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A Comprehensive Guide To Drug Addiction

It is estimated that 67% of all Americans aged 12 and older drank alcohol in 2014. Further, about 6.4% of the entire US population met the basic criteria for alcoholism in the same way.

Added to the above, over 10% of those aged 12 and above reported that they had used illegal drugs. Among the approximately 27 million users of illegal drugs, 7.1 million people could have been classified to have met the criteria for full-blown addiction.

Although the long- and short-term effects of illicit drug and substance abuse varies from one person to the next, it is clear that many people suffer from these effects on a daily basis. The factors affecting the exact effects experienced tend to depend on the user's individual physiology, gender, age, mental health condition, and genetic make-up.

While some of the side effects of drug abuse and addiction may be relatively mild, most of the substances abused also come with severe and fatal (or even life-threatening) consequences. This is particularly true as the pattern of use continues progressing from tolerance to dependence and eventually to addiction.

More specifically, it is clear that addiction is one of the debilitating results of drug abuse, and it might lead to significant deterioration of various aspects of life - from school and work to interpersonal and social functioning.

Today, authorities consider drug abuse and addiction to be a complex condition that has the potential to affect both your behavior and the way your brain functions. In fact, such abuse has been shown to alter brain structure and function.

As a direct result, even after you stop using drugs through successful treatment and rehabilitation, the behavioral changes the drugs created may continue for a long time to come. It is for this reason that so many drug addicts tend to relapse back to use even after a period of relative cleanliness.

However, as you struggle with addiction, sobriety may seem far-fetched and impossible. Still, recovery is always within reach irrespective of how hopeless you might feel about your situation.

Through detoxification and rehabilitation, you may be able to overcome your drug and substance abuse and receive ongoing treatment and therapy to keep you away from these debilitating substances.

Read on to learn more about drugs, their abuse, effects, potential for addiction, withdrawal symptoms, dangers, treatment and more:

Understanding Drugs

Addiction is a term commonly used to describe the physical and psychological health condition in which you are dependent on a substance. The choice substance of abuse often alters how you think, act, and feel.

You might initially depend on a drug or any other substance that affects how your brain functions to help you cope with complex situations (including anxiety and chronic pain). Eventually, continued use may compel you to keep on the drug just to get through an ordinary day.

At this point, you are highly likely to start looking forward to the desired effects of the drug so much that it will consume your other thoughts and become the focal point of your life.

You may also divert your energy and resources to acquiring more of the drug of choice - going so far as lying to your doctor to receive a larger prescription or using your savings to buy drugs. Additionally, the condition might compel you to start lying to loved ones about your problems.

As a result, your professional, academic, or social life will probably suffer because the addiction and abuse may make you less interested in any obligations and responsibilities you have. Instead, you will be more concerned about experiencing the pleasurable feelings and effects that abusing drugs brings - even as your life and world starts fracturing.

In the most drastic of situations, you may refuse the suggestion that you are using too much of a particular substance or that your behavior is impacting negatively on those around you. Instead, you will most likely attempt to justify your consumption, deny that the problem exists, or even try to extract yourself from the awkward conversion/situation without having to give up your substance abuse.

However, you might fail even if you try to quit your addiction because your brain and body would have become used to the drug of choice. This is because you will experience violent and unpleasant reactions (including fever, insomnia, muscle pain, or nausea) when you go for a few hours, days, or weeks without abusing the drug. Eventually, you may give in and take a larger dose to experience some modicum of relief.

According to SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), this is what addiction - or a substance abuse disorder - entails. Additionally, Medical News Today explains that drug addiction will often deprive you of the ability to control your cravings for the drug.

However, what you will get is increased tolerance - at which point you would have to take larger amounts of the preferred drug just to experience the desired effects that you felt the first time you used.

Drug Uses

There are many reasons why people start using and abusing drugs. Whereas some start to see how it feels like to be high/intoxicated, others use substances to alleviate certain conditions - such as chronic pain, anxiety, or depression, among others.

Irrespective of the reason, such use often changes and become active abuse. Eventually, it leads to tolerance to and chemical dependence on the drug, followed by active addiction.

This will happen once you become tolerant to the substance, causing you to take more of it to achieve the desired effects. While seeking this initial high, your body may become dependent - at which point addiction will take hold.

