due to respiratory depression.9 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 opioid abuse can lead to deterioration of the white matter in the brain, which impacts behavioral regulation, stress response, and decision-making.9

Additional long-term effects of opioid use may include:6

  • constipation gastrointestinal conditionsSevere constipation and related gastrointestinal conditions (e.g., bowel obstruction, bowel perforation).
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Irregular menses in women.
  • Consequences of injection use:
    • Track lines or puncture marks.
    • Peripheral edema.
    • Cellulitis.
    • Abscesses.
    • Tuberculosis.
    • HIV or hepatitis virus contraction.
    • Infection of the heart lining.
  • Intranasal effects:
    • Irritation of nasal lining.
    • Perforation of nasal septum.
    • Nasal bleeding.

Long-Term Side Effects of Benzodiazepines Abuse

Some benzodiazepines are eliminated from the body slowly, which can lead to an accumulation of the drug in fatty tissues. Therefore, the symptoms of excess use may take a few days to appear.16

Chronic benzodiazepine users may experience the following long-term effects:6,16

  • Impaired thinking, memory, and judgment.
  • Disorientation.
  • Confusion.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Lack of coordination.

Long-Term Side Effects of Inhalant Abuse

Various inhalant substances can be toxic or poisonous to the human body and can lead to many severe health problems. These long-term effects may include:6,12

  • Liver damage.
  • Kidney damage.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Bone marrow damage.
  • Brain damage.
  • Sinus infections.
  • Chronic bronchitis.
  • Asthma exacerbations.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.

Treatment Options for Overcoming 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 Programs


Data 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.