What are the Physical Signs of Drug Abuse

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Any drug has the potential to cause significant physical changes to the body. Furthermore, abusing any substance for prolonged periods of time increases the risk and amplifies the symptoms. Drugs have the potential to interfere with various bodily systems (the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, liver, kidneys, etc.). In addition, drug abuse can have considerable negative repercussions with certain population types, and may bring behavioral changes as well. At Bright Futures Boynton Beach, we believe that the best way to stop addiction is to be informed about the physical signs of drug abuse. That is why this article is going to provide you with all the information you might need!

Physical changes that might occur as a result of drug abuse

Abusing drugs for any period of time can result in a variety of health issues. Some of the most debilitating issues include:

  • Cancer
  • Disease contraction
  • Cancer
  • Stroke

Of course, the exact nature of physical changes largely depends on the drug used. However, all drugs have the potential to bring permanent changes to the body after a long period of abuse. The main issue is that many commonly-abused drugs can be easily acquired through prescription. While prescription drugs may not be dangerous if you are following the doctor’s instructions, many people start abusing them after some time and end up in prescriptions drugs addiction treatment programs. Another issue is that people develop drug tolerance over time. This makes them take an ever-increasing drug amount that may lead to significant bodily changes and can even be fatal.

person holding two packets of prescription drugs
Prescription drugs are particularly dangerous, due to their availability.

Basically, drugs have the potential to interfere with most of the systems in our body, as well as influence certain organs. Here are some of the most important systems and organs that might be changed through drug abuse:

  • Respiratory system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Gastrointestinal system
  • Brain

Do note that your overall health has everything to do with the frequency and intensity of the changes. A healthier person might experience slower and less frequent changes while someone who already has a chronic condition will have an entirely different experience. Regardless of your physical health, however, it is never safe to abuse drugs.

With that in mind, let’s explore exactly how drugs may affect our bodily systems.

The effects of drug abuse on the respiratory system

Any drug that requires you to smoke (marijuana, tobacco, opium, meth, crack cocaine, etc.) will inevitably bring negative changes to your respiratory system. Some of the most notable conditions that you may develop through drug abuse include:

  • Emphysema
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic bronchitis

Furthermore, some drugs will also affect your central nervous system in a way that will cause respiratory depression. This can even be fatal in some cases. The prime example of a drug that does exactly this is methamphetamine, also known as simply “meth”. Meth has the potential to cause pneumonia, constrict your blood vessels, and even cause acute respiratory failure. This is why it is critical to undergo a meth rehab Florida program as soon as you realize that you are addicted to the substance. Otherwise, the drug can bring about permanent changes that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

person in a gas mask
Drugs, particularly meth, can wreak havoc on our respiratory system.

The greatest danger, however, comes from combining several drugs that can affect the respiratory system (alcohol, sedatives, benzodiazepines, etc.). Aside from producing the common physical signs of drug abuse, these drugs can cause a number of other issues as well, such as injury to the upper airway and even a collapsed lung.

If you abuse drugs that need to be injected, you will also be in danger of fatal asthma attacks, pulmonary edema, septic embolism, lung inflammation, and interstitial lung disease, to name a few.

The effects of drug abuse on the cardiovascular system

Practically every single drug has an effect on the cardiovascular system. Drug abuse in any shape or form can lead to heart attacks, vascular inflammation, collapsed veins, endocarditis, bacterial infections, myocardial infarction, strokes, etc.

The reason why drugs have such a profound effect on your cardiovascular system is the fact that they “mess” with your blood pressure, alter your heart rate, and create abnormal heart rhythms. That being said, some drugs are far more dangerous than others. Cocaine and amphetamines, for example, are known to be “the perfect heart attack drugs”. However, alcohol can create pretty much the same effect if abused for a long time. In fact, many people have practically been forced into alcohol rehab due to heart failure of some sort.

The issue with the changes in the cardiovascular system is that you simply cannot realize that they are happening. Once you start feeling the symptoms, the damage has already been done. Furthermore, people who abuse drugs tend to overlook the initial symptoms and simply go about their abusing ways without having the proper concern for their overall health. This is what, ultimately, leads to the worst outcomes.

