health complications from addiction

All addictions are brain disorders. Some people are more likely to become addicted based on their genetics and environment. It is not because of a lack of will power, moral failure, or because they want to. 

It is common knowledge that substance disorders have many negative consequences and a wide range of effects. The specific effects depend on the substances used, how often and how much is used, and whether they are taken orally or injected. Some of the consequences are:

  • Immediate or direct consequences. Substance use disorders have direct consequences for health, including effects on heart rate, regulation of body temperature, psychotic episodes, overdose, and death. More people die each year from alcohol and drug overdoses than from car accidents. Nearly 30,000 people died due to an overdose on heroin or prescription opioids in 2014, and an additional 20,000 died from an accidental overdose of alcohol, cocaine, and non-opioid prescription drugs.
  • Indirect consequences. Consequences related to risky behaviors that often occur with drug and alcohol misuse include impaired judgment, driving under the influence (DUI), unprotected sex, and needle-sharing. DUI contributes to thousands of deaths annually. As abuse of prescription opioids progresses, many addicts look to injecting the drugs to intensify the effect. Sharing needles can lead to HIV and hepatitis.
  • Longer-term consequences on society. These consequences include reduced productivity in the workplace, higher health care costs, unintended pregnancies, the spread of diseases, drug-related crime, and interpersonal violence.

In 2015, almost 8% of the adult and adolescent population were affected by substance use disorders. According to the Surgeon General, “that number is similar to the number of people who suffer from diabetes, and more than 1.5 times the annual prevalence of all cancers combined.”

Complications from Alcohol Use Disorder

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)–FASDs are a group of conditions that occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. There is no “safe” amount of alcohol that can be used. There is no safe time during pregnancy to drink.  

FASDs refer to the whole spectrum of effects that can happen to an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. People are affected in different ways and can range from mild to severe. A person with FASD might have: Abnormal facial features such as a smooth vertical ridge between the nose and upper lip called the philtrum.

  • Small head size.
  • Shorter than average height, weight or both.
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior.
  • Difficulty with paying attention.
  • Poor memory.
  • Difficulty in school (especially math).
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Speech and language delays.
  • Low IQ.
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills.
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby.
  • Vision or hearing problems.
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones.

Types of FASDs:

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)—FAS represents the most inclusive end of the FASD spectrum. Death of the fetus is the most extreme result of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Individuals with FAS may have abnormal facial features, growth and central nervous system problems, along with impaired memory attention span, communication, vision, and hearing. They might have a mix of these problems which results in difficulty at school and trouble getting along socially.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)—ARND people might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning. Problems with math, memory, attention span, judgment, and impulse control invariably lead to difficulties in school.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)—People with ARBD may have problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, hearing or a mix of these.
  • Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)—children with ND-PAE will have troubles with three areas: 
  1. thinking and memory problems
  2. behavior issues such as moodiness and severe tantrums.
  3. Problems with day-to-day living including problems with bathing, dressing, and playing with other children.

FASDs are preventable if the mother stops drinking. A woman should not drink alcohol, including wines and beer, when she is pregnant or might be pregnant. The mother could be pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before she even knows she’s pregnant.

Health Complications from Using Alcohol

Excessive drinking, whether it is binge drinking, heavy drinking or alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to: 

  • Cirrhosis (damage to liver cells), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). It is also implicated in cancer, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), and esophagus. High blood pressure and psychological disorders are possible health effects of alcohol.
  • Unintentional injuries such as car and boating accidents falls, drowning, burns, and firearm injuries.  
  • Violence, including child mistreatment, domestic disputes, homicide, and suicide.
  • Harm to a developing fetus.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Alcohol use disorders.

Research has shown that alcohol use by teenagers and young adults increases the risk of fatal and nonfatal injuries. People who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to develop AUD than people who begin drinking at age 21. Additional consequences of teenage alcohol use include risky sexual behaviors, poor academic performance, and increased risk of suicide and homicide.

Health Implications in Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

SUDs occur when an individual uses a substance to such a degree that it causes significant impairments in health, social functioning, and voluntary control over the use of substances. Most people who misuse substances do not develop SUD; however, approximately one in seven people in the US are expected to develop a substance use disorder at some point.  

Dr. Amber Bahorik of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted a study comparing the medical records of all patients in a Northern California health care system diagnosed with a substance use disorder to an equal number without a SUD. Of the patients with SUDs, 57.6% met standards for alcohol use disorder, 14.9% for cannabis use disorder, and 12.9% for opioid use disorder. Sixty-eight percent of the patients had two or more disorders.

The patients with SUDs had a higher rate of 19 major health issues. They are:

  1. Acid-peptic disorders
  2. Arthritis
  3. Asthma
  4. Chronic kidney disease
  5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  6. Chronic pain
  7. Congestive heart failure
  8. Coronary artery disease
  9. Diabetes mellitus
  10. End-stage renal disease
  11. Headaches
  12. Hepatitis C
  13. Hypertension
  14. Injury (including poisoning and overdose)
  15. Heart disease
  16. Pneumonia
  17. Obesity
  18. Osteoporosis
  19. Stroke

Opioid Use Disorder

When a person uses opioids in excess, they can activate the brain’s reward system to create feelings of pleasure or a “high.” The reward system of a person’s body is usually used to reinforce behaviors and produce memories. Opiate abuse activates the normal reward system so strongly that normal activities get neglected and forgotten about in favor of the high.

After a while, heavy opiate use changes the brain’s reward system so that the addicted person becomes physically dependent on the drug. Opioid addiction causes compulsive use and extreme involvement in finding, getting, and using the drug.

