Researchers estimate that more than 10% of Americans are impacted by substance misuse.1 Alcohol or drug addiction can lead to many physical and mental health conditions and result in potential dangers of addiction.
Table of Contents
Physical Dangers of Addiction
Addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), is a medical condition that develops over time due to chronic use of substances. Addictive substances include legal substances like alcohol, prescription medications like opioid painkillers, and illegal substances like cocaine. Using substances triggers intense brain activation, producing unnaturally high levels of certain chemicals, like dopamine or endorphins. Depending on the substance, you may experience relaxation and sedation, pleasant or euphoric feelings, pain reduction, alertness, and attentiveness, or other effects when using substances.
Over time, your brain chemistry adjusts to this ultra-high level of activation that is not typically achieved through regular activities. Your body also starts to build a tolerance, meaning there is a need to use more of the substance or use it more frequently to experience the same effects. Having a tolerance can contribute to the development of a SUD.2
Although substance use can begin early in life, the highest rates of SUD are observed during adulthood.4 Then, as a person reaches older adulthood, the observed prevalence of substance use goes down; but many dangers of addiction increase as a person ages.4
All ages of people who misuse substances—even if those individuals do not meet the clinical criteria for addiction—are considered at risk of accidental injuries, such as overdose. This population also has a higher reported rate of suicidality.4 But, those in older adulthood have the highest risk of health complications (e.g., heart disease and cancer) linked with substance misuse.4
Substance use disorders can have a significant impact on your health. Heavy alcohol and drug use may contribute to progressive physical conditions, such as:4
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Lung damage
- Organ disease or failure
Addiction can adversely impact the prefrontal cortex of the brain.4 This region of the brain helps with decision-making and impulse control. Long-term drug and alcohol misuse can damage the prefrontal cortex, impair judgment, and make it more difficult to make safe choices.2
The physical health risks of a particular SUD depend primarily on how the substance is processed in the body. For example, many individuals know that chronic alcohol use can lead to liver damage. This damage is due to the overburdening of the liver when it processes high alcohol levels consistently over a long period.
Substance use can be detrimental to your reproductive health and is extremely risky during pregnancy. Many types of substance use have been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage or stillbirth. When pregnancy goes to term, the fetus can exhibit specific health problems or congenital conditions caused by substance use.
A common condition caused by alcohol use during pregnancy is fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a newborn’s symptoms of FASD may include: 2,19
- Growth problems
- Facial feature anomalies
- Memory and attention span issues
- Communication problems
- Vision or hearing problem
If you’re using drugs or alcohol and may become pregnant, are trying to become pregnant, think you may be pregnant, or have a confirmed pregnancy, seek medical and addiction recovery treatment. Addiction treatment can improve your health and protect your unborn child.
Accidents and injuries can occur when a person is under the influence of substances and during periods of withdrawal. Injuries commonly associated with substance misuse include:2
- Slips and falls
- Cuts, bruises, or burns may be sustained during normal daily activities such as cooking
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Injuries resulting from withdrawal symptoms (e.g., seizures, confusion, or muscle weakness)
Some accidents, such as motor vehicle accidents, can be life-threatening to yourself and others.
An increased occurrence of certain infectious diseases is linked with substance use disorder. Several underlying factors may increase a person’s risk of infection secondary to the misuse of drugs or alcohol, including: 6,7
- Lack of access to a nutritious diet with a variety of foods
- An inability to perform daily hygiene tasks
- Lack of safe and stable housing
- Poor immune system function
Substance use can be associated with a progressive weakening of the immune system, making a person more susceptible to infection. 7 If an individual also experiences housing instability, food insecurity, or homelessness, they may have limited access to running water and bathing facilities, increasing their exposure and vulnerability to viral, bacterial, and fungal infection. 6
Individuals who use intravenous—or injection—drugs are at high risk of exposure to bloodborne illness. This exposure can occur due to contaminated needles or exposure to another person’s blood. Intravenous drug use increases the risk of: 4
- Bacterial infections (e.g., skin or blood infections)
Sterile needle use reduces the risk of bloodborne diseases and pathogens. Some nonprofit, addiction treatment and charity organizations provide clean needle exchanges to minimize the risk of bloodborne illness for individuals who are not yet abstinent from intravenous drug use.
