Causes & Effects of Substance Abuse Addiction

Understanding Alcohol & Drug Addiction

Learn About Alcohol & Drug Addiction & Abuse

Substance abuse involves the intentional misuse of a wide variety of legal and illegal mind-altering substances, including, but not limited to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and prescription medications. The term substance abuse may be applied to one-time occurrences, such as drinking alcohol past the point of intoxication, but it is more typically employed to describe an ongoing behavior pattern. Individuals who engage in substance abuse place themselves in jeopardy of experiencing several immediate and long-term negative effects, including cognitive impairments, injury, health damage, addiction, and even death. Depending upon the type of substance that a person abuses, he or she can become addicted with stunning rapidity. For example, with certain drugs, it is not unheard of for addiction to develop after an individual’s initial use.

When a person becomes addicted to a substance, which is known clinically as developing a substance use disorder, the risks to his or her mental and physical health increase significantly. Substance use disorders are characterized by a loss of control over the amount and frequency of one’s substance abuse, and can also involve painful withdrawal symptoms if the individual attempts to stop.


Substance Abuse Statistics

According to data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, the prevalence of lifetime substance abuse in the United States may be as high as 90%, with alcohol, marijuana, and prescription medications being the three most commonly abused substances. NIDA also estimates that substance abuse costs the U.S. economy about $700 billion every year due to crime, lost productivity, and healthcare expenses. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, estimates that more than 20 million Americans are currently struggling with a substance use disorder; however, SAMHSA also reports that fewer than 2 out of 10 addicted individuals are likely to get professional help for their substance abuse problems.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

The likelihood that an individual will engage in substance abuse or develop a substance use disorder may be influenced by a variety of factors, including the following:

Genetic: Individuals who have a family history of substance abuse and addiction are at an increased risk for experiencing similar problems. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), impulsivity and novelty seeking are among the heritable traits that can increase an individual’s risk for substance abuse and chemical dependency. The APA also estimates that as much as 60% of the risk variance for developing certain substance use disorders may be due to genetic factors.

Environmental: Cultural attitudes about substance abuse can be strong environmental influences on a person’s risk for developing a substance abuse problem. Other environmental factors that can influence a person’s risk for substance abuse and substance use disorders include stress, poverty, trauma, and associating with peers who engage in substance abuse.

Risk Factors: 

  • Age (early exposure to substance abuse raises the risk of addiction later in life)
  • Gender (men are slightly more likely than women to become addicted)
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Prior substance abuse
  • History of child abuse
  • Trauma
  • Early aggressiveness
  • Easy access to substances of abuse
  • Impulsivity
  • Novelty seeking

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

The following are among the more common signs and symptoms that may indicate substance abuse or the presence of a substance use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Unexplained absences from school or work
  • Failing to meet personal, professional, and academic responsibilities
  • Devoting significant time to acquiring, using, and recovering from substances
  • Using substances even when it is clearly dangerous to do so, such as prior to operating a motor vehicle
  • Trying and failing to end one’s pattern of substance abuse
  • Secrecy regarding one’s whereabouts, actions, and associates
  • Possessing pipes, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia
  • Loss of interest in significant activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Slurring speech
  • Pupillary dilation
  • Profuse perspiration
  • Watery or bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in weight
  • Coordination problems
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Frequent headaches
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Sores, abscesses, and other skin problems
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems with focus or concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Memory problems
  • Racing thoughts
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Suicidal ideation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Dramatic swings in mood
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

Lasting Effects

Effects of Substance Abuse

Individuals who fail to receive effective professional help for a problem with substance abuse face a variety of negative effects and outcomes, including the following:

  • Damage to brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver
  • Physical injury due accidents while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
  • Vision damage
  • Exposure to hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, and other blood-borne diseases
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Increased risk for certain cancers
  • Substandard academic performance
  • Substandard occupational performance
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Family discord
  • Marital strife
  • Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Financial difficulties
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Social isolation
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation and attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Substance Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals who engage in substance abuse may also be at increased risk for the following co-occurring disorders:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of Drug & Alcohol Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of substance abuse withdrawal: Attempting to end one’s substance abuse after one has become addicted can trigger several painful and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Powerful cravings for the substance
  • Severe cramping
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Tics, twitches, and tremors
  • Seizure
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Powerful nightmares
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Profuse sweating
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Paranoia

Effects of substance abuse overdose: If a person ingests substances of abuse in an amount or potency that exceeds his or her body’s ability to process, he or she may be in grave danger. A person who exhibits the following signs may have overdosed, and should be brought to the immediate attention of a qualified healthcare provider:

  • Dilated or pinpoint pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Shallow or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Rapid or diminished heart rate
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish skin near lips and fingertips
  • Increase or drop in blood pressure
  • Significant change in body temperature
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizure
  • Coma

Fortunately, with professional treatment for substance abuse addiction, there is hope for those who are suffering.

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