Drug abuse and addiction: Effects on the brain, signs and risk

Claire Small
Authored by Claire Small
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2021 - 10:49pm

Drug abuse and addiction have significant effects on your brain, body, and those who surround you. Addiction is life-changing with far-reaching consequences that the addict may not have considered.

Understanding the effects that they have, the signs of addiction, and the risks of abusing illicit drugs could help you save yourself or a loved one from falling deep into the cycle that is addiction. 

If someone in your care or someone close to you is using or abusing illicit drugs, the best thing that you can do to help them to learn more about the disorder and any signs, effects, and risks they may have. Educating yourself about it will help you find the best way to approach the person and help them seek help. 

Here are some things you need to know about drug abuse and addiction and how to recognize it in a loved one. 

Drug Abuse v Addiction

Drug abuse is when illegal substances and legal substances are used in ways that they shouldn’t be. The abuse could be over-using a prescription or seeking out illicit substances for the desired feeling. Drugs can be used to feel good, reduce stress, and avoid reality altogether. 

The difference between drug abuse and addiction is that you can choose when to stop and not rely heavily on a specific substance to function in everyday life. Drug addiction is considered a severe risk when abusing drugs. When a user takes it a step too far or starts using it on a more regular basis, they risk becoming addicted and, as a result, unable to stop whenever they feel like it. 

Drug addiction is a wasteful disease that affects the brain and how you behave. When you become addicted to drugs, the urge to use them is irresistible. No matter the amount of harm they cause to your body, you still feel the need to use them to function. The earlier addiction is recognized, the more likely you will avoid some of the serious risks associated with the disorder. 

Drug addiction can cover several substances. The disorder is not limited to heroin, cocaine, or other illegal substances. You can get addicted to more familiar substances such as nicotine, alcohol, anti-anxiety medications, and sleeping pills. Prescription pills are also commonly abused, along with pain medications and opioids. 

At first, drug addiction starts off as drug abuse. You have a choice when taking a drug, and you can control how much and how often you take the drug. Over time, these drugs start to alter the way your brain works and develop physical changes. These changes can last a lifetime and cause both mental and physical damage that affects the way you behave. 

Effect On the Brain

Brains are wired to recognize moments that make you feel good and urge you to repeat them. This motivation can push you to unknowingly continue to abuse drugs to the point where you become addicted. 

Drugs that are commonly addicted to have qualities that target the brain’s reward system and flood it with the chemical known as dopamine. Dopamine can trigger feelings of immense pleasure. This feeling is highly desirable and is what drives most to continue using the drugs. 

Over time, your brain adjusts to the dopamine levels, and you’ll start to be less affected by the high. Users will find that they need to take more of the drug to achieve the desired euphoric feeling. This altered state of thinking affects how you feel about spending time with loved ones, eating foods you may have once enjoyed, and participating in activities. 

Your brain begins to recognize that these things you once loved are not as pleasurable as the feeling you get from using drugs, and you begin to favor the drugs over everything else. 

Using drugs for a long time can cause debilitating effects on the brain that affect the chemical systems and the circuits required for your body to function normally. 

Some of these include: 

  • Questionable judgment
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Poor memory 
  • Struggling to learn or understand 

Signs of Addiction

If you spot the following symptoms in yourself or others, you could be dealing with a case of addiction. Here are a few of the warning signs to look out for; 

  • An irresistible urge to use a drug every day or multiple times a day.
  • The inability to stop taking the drugs or control the number of drugs being taken each time.
  • Always having the drug and buying it even when the addict can’t afford it. 
  • Using drugs despite knowing that they cause harm to loved ones and colleagues.
  • Slowly becoming isolated.
  • Not caring for appearances, hygiene, or wellbeing
  • Taking part in reckless things such as stealing, lying, or driving while high.
  • Spending the majority of the day attempting to purchase or using drugs or recovering from effects caused by it. 
  • Unable to quit due to feeling unwell.

Risks of Drug Abuse and Addiction. 

The misuse of illicit drugs, as well as prescription drugs, opioids, and other harmful substances, can lead to varying health risks that affect both your mental and physical wellbeing. 

If addiction is caught and treated early enough, these risks become more severe and can cause permanent damage to the person. The long-term dangers associated with drug abuse and addiction include; 

  • Addiction (in cases of drug abuse)
  • Mental health-related issues including depression and severe anxiety.
  • Liver or kidney failure
  • Unpredictable behavior resulting in harm to oneself or loved ones. 
  • Damaged relationships with family and affected social life
  • Nausea, confusion, hallucinations, and paranoia
  • Loss of appetite or malnutrition
  • Cardiovascular issues including heart attacks, increased blood pressure, heart rate, and constricted blood vessels. 

There is no need to suffer; contact a registered healthcare professional or speak to your doctor. The path to recovery will be a difficult one, but nothing worth having is ever easy. 

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