The problem may be exacerbated by your desire to avoid the uncomfortable, disconcerting, and often life-threatening withdrawal symptoms that might occur when you suddenly stop using drugs.

NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports that addiction takes place when you are chemically dependent on a drug and you feel an overwhelming urge to consume this drug.

That said, some people use drugs and other substances to relax, feel alive and lively, reduce their inhibitions, or simply to feel pleasure. Others find that the effects of such use makes it easier for them to cope with different problems and conditions, while another subset simply uses to fit in with a particular crowd or for religious purposes. The last segment may start using because they are curious to find out what it is to be on drugs.

Among all these users, no one really plans on becoming an addiction. Most people assume that they will be able to easily handle their drug use and only have to abuse the substances when and they wish. However, they eventually discover that this is hardly ever the case with addiction.

Drug Effects

The effects of drug use and abuse can be classified into short-term and long-term effects. Consider the following:

Short-Term Effects

1. Alcohol

Various factors affect the speed at which you will feel the effects of alcohol. If you, for instance, take alcohol while hungry, you are more likely to feel the following effects faster than someone who just had a large meal. Additionally, body composition and weight may also affect intoxication levels and alcohol metabolism.

Some of the typical short-term effects of drinking alcohol may include:

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

Low level intoxication might result in euphoria and increased sociability while higher levels of consumption may lead to sedation as well as dangerously low breathing rate and pulse. When you drink large amounts, however, you can experience blackouts, which may be related to amnesia for the events that transpired while you were intoxicated.

2. Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens like LSD, mescaline (peyote), magic mushrooms (psilocybin), and DMT tend to differ slightly in terms of the intensity of drug intoxication and short-term effects. Overall, however, they may illicit similar mind-altering effects such as:

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

Hallucinogen intoxication is sometimes referred to as tripping while negative experiences are called bad trips. When you trip on these drugs, your risk of suicide may increase.

3. Opiates

Using such opiates as heroin or prescription pain relieving drugs like OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin may be dangerous because it usually causes respiratory depression.

Some of the short-term effects of opiate abuse include:

  • Apathy
  • Attention problems
  • Coma
  • Drowsiness
  • Dysphoria or deep unease
  • Euphoria
  • Inattention to your immediate environment
  • Itching skin
  • Memory impairments
  • Nausea
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Slowed movements and thinking
  • Slurred speech
  • Vomiting

When you experience drowsiness from opiate abuse, the feeling is described as being on the nod. However, such abuse may also lead to decreased breathing rate, which might result in fatal oxygen deficiency as well as overdose.

4. Barbiturates

Barbiturates, including Phenobarbital, are common prescription sedative drugs that are used to reduce anxiety, induce sleep, and depress the CNS (central nervous system). These substances are largely getting replaced by benzodiazepines because of the high risk of dependence and severe side effects.

Abusing barbiturates often leads to the following short-term effects:

  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Coma
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Mood swings
  • Poor judgment
  • Sedation
  • Slurred speech
  • Stupor
  • Trouble with coordination
  • Uncontrolled eye movements
  • Unsteady gait

These short-term effects are quite similar to alcohol intoxication - including the episodes of amnesia and blackouts. Further, abusing these drugs may increase your risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.

5. Inhalants

Inhalants include such household products as markers, glue, spray paint, and cleaning fluids. These drugs are usually abused by adolescents and children due to the ease of access. Although the short-term effects are often short-lived, they may prove dangerous or even fatal. They include:

  • Apathy
  • Blurred vision
  • Coma
  • Delayed or slowed reflexes
  • Delusions
  • Dizziness
  • Euphoria
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Poor judgment
  • Slow thought and movement
  • Slurred speech
  • Stupor
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

If you inhale these drugs from such closed containers as plastic bags, you may also experience coma, unconsciousness, or even death. Sudden sniffing death might occur shortly after using inhalants as a result of a heart attack or irregular heartbeats.

Long Term Effects

1. Alcohol

When taken in moderation, alcohol tends to be relatively safe and may even provide you with some health benefits. However, recreational use may lead to compulsive misuse. When abused heavily or for a prolonged length of time, alcohol might be detrimental to your mental and physical health. At this point, it would come with the following long-term effects:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Breast cancer
  • Cardiomyopathy (weakening and stretching of heart muscle)
  • Cirrhosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Irritability
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stroke
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Throat and mouth cancer
  • Weakened immune system

While suffering from dependence, you might also experience such uncomfortable and possibly fatal withdrawal symptoms as seizures. Severe withdrawal is commonly referred to as delirium tremens, a life-threatening condition that will require urgent medical care.