The effects of drug abuse on the liver

As almost every person with an alcohol abuse issue already knows, consuming large quantities of alcohol is very detrimental to your liver. However, due to the fact that most drugs actually pass through the liver during the metabolization process, all of them have the potential to bring negative changes.

liver cancer spelled by wooden blocks
Liver cancer is one of the most dangerous physical signs of drug abuse.

While most people understand the danger of alcohol, many are completely unaware of what acetaminophen (found in many opiates) can do to the liver. A certain NIM study showed that abusing drugs that contain acetaminophen is highly likely to cause acute liver failure. Again, the issue with the physical changes to the liver is that they are invisible until serious symptoms start to show.

The effects of drug abuse on the kidneys

Every drug will, ultimately, pass through your kidneys at some point. As your kidneys are being tasked with processing the ever-increasing drug amounts, they start to change in a negative way. Furthermore, abusing drugs can also harm kidneys through dehydration, high body temperatures, and through rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown). Alcohol has a particular impact on the kidneys, as do cocaine and heroin. These drugs can create a wide array of dangerous conditions such as acute glomerulonephritis, interstitial nephritis, and nephrotic syndrome.

The physical signs of drug abuse usually manifest themselves through fatigue, severe edemas, and elevated urinary proteins. While most people will hurry to ask the question “does insurance cover alcohol rehab” once they experience edemas, many will not consider fatigue to be a cause for concern. This fact makes it extremely difficult to get the treatment you need before you experience kidney failure due to drug abuse.

The effects of drug abuse on the gastrointestinal system

Many drugs can induce acute and chronic vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and constipation. In fact, these side effects are very common among people who tend to abuse drugs. Some drugs, such as opioids, can create even more pronounced side effects such as acid reflux, while cocaine has been known to cause abdominal pain, bowel tissue decay, and mesenteric ischemia.

Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, can increase the risk of numerous negative gastrointestinal conditions such as esophagitis, duodenal ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, and esophageal varices. Furthermore, people who tend to both smoke and abuse alcohol are at an increased risk of esophageal cancer. Luckily, this risk goes down considerably if you stop smoking, drinking, or preferably both. 

The effects of drug abuse on the brain

Aside from being able to impact our bodily systems, drugs have a huge interaction with our brains. The most frightening prospect is that drug abuse has the potential to permanently change our brains in a negative way. For example, abusing marijuana in adolescence has a significant potential to cause neurophysiological decline that cannot be reversed later in life.

Marijuana usage may seem innocent but it can change our brains in a negative way.

Furthermore, abusing substances will change the way in which your brain responds to rewards. Over time, the brain will start to think that any other activity other than substance abuse will not feel adequately rewarding. This is extremely dangerous due to the fact that our body builds natural tolerance to drugs over time. To get the same level of “reward”, you will need to take an ever-increasing amount of drugs to feel the same pleasure as before. At one point, the drug dosage that is required to achieve this pleasure will inevitably be fatal. Some drugs, such as crack cocaine are especially dangerous in this regard. A person who does not seek crack cocaine rehab for their addiction can soon find themselves unable to lead a normal life. The longer the drug abuse continues, the more pronounced the changes get.

Specific physical signs of drug abuse

Now that you understand exactly how dangerous drugs are to our body and mind, it is time to look into the physical changes of drug abuse that you can spot. First and foremost, a person who develops a substance use disorder will usually start neglecting their hygiene. In addition, you will be able to recognize significant changes in appearance and behavior. Do note, however, that many of the physical signs of drug abuse can occur due to other factors, as well. There might be another explanation for bloodshot eyes, for example.

With this in mind, here are some of the most common physical signs of drug abuse:

  • Persistent itching
  • Sudden weight loss/gain
  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unusual body odor
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Enlarged pupils

Drug withdrawal symptoms are even more pronounced. They include:

  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Shakiness, jumpiness, and trembling
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Aside from the physical changes, a person with a substance use disorder will have their psychological state changed as well. Many people who suffer from addiction have a tendency to develop anxiety, lack of motivation, sudden mood swings, unexplained paranoia, changes in attitude and personality, etc. Furthermore, a person who suffers from a substance use disorder may become angrier or make significant, sudden, changes to their social network. Most people who fall victim to addiction slowly isolate themselves from their friends, family members, and other people. This is what makes spotting both the physical and mental signs of drug abuse so difficult.

person behind bars, representing one of the physical signs of drug abuse
Isolation is one of the most common physical signs of drug abuse.

