The Relationship Between Health Issues And Addiction
Substance use disorders (SUDs) are typically accompanied by at least one related health issue. These associated health issues can be caused or worsened by long-term substance abuse, which can lead to serious or fatal outcomes. Exploring the effects substance use and addiction have on one’s health can be instrumental in preventing or reducing future risk factors. Here are a few connections between health issues and addiction.
Brain Health Issues
The brain plays a major role in the development of an SUD. Substance use directly interferes with the brain’s normal functions, specifically those associated with the reward system. In order to adapt to the stimulation caused by drugs or alcohol, the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors at the synapse. This means that dopamine is cleared more quickly than usual. Modifications to dopamine can cause a person to be less responsive to a substance and decrease responses to natural rewards. A tolerance is formed, which can quickly turn into an addiction.
These adaptations also affect other parts of the brain, such as the regions responsible for decision-making, judgment, learning, and memory. Stopping substance use unfortunately does not return the brain to its normal functions. This may take years to achieve. The long-lasting effects on the brain’s ability to process rewards can make it difficult to avoid relapse, which can lead to other health issues.
The likelihood of getting cancer can be increased by the abuse of several substances. This is specifically true for alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol use, which accounts for 4% of all cancer deaths in the United States, is one of the most preventable risk factors for cancer. Mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancers have been identified as health issues that are linked to the consumption of alcohol. There has not been an amount of alcohol determined to be safe from the risk of cancer. This includes drinking at moderate levels or less than 2 drinks per day.
Cigarette smoking is the #1 most preventable cause of cancer in the US. There are over 70 chemicals in tobacco that are carcinogens which damage DNA and affect the way the body makes new cells. Because secondhand smoke can also cause cancer, it is important to note that substance abuse can also increase the risk of health issues for others.
Chronic pain is a health issue characterized by pain that persists for 6 or more consecutive months after a person has healed. Prolonged physical pain can decrease one’s quality of life and lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, and anger. There are over 100 million Americans dealing with this type of pain, and over 20 million fit the criteria for either an SUD or an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is believed that Opioids being prescribed to treat chronic pain has contributed to the vast amount of people abusing these substances. Additionally, those with chronic pain may self-medicate their pain with other substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, Marijuana, and Cocaine.
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Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This health issue is an inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow and makes breathing difficult. Typically, air sacs in the lungs are elastic and stretchy. When breathing in, these sacs fill with air and then deflate when exhaling. With emphysema, the walls between these air sacs become damaged and lose their shape. This damage can cause the lungs to have fewer but larger air sacs, which makes it harder to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the lungs.
Long-term exposure to irritants is a cause of harm to the lungs. In the US, cigarette smoke is the main irritant causing emphysema. Seventy-five percent of people with the disease smoke or used to smoke. Pipes, cigars, and other forms of tobacco can also cause emphysema, especially if the substance is inhaled. Symptoms include frequent coughing, excess of mucus, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, and a whistling sound when breathing.
Heart Health Issues
Most drugs can cause health issues with adverse cardiovascular effects. Smoking tobacco substantially increases a person’s risk of getting a heart disease such as stroke, heart attack, or vascular disease. Other substances that can affect heart health are Cocaine, Heroin, Inhalants, Ketamine, LSD, Marijuana, Steroids, and MDMA. Drugs that are injected can cause veins to collapse and blood vessels and heart valves to become infected. Cocaine has also been linked to 1 in 4 heart attacks for the age group 18-45.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the body’s immune system, making a person more susceptible to other health issues. When left untreated, HIV will reach its final stage: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Because HIV has no effective cure, the virus stays with a person for the rest of their life. Despite the lack of a cure, there is medical care that can manage and stop the spread of HIV. Typically, flu-like symptoms appear 2 weeks after infection has been contracted; it’s also possible to not experience any symptoms. HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, specifically blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal fluids. Having unprotected sex and sharing drug injection needles can facilitate the spread of HIV among adults. Infants can get HIV through maternal transfer.
Having an SUD can increase the risk of getting HIV, as substance abuse drastically impacts judgment and decision-making abilities. This can make a person more likely to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors. Substances that increase the chances of contracting HIV are ones that can be injected, like Opioids and Meth, and those that lower inhibitions, like alcohol and Inhalants.
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Sleep Related Health Issues (Insomnia)
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder in which falling and/or staying asleep is difficult. This health issue lowers overall quality of sleep. When this disorder is ongoing, it is considered chronic. Typically, chronic insomnia is the result of a secondary problem like medical conditions, medications, or an SUD. Symptoms of insomnia are lying awake for a long time before sleeping, sleeping for only short periods of time, being awake for most of the night, waking up and feeling as if one hasn’t slept at all, and waking up too early. Sleep issues can cause daytime sleepiness, lack of energy, and problems with focusing.
Substance use tends to disrupt sleep regulatory systems in the brain which affects sleep quality. When receiving treatment, insomnia is common during withdrawal or detox. This can fuel cravings and relapse. Poor sleep can also make it harder for those in treatment to learn the coping mechanisms and self-regulation skills that are needed for recovery. Additionally, insomnia can impair one’s judgment and possibly cause someone to make decisions that they usually wouldn’t. Those struggling with insomnia may turn to other substances to self-medicate and attempt to regulate their sleep schedule. This often leads to an SUD.
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Lung cancer is a type of cancer that forms on the lungs and usually involves the cells that line the airways. Cancer of the lung is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. There are two types of lung cancer: small cell and non-small cell, the latter of which is more common. Symptoms of this health issue include chest discomfort or pain, persistent cough, trouble breathing, wheezing, blood in mucus, hoarseness, loss of appetite, fatigue, trouble swallowing, and swelling of veins in neck or face.
The biggest cause of lung cancer is smoking tobacco, which contributes to 9 in 10 lung cancer cases in men and 8 in 10 cases in women. The risk of getting lung cancer varies depending on how early in life smoking began, how long the habit has been present, and the number of cigarettes smoked per day. The likelihood of lung cancer is also increased if a person smokes and drinks alcohol every day. If a person quits smoking, it lowers the risk of lung cancer; the risk will remain greater than it would have been if they had never smoked at all, however. Secondhand smoke can expose others to the same cancer-causing agents.
Smoking remains the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. The most effective way to significantly lower your risk of lung cancer is to quit. Many people find that online therapy provides the right amount of support and flexibility to help them successfully quit.
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Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is the set of health issues for newborn babies who have been exposed to Opioids while in the womb. This syndrome occurs when a woman abuses substances such as Heroin, Codeine, Oxycodone, or Methadone while pregnant. Because these substances are able to pass through the placenta, the baby becomes dependent on them. After birth, an Opioid-dependent baby will experience withdrawal symptoms as the drug is cleared from the body. NAS can also be present after exposure to alcohol, Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates, and even Antidepressants. Symptoms begin 1 to 3 days after birth and depend on the substance that has been abused by the mother, how much was taken and for how long it was taken, and if the baby was full-term or premature. Treatment also varies based on the substance involved.
For more information on the health issues involved with addiction or for answers to your questions about treatment, contact a treatment provider today.
Ashish Bhatt, MD, MRO
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Learn about Dr. Ashish Bhatt
Dr. Bhatt has been Addiction Center's Medical Content Director for more than three years, providing his expertise to ensure quality and accuracy.
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Expert in adult and child psychiatry
Over 20 years of professional experience