2. Hallucinogens

Hallucinogen abuse eventually gives way to tolerance to the drug of choice accompanied by cross-tolerance to other similar hallucinogens. For instance, using LSD chronically may lead to diminished effects when you use peyote or psilocybin.

Although the research available on the long-term effects of hallucinogen use and abuse is limited, the following are clearly documented:

  1. Persistent Psychosis

    This refers to chronic psychotic effects that may not dissipate after drug intoxication has worn off. These effects and symptoms might include disorganized thoughts, visual and mood disturbances, and paranoia.

  2. HPPD

    Otherwise referred to as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, HPPD is often characterized by users re-experiencing the effects they experienced when they were under the influence of the drug (or flashbacks). These effects may include intensified colours and hallucinations, among other visual disturbances.

Ecstasy or MDMA is an unique hallucinogenic drug that also comes with stimulant qualities and may cause long-term consequences. According to DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition), the effects of abusing this drug are now associated with such nervous system toxicity as:

  • Damage to axons, directly impacting the impulse
  • Decreased connectivity from one area of the brain to another
  • Imbalance in the production of hormones
  • Persistent memory impairments
  • Psychological dysfunction
  • Serotonin malfunction
  • Sleep problems
  • The damage of white matter in the brain
3. Opiates

Apart from physical dependence, tolerance, and addiction, abusing opiates may lead to brain damage after respiratory depression. This might result in irreversible psychological and neurological effects.

Additionally, research suggests that abusing opiates chronically may cause the brain's white matter to deteriorate. This may impact decision-making, stress response, and behavioral regulation.

Other long-term effects arising from opiate use can include:

  • Abscesses
  • Cellulitis
  • Gastrointestinal conditions, such as bowel perforation and obstruction
  • Hepatitis virus contraction
  • HIV
  • Infections of the lining of the heart
  • Irregular periods in women
  • Irritation of the nasal lining
  • Nasal bleeding
  • Perforation of the nasal septum
  • Peripheral edema
  • Puncture marks
  • Severe constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Track lines
  • Tuberculosis

If you are physically dependent on this drug, you may also experience opiate withdrawal syndrome. Although it is not life-threatening, this syndrome might be accompanied by extremely unpleasant symptoms that can contribute to relapse if you are an addict.

4. Barbiturates

DSM-5 also reports that the long-term effects of abusing barbiturates are similar to those from alcoholism. Both substances often result in dis-inhibited behavior and may cause poor decision-making.

Chronic users also experience the following:

  • Assault
  • Bilious or blistering skin lesions
  • Changes in alertness
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Fights
  • Irritability
  • Legal problems
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Memory loss
  • Physical injury arising from accidents
  • Slowed pulse
  • Work and school difficulties
5. Inhalants

The chemicals found in most inhalants might be poisonous or toxic and may cause severe problems with your health. The common long-term effects include:

  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Brain damage
  • Bronchitis
  • Depression
  • Hearing loss
  • Kidney damage
  • Limb spasms
  • Liver damage
  • Loss of coordination
  • Sinus infections
  • Tuberculosis

Drug Side Effects

Every drug carries specific risks. As a result, most people are usually not aware of how they may react to certain substances. In general, however, drugs are typically divided into certain categories based on their common side effects. This means that the substance you abuse may be a hallucinogen (or psychedelic), a depressant, or stimulant.

Other drugs, however, come with mixed side effects - with some showing two or more effects simultaneously. Thus they may be described as depressant hallucinogens (like cannabis) or stimulant hallucinogens (like ecstasy).

Consider the following side effects:

  1. Stimulants

    Stimulant drugs may make you feel energetic, confident, and alert. However, they also cause such side effects as heart failure and increased pressure on the heart. They include mephedrone, ecstasy, speed, and cocaine, among others.

  2. Depressants

    >Depressants, on the other hand, are likely to make you feel chilled out and relaxed. However, these drugs also lead to slowed down breathing and heart rates, conditions that might be fatal. Examples of depressants include cannabis, heroin, tranquilizers, and alcohol.