Luckily, it is possible to recover from most physical and mental changes of drug abuse. Modern drug rehab Florida programs take all these changes into account and are able to provide dual-diagnosis treatment that can help with substance abuse and mental health issues at the same time.

Aside from these general physical signs of drug abuse, each drug may have its own, specific, signs. Let’s take a look at them.

Physical signs according to drug types

Before we go into the physical signs that are usually associated with a specific drug type, we would like to reiterate that almost all of the signs can occur due to something else. Before you accuse someone of drug abuse, you will want to make sure that the drugs are actually to blame. With that in mind, here is the list of the drugs with their associated signs:

  • Alcohol – Bad odor on the breath, glazed eye appearance, overly passive or argumentative behavior, a decline in hygiene and personal appearance, flushed skin.
  • Depressants – Limp appearance, slurred speech, symptoms akin to alcohol intoxication but without the odor, lack of facial expression, flat affect.
  • Hallucinogens – Warm skin, excessive perspiration, body odor, extremely dilated pupils, distorted sense of sight/hearing/touch.
  • Inhalants – Runny nose, poor muscle control, drowsiness, watering eyes, substance odor on clothes and breath. Presence of various paraphernalia (discarded whipped cream, spray paint, etc.).
  • Opioids – Poor motor skills, pupil constriction, scabs, sores, puncture wounds, large changes in personal appearance, nausea, digestive problems (diarrhea, vomiting).
  • Solvents – Impaired coordination, slowed breathing, pain in the chest/muscles, joints, fatigue, sores on mouth or nose, nosebleeds, diarrhea, slurred speech.
  • Cocaine, methamphetamine, and crack – Dry mouth and nose, frequent lip licking, extremely dilated pupils, runny nose, nosebleeds, sinus problems, paraphernalia (small spoons, razor blades, metal/glass straws, etc.).
  • Marijuana – Bursts of laughter, inflammation in whites of eyes, strange odor, brown residue on fingers, distorted sense of the passage of time, paraphernalia (roach clips, packs of rolling papers, pipes, bongs, etc.)
  • Prescription drugs – Drowsiness, constricted pupils that do not respond to light, redness in the nostrils, tracks or scars on inner arms or other body parts, lethargy.
prescription drugs
Different drugs have different risks.

Long-term physical effects of drug abuse in specific populations

There are three specific populations that may experience more significant physical effects of drug use than others – Pregnant women, adolescents, and older adults.

How drugs may affect pregnant women

For pregnant women, there are three notable dangers:

  1. Low birth weight: Drug abuse during pregnancy, such as using opioids, cocaine, or methamphetamine, can increase the risk of delivering a baby with low birth weight. Low birth weight is associated with a higher risk of developmental delays, respiratory distress syndrome, and other health issues in newborns.
  2. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS): If a pregnant woman abuses opioids during pregnancy, her baby may be born with NAS, which is a group of withdrawal symptoms that can occur in newborns. NAS can cause respiratory distress, feeding difficulties, and other health complications for the baby.
  3. Birth defects: Some drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco, and certain prescription medications, can increase the risk of birth defects in babies born to women who abused these substances during pregnancy. Examples of birth defects include heart defects, cleft lip or palate, and developmental delays.

The last effect can be especially devastating. This is why many pregnant women who have a prescription medication use disorder choose to undergo prescription drugs addiction treatment. In almost all cases, proper treatment can entirely negate all of the potential negative effects.

How drugs may affect adolescents

Adolescents who abuse drugs may suffer from the following long-term effects:

  • Impaired brain development: Drug abuse during adolescence, when the brain is still developing, can have long-term effects on brain structure and function. This can lead to impaired cognitive function, poor decision-making skills, and an increased risk of mental health disorders.
  • Stunted growth: Drug abuse during adolescence, particularly the use of anabolic steroids or growth hormones, can disrupt normal growth and development, leading to stunted growth and short stature.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Drug abuse, such as the use of anabolic steroids, can disrupt the balance of hormones in the body, leading to a variety of long-term health effects, including changes in reproductive function, sexual dysfunction, and mood swings.
adolescents lying on the floor
Drug use in adolescents is very common.