Psychological Dangers of Addiction
Many people who misuse substances experience mental health symptoms. Substance use can alter a person’s brain chemistry which could worsen or cause mental health symptoms, such as:5
Not only can drug addiction cause mental health conditions, mood disorders and conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can increase the likelihood that a person may develop an addiction.
Substance-Specific Dangers of Addiction
Certain substances have specific dangers associated with their misuse, specifically alcohol and drug misuse manifest differently.
Dangers of Alcohol Addiction
Some complications of alcohol addiction are shared with those of other substances. But other dangers are linked explicitly with alcohol misuse. For example, researchers have found that excessive chronic alcohol use may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia.4 A neurogenerative disease is a disorder of the nervous system that worsens over time. Dementia is a term used for memory loss, problem-solving, and other thinking skills resulting from various causes.
Other dangers of alcohol addiction are associated with no longer using alcohol after an extended period of use. Alcohol withdrawal can cause dangerous symptoms—known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). AWS can occur when someone with alcohol addiction suddenly stops drinking. The severity of AWS depends on how long a person has been drinking and the amount of alcohol intake. Symptoms of AWS may include delirium tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening. Common symptoms of DTs include:18
- High blood pressure
- High heart rate
- Physical trauma from seizures
- Metabolic problems (e.g., low electrolyte levels, which could cause heart problems)
- Breathing problems
Dangers of Drug Addiction
Substance use strains the organs, including the heart and liver. Without treatment, drug misuse could result in life-threatening organ damage.7
Smoking, snorting, or injecting drugs may result in additional risks. Inhaling substances can cause lung damage or pneumonia. Drug misuse poses a significant risk for oral, esophageal—or the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach—and lung cancer.4 Snorting drugs may damage sensitive nose and throat tissues. People who snort drugs may develop chronic sinus infections or lose their sense of smell.5
Injecting drugs is considered to have the most associated risks. In addition to the risk of bloodborne illness, intravenous drug use can result in venous conditions, such as collapse.
Other Potential Risks Associated With Addiction
Substance use disorders are characterized by symptoms that can affect multiple areas of a person’s life. For example, one of the clinical criteria of a SUD is spending large amounts of time obtaining the substance, using the substance, and recovering from using it. These types of symptoms can pose a risk to your life circumstances or lifestyle, such as in the following examples:
- Becoming unable to fulfill personal responsibilities or experiencing behavioral changes can lead to estrangement from family, linked to overall poorer mental health.
- Finding it challenging to meet job expectations due to SUD symptoms may lead to joblessness, leading to housing insecurity, homelessness, food insecurity, or limited access to healthcare. These circumstances may make it more challenging to care for one’s wellbeing through medical, nutritional, and personal care.
- Becoming progressively more reliant on substances may lead to increasing high-risk behavior that could potentially put your physical, emotional, and mental safety in danger.
Many individuals need external help to become and stay sober. Call 800-926-9037 (Who Answers?) to speak to an addiction treatment specialist about resources available to help you start your recovery journey and mitigate any dangers posed by your addiction.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States:
Results from the 2018 national survey on drug use and health.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 13). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017, January 12). Tolerance, Dependence, Addiction: What’s the Difference?
- Schulte, M. T., & Hser, Y.-I. (2013, December 13). Substance use and associated health conditions throughout the lifespan. Public Health Reviews, 35(2).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, July 09). Cocaine Research Report.
- Veterans Affairs. (2019, April 29). Drugs and Alcohol: Effects on your Immune System.
- World Health Organization. (2009). Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings. WHO Western Pacific Regional Publications: Manilla, Philippines.
- Hammond, C. J., Niciu, M. J., Drew, S., & Arias, A. J. (2015, April 17). Anticonvulsants for the Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome and Alcohol Use Disorders. CNS Drugs, 29(4), 293–311.
- The United States Department of Justice. (2020, May, 21). Frequently Used Federal Drug Statutes.
- The Whitehouse President Barack Obama. (2011). Alternatives to Incarceration. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
- The White House. President Barack Obama. (2014). What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs 2000-2010.
- Henkel, D. (2011). Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010). Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 4(1), 4–27.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2004). Characteristics of Drug-Dependent People.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 02). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Reasons for divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: implications for improving relationship education. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(2), 131–145.
- Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Protective Services Investigation Process.
- S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, January 10). Alcohol Withdrawal. MedLine Plus.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 21). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).