  3. Hallucinogens

    Hallucinogens distort reality and may cause you to see vivid hallucinations, illusions, and distortions (seeing things that might not be there). Further, these drugs are likely to slow down or speed up your sense of time and movement. They include magic mushrooms and LSD.

Apart from the above broad categories, there are new drugs - the harms of which are not yet known and documented. At times, substances may not contain what you assume they do. For instance, mephedrone and PMA might be sold as ecstasy/MDMA.

Drug Addictive Qualities

The brain's neurotransmitters include chemicals your body uses to pass information between nerve cells. It is through these neurotransmitters that your brain will instruct your lungs to breathe, your stomach to digest food, and your heart to beat. These chemicals also regulate such bodily functions as concentration, appetite, sleep, and mood.

Drug consumption, genes, unhealthy lifestyles, poor diet, and stress - among other factors - may deplete these chemicals while boosting others beyond their optimal range. In the process, this might lead to negative effects.

The main neurotransmitter affected by most drugs is dopamine. This chemical plays several roles but is particularly well-known for the complex way in which it stimulates anticipation, rewards, and pleasure.

Psychology Today reports that the brain releases dopamine whenever you experience something good - such as having sex, consuming food, or doing something agreeable. When your brain is healthy, it will reabsorb this chemical, one of the reasons why you may eventually lose the desire or drive to keep on engaging in particular activities irrespective of how good you initially felt.

However, you will remember the feelings such activities created and you may desire the same experiences. As such, dopamine drives anticipation for rewards, and compels use to eat not just for survival but also to derive the pleasure that comes with such consumption.

This is where most drugs and other substances come in. NIDA reports that all drugs - from valium to heroin and alcohol - force dopamine neurotransmitters to continue transmitting the chemical throughout the central nervous system and brain for longer than other natural activities do.

For instance, while this neurotransmitter would normally be recycled back into the right neuron, cocaine may bind to the chemical and prevent such recycling. As a result, your brain would be flooded with the intense sensations of pleasure, exhilaration, and euphoria far longer than another hobby or activity could ever hope to achieve. Depending on how you consumed the cocaine, this could last anywhere from 3 to 90 minutes.

Laser canning microscopy has shown how drugs alter the brain's chemical functioning to a point where any other source of reward and pleasure would have no neurological or physiological effect.

Other factors that might lead to such drug abuse - and increase the risk of addiction - include:

  • Stressful home environments
  • Gender
  • Peer pressure
  • A lack of information and education about the risks and dangers of drug abuse
  • A family history of drug abuse
  • Unrelenting academic or professional pressure
  • Access to more drugs

To this end, addiction is incredibly complex. Irrespective of the risk factors involved, any number of causes may combine to make you more inclined to start abusing drugs and other substances.

Drug Overdose

Abusing drugs often carries the risk of such severe effects as overdose. Whether you use illicit drugs like cocaine, take alcohol, or abuse prescription medications such as opioid painkillers, the development of addiction and occurrence of overdose are always a concern.

Overdose, to this end, may be intentional or accidental. Accidental overdose may occur when you take more of a drug than you originally intended or if you use too much to experience better effects.

Intentional overdose, on the other hand, happens when you try to commit suicide or harm yourself with drugs. Regardless of the intention, loss of life is tragic and the overdose may have lasting and severe consequences.

NIDA reports that the number of deaths arising from drug overdose rose over twofold between 2002 and 2015. Additionally, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced that the number of deaths related to opioid overdose increased by 200% from 2000 onwards.

These numbers underscore the importance of understanding how to recognize the basic symptoms of a drug overdose. Only through such understanding will you be able to get the medical assistance you (or a loved one) may need. It could also make a world of difference between life and death.

In most cases, the psychological and physical signs of an overdose vary depending on the substance abused and whether the drug was used in combination with another substance. However, in general, these signs and symptoms may include:

  • Abnormally high bodily temperatures
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Agitation
  • Blue fingers or lips
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Death
  • Dilated pupils
  • Disorientation
  • Gurgling sounds indicating that the airway may be blocked
  • Nausea
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures
  • Severe breathing difficulties, including stopped breathing, and shallow breathing
  • Tremors or convulsions
  • Unconsciousness
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Unsteady walking
  • Vomiting

You may not exhibit all (or even most) of these symptoms. However, even a couple of these signs might be an indication that you are experiencing a drug overdose. If this is the case, the best chance of recovery and survival from the risk of fatal overdose depends on your getting immediate medical attention.