Furthermore, depending on the drug, adolescents may experience other negative consequences which may or may not be seen as physical signs of drug abuse. By using drugs that fuel violent behavior, for example, adolescents can get in trouble with law enforcement, potentially leading to various negative outcomes. Being branded as a criminal at a young age can potentially ruin someone’s entire life, after all.

How drugs may affect older adults

For older adults, the dangers are:

  • Increased risk of falls and fractures: Drug abuse, particularly the misuse of prescription medications, can increase the risk of falls and fractures in older adults. This is due to impaired coordination, balance, and cognitive function caused by drug abuse.
  • Cardiovascular complications: Drug abuse, such as the use of stimulants or opioids, can increase the risk of cardiovascular complications in older adults, including heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.
  • Liver and kidney damage: Long-term drug abuse, particularly with substances like alcohol or opioids, can cause liver and kidney damage in older adults, leading to chronic health conditions such as liver cirrhosis or kidney failure.

Adults are also not immune to mental health disorders caused by drug abuse. While they might have a smaller chance of developing mental health disorders than adolescents, abusing drugs is never safe for your mental health.

Behavioral changes that may occur as a result of drug abuse

Drug abuse, whether it involves illicit substances or misuse of prescription medications, can have significant behavioral changes in individuals. The specific behavioral changes resulting from drug abuse can vary depending on the type of drug, dosage, frequency of use, duration of abuse, and individual factors such as age, gender, and mental health status. Some common behavioral changes that may occur as a result of drug abuse include:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Changes in social relationships
  • Increased secrecy and dishonesty
  • Neglect of responsibilities
  • Changes in motivation and priorities
  • Mood swings and emotional instability
  • Financial problems
  • Legal problems
an angry person, representing one of the physical signs of drug abuse
One of the most common behavioral changes of drug abuse is increased aggressiveness.

Impaired judgment

Many drugs can impair an individual’s ability to make sound judgments and decisions. Due to the way that drugs affect the brain, this can lead to risky behaviors such as engaging in unsafe sex, driving under the influence, or taking other risks that they would normally avoid.

Changes in social relationships

Drug abuse can impact an individual’s social relationships, including strained relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. They may withdraw from social activities or isolate themselves from others, prioritizing drug use over their relationships.

Increased secrecy and dishonesty

People struggling with drug abuse may become secretive and dishonest about their drug use, often trying to hide their substance abuse from others. This may involve lying about their drug use, being evasive about their whereabouts, or engaging in deceptive behaviors to obtain drugs. In this case, the physical signs of drug abuse will mostly involve paraphernalia of some sort.

Neglect of responsibilities

Drug abuse can result in a decline in performance at work, school, or other responsibilities. An individual may neglect their responsibilities, miss deadlines, or experience a decline in their academic or professional performance.

Changes in motivation and priorities

Drug abuse can lead to changes in an individual’s motivation and priorities. They may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, neglect personal hygiene, and prioritize drug use above all else, including important obligations and responsibilities.

an unmotivated person
Drug use may make you unmotivated to do anything else.

Mood swings and emotional instability

Many drugs can alter an individual’s mood, leading to mood swings, emotional instability, and changes in personality. This can result in irritability, agitation, anger, or even violent behaviors.

Financial problems

Drug abuse can be expensive, and individuals may experience financial difficulties as a result of their drug use. They may struggle with money management, experience financial instability, and may engage in illegal activities, such as theft or fraud, to obtain money to support their drug habit.

Legal problems

Drug abuse can lead to legal problems, including arrests, fines, and legal consequences associated with drug possession, distribution, or impaired driving. Legal issues can have long-term consequences and impact an individual’s personal and professional life.

The importance of seeking help and treatment for drug abuse

As you can clearly see, drug abuse can be extremely dangerous. Therefore, it is also extremely important that you are able to stop abusing drugs as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this can oftentimes be all but impossible on your own. Luckily, there are treatment options readily available. Depending on your preferences and situation, you can choose to undergo either inpatient, outpatient, or partial hospitalization treatment in a treatment center. During the course of your treatment, you will have access to numerous therapy options such as counseling, support groups, and medication-assisted treatment.

Realizing the physical signs of drug abuse is the first step toward seeking treatment. If you find that you or your loved one start exhibiting any of the physical signs, the best course of action is to get in touch with your local treatment center.

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