Millions of people take prescription and illicit drugs for medical or recreational reasons. When such substances are taken without precaution, they can develop into an addiction. Drug addiction is dangerous to the affected person and the people close to them.
Drug addiction is a complex disorder that can leave long-term effects on a person’s physical and psychological health. Abusing illegal or prescription drugs can lead to behavioural changes, physical disorders, and even death.
How do drugs work?
Although when talking about addiction, many people picture illegal drugs, legal substances such as alcohol nicotine, and prescription medicine are also highly addictive. Substance abuse, whether legal or illegal, can lead to a substance use disorder. People who use illicit drugs or abuse prescription medications risk damaging their physical and mental health.
Inhalants (glue, gasoline, cleaning solvents and aerosols)
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The severity of impact on a person’s health depends on the drug being used. Some of these drugs are legal and used as medicaments, for instance, Vicodin or morphine. However, regardless of drug type, they share one common feature—addictiveness. Prescription pain relievers such as codeine or oxycodone are highly addictive, increasing the urge to take more drugs to relieve pain or switch to stronger substances.
Drugs work by altering neurotransmissions in the brain. The chemical structure of the drugs mimics natural human brain chemistry. The body becomes conditioned to altered chemical processes and, due to activated neurons and inability to return to normal chemical reactions, it develops an addiction.
The hazards of drug use to your health
Effects on the brain. Different drugs have different effects on your mental state. For instance, LSD creates vivid hallucinations, while cocaine leads to energetic and erratic behaviour. Drugs alter brain chemistry. A person using drugs might experience euphoria, excitement, pleasure, and extroversion, followed by intense feelings of paranoia, irrational behaviour, and violence. Most drugs disrupt our thinking and decision-making abilities; they can cause memory loss and even long-term brain damage.
Effects on physical health. Like other toxic substances, drugs are filtered through the liver. This puts the liver under significant strain, which can result in organ damage or even failure. Drugs can also lead to heart problems such as a heart attack, cardiovascular issues and vessel infections if a person uses intravenous drugs. Other common drug-related threats to physical health are seizures, lung disease, and a weakened immune system. People who use drugs recklessly also have a higher chance of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
Behavioural changes. When a person abuses drugs, their behaviour can vary from excitable and erratic to sedated and subdued. In some cases, drug abuse can leave long-term changes in a person’s behaviour, such as a paranoid personality disorder, impatience, hallucinations, violence, impulsiveness, and addiction.
Overdose. A drug overdose happens when the body is overwhelmed by a toxic amount of a substance. Sedatives and opioids affect the body’s central nervous system—they slow the heart rate and breathing, reduce body temperature, and constrict the pupils. If breathing slows to the point of respiratory arrest, the brain no longer receives oxygen, which can lead to coma or death. Stimulants raise the heart rate and blood pressure, increase body temperature, and speed up breathing. An overdose can lead to seizure, stroke, heart attack, or death. Many fatal overdoses result from mixing drugs.
What leads to drug addiction?
While anyone can become a victim of drug abuse, some contributing factors have more significance than others.
A family history of drug abuse, mental health disorders, previous experience of abuse, or early experimentation with drugs increase a person’s chances of developing an addiction.
Are women more prone to developing drug addiction?
Drug abuse is the leading cause of addiction regardless of age, sex, or status, but women are more susceptible to addiction. Research shows that the female sex hormone oestrogen might make women more sensitive to drugs. Women are more likely to develop a habit, overdose, and relapse. Women are also more susceptible to liver and lung damage and cardiovascular disorders caused by drugs.
How drug use affects pregnancy and a developing baby?
Like alcohol and tobacco illicit and prescription drug abuse during pregnancy and breastfeeding present dangers to a developing baby. Toxic substances pass through the placenta to the foetus. If the mother uses drugs regularly during pregnancy, the baby is at high risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a withdrawal process a baby goes through soon after birth. It’s most common if the mother used opioids or stimulants, but some babies go through withdrawal from alcohol, sedatives, tobacco, and even caffeine.
The babies of women who use drugs during pregnancy are at greater risk of stillbirth, congenital disabilities, low birth weight, premature birth, small head circumference, and sudden infant death syndrome.
How can you tell if you or someone you know has a problem?
Although the two are often interconnected, drug abuse doesn’t necessarily lead to drug addiction. Some people abuse toxic substances such as alcohol, nicotine, or prescription medicines but don’t develop an addiction. The main difference is in effect on a person’s behaviour and how easily they can give up the substance they are abusing.
Some of the most common signs of addiction:
The manic urge to use drugs—an addicted person cannot live without drugs. Drugs give them feelings of relief, pleasure, and ecstasy. Over time, the body becomes used to the drugs, and they cease to provide the same level of relief but must continue to be used to relieve developing withdrawal symptoms.
Irritability when missed a dose—soon after the effect of the drugs passes, an addicted person starts to feel anxious and irritated and fixates on where and when they will get the next dose. They develop withdrawal symptoms that are both physically and psychologically distressing.
Irrational, often violent behaviour—the feeling of addiction can be so strong as to make someone behave irrationally or act violently to get a dose. An addicted person might risk their own life or that of another to get relief.
Stealing or harming others to buy drugs—people who become addicted to toxic substances grow incapable of managing their daily responsibilities, such as working and earning money. This leads to a lack of sufficient finances to buy drugs, but the urge to use only increases. Addicts may begin stealing from family members or strangers, they might borrow money and never give it back or steal expensive things to sell for drug money.
Problems in life—when someone develops a drug addiction, most of the time, they are either high or preoccupied with where they will get the next dose. That can lead to domestic abuse and violence and missing out on social life, work duties, and other important events. Addicts often display behaviour changes that transform them entirely, making them unrecognisable even to their closest friends and family.
Withdrawal symptoms—habitual use of intoxicating substance conditions the body to that substance. If the drug is suddenly unavailable, the body experiences withdrawal symptoms. The severity of the symptoms depends on the drug in question and how long it has been used. Some people go through withdrawal in days, for others, it can take weeks or months. Withdrawal is both a physical and a psychological process that can include flu-like symptoms, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, depression, paranoia, muscle aches, hallucinations, anxiety, tremors, and seizures. A difficult withdrawal often leads to relapse. Detoxification is a dangerous process that can cause dehydration, self-harm, organ failure. Therefore, the safest way to detox is in a monitored setting with proper medical attention.
Finding a way out
Drug addiction puts people at risk of seriously harming their physical and mental health. It isn’t easy to stop using drugs, especially highly addictive substances such as opioids. An addict is likely to feel fear, uncertainty, and shame that must be overcome in order to bring the problem to light and begin the process of solving the underlying issues that led to the abuse.
Addiction is like any other illness, and not something to be shamed or stigmatised for. The first step on the journey to freeing oneself from dependence is to admit there is a problem. Find someone trustworthy to talk to. Although most dependence-causing drugs are illegal in most countries, there are usually special organisations dedicated to helping people battle addiction where one can turn for help. Group therapy can facilitate contact with like-minded people who have made the decision to quit using.
The next step is detoxification and going through withdrawal. This is the hardest part of quitting drugs and can last a few days or even weeks and months. Relapse is most likely during withdrawal. The safest way to avoid relapse is to get professional help when going through withdrawal. Even after many years of clean living, sober addicts remain susceptible to the desire to use again.
After surviving the most difficult and painful of getting sober, former users should continue to abstain from other drugs and harmful substances such as alcohol and tobacco as they might increase the urge to relapse. It’s tough to stay sober, but seeing a trained counsellor or attending a support group can be of great help.
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