Drug Withdrawal

Withdrawal syndrome, according to NIDA, refers to predictable signs and symptoms resulting from the sudden removal or abrupt decrease in the use of a particular drug or substance.

These withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the drug being abused. However, they tend to be an approximation of the exaggeration of the physical functions and processes that the substance was depressing.

If you have ever been under the influence of depressant medications or drugs, you are highly likely to rebound with some stimulated symptoms when you stop using these substances. Conversely, if you abuse stimulant drugs, you may experience rebounding depression of your physiologic functioning when you stop using these substances.

That said, the following are some of the common signs and symptoms of withdrawal:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional instability
  • Flu-like symptoms, including headaches, body aches, and weakness
  • Hot flashes
  • Increased or lack of appetite
  • Increased pain sensitivity
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating

On their own, these symptoms might not lead to a relapse. However, when combined with other mental, social, and emotional factors, they may contribute to such a relapse. These symptoms might include:

  • Heightened positive or negative emotional state
  • Social situations
  • Physical discomfort
  • Strong cravings
  • Temptation to use
  • Testing personal boundaries

That said, acute withdrawal may prove unpleasant. However, certain withdrawal symptoms might also be dangerous. As a direct result, you will probably need to undergo supervised medical detoxification in a rehabilitation center to ensure safety.

Drug Dangers

More disabilities, illnesses, and deaths result from drug abuse that from other preventable health conditions. Research now links drug use to one in every four deaths. Similarly, those who are dependent on drugs carry a higher risk of such negative outcomes as medical problems, domestic violence, accidents, unintentional injuries, and death.

The dangers of substance use and abuse range from the mild to the severe. Every time you use drugs, the harmful consequences build up. Some examples of these consequences include:

  • Blackouts
  • Contraction of sexually transmitted infections like HIV and Hepatitis through intravenous drug use
  • Feelings of depression, irritability, or anxiety
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Injuries to your body (or to others) while intoxicated or under the influence
  • Legal problems
  • Loss of hope
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Spending money on drugs instead of on such essentials as food and rent
  • Trouble thinking clearly

Additionally, pregnant women who abuse drugs increase the risk to themselves and to their unborn babies. These drugs may lead to the baby being born too soon or too small. In other cases, the babies may suffer withdrawal symptoms, behavioral and learning problems, and birth defects. Drugs also lead to miscarriages and still births.

Signs And Symptoms Of Drug Abuse

Some signs and symptoms point to an individual who abuses drugs. These may include:

1. Physical Symptoms
  • Black rimmed eyes
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Loss of appetite
  • Needle marks on the legs and arms
  • Pale skin
  • Poor facial skin, including blotches and spots
  • Shakes
  • Spots around the mouth and nose
  • Sudden or unexplained weight loss
  • Unkempt appearance
2. Psychological Symptoms
  • Addiction
  • Aggressiveness
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Change in personality
  • Depression
  • Extremes of behaviour, including lows and highs
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired judgment
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of self-control
  • Mood swings
  • Outbursts
  • Paranoia
  • Paranoia
  • Secretive behaviour
3. Behavioral Symptoms
  • Trying to hide signs of the habits by wearing long sleeved tops to conceal needle tracks
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Stealing and borrowing money from friends and family to fuel the addiction
  • Furtive behaviour
  • Getting into legal problems
  • Doctor shopping
  • Dropping old interests, hobbies, and friends

Treatment For Drug Addiction

Drug abuse and addiction may prove to be devastating. However, there is a solution - treatment through detoxification and rehabilitation. After treatment, many substance abuse victims beat their addiction and proceed onto happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

However, treatment is often a life-long process and you may never completely recover unless you keep to the promise to quit your substance abuse. The best strategy, therefore, usually involves taking things a day at a time.

If you have been suffering as a result of your addiction, the first step would be to undergo professional medical detoxification. This will be followed by intensive rehabilitation and therapy at an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility. After that, you would be required to go for after-care therapy to ensure that you do not relapse back to drug abuse.

As always, you have higher chances of recovery when you seek treatment as soon as you suspect that you are addicted. Therefore, it would be in your best interest to get started on the road to recovery today.

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