Opioid addiction includes drug tolerance, the need to take higher doses to feel the same effects. When reducing or stopping use, addicted people experience pain and other symptoms, called withdrawal.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include:

  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone 
  • Codeine

Prescription opioids are used to treat pain. Other opioids, like heroin, are illegal. Abuse and addiction can cause serious health problems and may lead to death. Negative mental and physical effects include:

  • Nausea and dizziness
  • Vomiting 
  • Weakened immune system
  • Slow breathing rate
  • Coma
  • Increased risk of HIV or hepatitis common in intravenous use
  • Hallucinations
  • Collapsed veins or clogged blood vessels
  • Risk of choking
  • Constipation
  • Hormonal disfunction
  • Mental health effects
  • Prenatal effects
  • Liver and kidney damage

Drugs that are commonly injected can lead to HIV, hepatitis, and infectious diseases:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamine
  • Prescription opioids
  • Steroids

Using opioids is a choice some people make, but some factors may increase the risk of addiction. A family history of drug dependence and people who grew up in certain social or economic situations may be more at risk for dependence. Individuals who abuse alcohol or other drugs, or have a mental illness also have a higher risk.

Cannabis Use Disorder

When cannabis first began to be widely used in the early 1970s, the proportion of young people who have used it has increased, and the age of first use has dropped. Cannabis use now starts in the mid-to-late teens. This is an important period of social transition, and misadventures can have a large impact on a teen’s life chances.  

Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed that 4% of the population of the US had met the diagnostic standards for cannabis abuse and dependence at some time. The risk of dependence is much higher for daily users and people who start using it at an early age.

Cannabis use and psychotic symptoms and disorders are associated with the population and in people with schizophrenia. This doesn’t mean that cannabis use causes schizophrenia, but it can cause the onset of schizophrenia in people who are susceptible to the condition.  

Most adults who use cannabis occasionally find it enjoyable and don’t have any substantial problems. 

Cannabis use still has some risks, such as:

  • Cannabis intoxication—This impairs cognitive and psychomotor abilities
  • Psychotic symptoms—The main psychoactive chemical in cannabis (THC) increases the risk of psychotic symptoms and
  • Panic attacks

At this time, the percentage of people who meet the criteria for cannabis dependence has climbed to 9%. The rate doubles for those who begin use before the age of 17. There are still questions about how frequent use may affect adolescent brain development.

Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine is a highly addictive drug that raises the level of alertness, attention, and energy. It comes in a few different forms, but the most common is a fine white powder, which can also be made into a rock crystal.

Long term health effects of cocaine include:

  • Convulsions and seizures
  • Heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
  • Mood problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Lung damage
  • Bowel decay if swallowed
  • HIV or hepatitis if injected
  • Loss of smell, nosebleeds, runny nose and trouble swallowing if it is snorted
  • Overdose

The more you use cocaine, your brain adapts to it. This can lead to a dangerous addiction or overdose. An overdose may lead to a stroke or heart attack. There are no medicines approved for cocaine addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms from cocaine detox can include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Increased cravings
  • Nerve pain and muscle aches
  • Paranoia and confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression

Symptoms of detox from cocaine are unpredictable but usually begin within 24 hours after the last use and continue for 3 to 5 days. Some symptoms may last for weeks.

Acute cocaine withdrawal syndrome may look different among different people. Some people experience more emotional and psychological issues instead of physical issues. Due to the lack of medications available, professional cocaine detox treatment will focus on providing a safe environment and monitoring systems.

Anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids are a prescription medicine that is sometimes taken without medical advice to increase muscle mass and improve athletic performance.

Common health effects of anabolic steroids include

  • Severe acne, oily skin, and hair
  • Hair loss
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Increased aggression, irritability and depression
  • Reduced sperm count
  • Erectile dysfunction

If you think you are addicted to anabolic steroids, you should see your physician. Treatment for an addiction to anabolic steroids will be similar to that of other types of substance addiction.

SUDs, Withdrawal, Detox, and Treatment

Detox—Patients with a severe substance or alcohol abuse problem must first go through a detoxification process with medical supervision.  

Detox is not a treatment on its own, but it is only the first step in the process. Patients that don’t receive any added treatment after detox usually resume their drug use. A study of treatment facilities found that medications were used in almost 80% of detoxifications.


The first week of withdrawal is usually the worst, but symptoms may last longer. Withdrawal from opiates may cause symptoms such as body pain, body aches, fatigue, and nausea. Over time, the symptoms will ease and medical treatments can help. Late symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Cravings
  • Stomach pain
  • Depression

When possible, people should work with a healthcare professional, particularly an addiction specialist, to come off opiates gradually. Drug replacement medicines, such as methadone and buprenorphine are helpful.


Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be mild or serious. It depends on how much the person drank and for how long. Mild symptoms show up as early as 6 hours after stopping drinking. They include:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaky hands
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia

More serious problems range from hallucinations that begin 12 to 24 hours after the last drink to seizures within the first 2 days. Delirium tremens (DTs) are the severe symptoms that include vivid hallucinations or delusions and usually start about 72 hours after quitting.


Withdrawal from steroids can result in symptoms such as:

  • Depression and apathy
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Anorexia
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Headaches


Many options have successfully been used to treat alcohol and drug addiction, including:

  • Behavioral counseling
  • Medication (when possible)
  • Medical applications used to treat withdrawal or deliver skills training
  • Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse

Detox and Addiction Treatment Help

An individualized treatment program and follow-up options are critical to success. Treatment should include any medical and mental health services as required. Follow-up treatment might consist of community or family-based recovery support therapies. If you recognize yourself or a loved one in the previous examples, there is no time to “wait and see.” Contact Coastal Detox at (866) 924-3350.

Addicts need professional treatment. Period. Even addicts who do not go voluntarily can be successful at getting and staying sober. The next step now is to call. Speak to one of our specialists. From detox to therapies, we will tailor a treatment program to fit your needs.  


Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.