If the obvious stresses and traumas of addiction haven’t convinced you to get treatment, consider what other harm you may be doing to your health.
Carrie Fisher, who made the character of Princess Leia famous in Star Wars movies, was equally spirited and outspoken in real life as an advocate for people struggling with mental illness. Sadly, her career and life were cut short by heart failure at age 60—largely the result of having used cocaine to “self-medicate” the pain of bipolar disorder.
Fisher is only one of many famous and not-so-famous people whose physical health has suffered serious consequences from the long-term effects of substance abuse. Even using for a relatively short time may do harm. This article looks at how untreated drug or alcohol addiction affects other health issues, and what can be done about it.
Cocaine, which speeds up heart rate and over-dilates blood vessels, destroys the usefulness of many hearts younger than Carrie Fisher’s. Using the drug as infrequently as once a month can increase risk of high blood pressure, hardened arteries, irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest and total heart failure. Some researchers have dubbed cocaine “the perfect heart attack drug.” But it isn’t alone:
- Amphetamines put dangerous stress on the heart by raising pulse rate and blood pressure.
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is associated with increased risk of hypertension, heart muscle disease, irregular heartbeat and cardiac arrest.
- An overdose of heroin can slow heartbeat dangerously or stop the heart completely. Heroin can also cause the heart to become inflamed or to lose its ability to pump blood effectively.
Plus, most drug and alcohol addictions are associated with high stress, poor diet and inactivity—none of which do the heart any good.
As the body’s chief breaker-down of toxins, the liver bears much of the stress when unhealthy chemicals enter the body. Repeated intake of addictive drugs may overload the liver’s capacities, resulting in dangerous inflammation or scarring.
The most famous addiction-related liver problem is the cirrhosis traditionally associated with alcoholism, though other drugs have been implicated, including heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants and steroids. The symptoms of cirrhosis are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained loss of weight
- Chronic nausea
- Bloating in legs and abdomen
- Bleeding or bruising easily
- “Drunken” behavior even when no alcohol has been consumed recently
Unfortunately, by the time these symptoms appear, severe damage usually has already been done—the liver’s natural resilience becomes a liability by forcing the organ to keep compensating for unending abuse until something major breaks. Even with prompt medical treatment, usually the best that can be expected is the prevention of further damage.
The kidneys have the job of filtering waste substances from the blood, and, like the liver, they take a lot of cruel and unusual punishment when the body is repeatedly flooded with harmful drugs. Addictive drugs likely to cause kidney failure include amphetamines and opiates.
As with the liver, symptoms of kidney damage may not be obvious until significant harm is done, perhaps not until treatment options are reduced to dialysis or transplant. If caught early, however, kidney disease is often manageable. Common symptoms include:
- Chronic nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in urination patterns
- Sleep difficulties or chronic fatigue
- Muscle cramps
- Persistent itching
- Swelling in the ankles
- An unexplained rise in blood pressure
- Persistent chest pain or shortness of breath
Speaking of breath, just about anything that’s smoked—marijuana, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and of course “ordinary” tobacco—is seriously bad for your lungs. Inhaled smoke leaves deposits (somewhat akin to fireplace ash, but considerably less easy to sweep out) that interfere with the lungs’ ability to clean out other toxins. Smoking also interferes with breathing indirectly by causing carbon monoxide to build up in the blood, which reduces overall oxygen levels. Long-term related risks—lung cancer, asthma, cancers of the tongue and throat—are all too well known.
The classic TV spot showing an egg frying while an offstage voice intones “This is your brain on drugs” may seem clichéd, but what drug addiction can do to the brain is no joke. Long-term use of amphetamines may lead to paranoia, hallucinating, violent mood swings or chronic disorientation. Cocaine is the generating force behind many panic attacks and psychoses. Heroin addiction frequently becomes a path to permanent impairment of memory and to the loss of ability to process information, make decisions or control emotions. Heavy alcohol consumption can literally shrink the brain and cause lasting loss of muscle control and learning abilities.
Other Physical Effects of Drug Abuse
And if all that isn’t enough, there are still more physical problems associated with regular drug use:
- Tooth loss from habitual “grinding” and/or neglect of dental hygiene
- Open sores on skin, often from scratching chronic itches
- Frequent nosebleeds or stuffy nose
- Dry throat or difficulty swallowing
- Scarring of blood veins from frequent drug injections
So if you’ve been rationalizing that you can “handle” using any drug apart from professional medical direction—and even if there haven’t yet been any problems in your everyday functioning—please reconsider for the sake of your overall health.
IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE AN ADDICTION DISORDER
Besides getting professional treatment for the drug or alcohol addiction itself, have an MD give you a thorough physical exam, including blood and eye tests, to catch any damage that’s already been done. Follow the doctor’s recommendations for treatment of any problems detected.
The good news is, not all damage is irreversible, and no damage need mean your whole life is ruined. By committing to long-term sobriety and maintaining a healthy lifestyle from now on, you can minimize the harmful effects of any health issues resulting from addiction.
Some good hints:
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of whole grains and proteins. If you’ve lost an unhealthy amount of weight due to addiction, consult a nutritionist about planning a diet rich in healthy high-calorie foods. Loading up on “empty” calories to gain weight will only lead to more health issues.
- Start an aerobic exercise program (under a doctor’s guidance—putting fresh strain on an already taxed body may do worse damage). By releasing endorphins and improving oxygen flow, aerobic exercise can help your brain regain what’s been lost through drug use.
- Get adequate sleep. If you struggle here, check that your bedroom is dark and the temperature is around 60–70 degrees Fahrenheit. In the evenings, avoid high activity (physical or mental), caffeine, overeating and screen time. If your addiction was partly due to relying on alcohol or medications to fall asleep, consult a sleep specialist to remove that potential relapse trigger.
- Stay relaxed, stay confident and stay in touch with your support network! A positive attitude often proves the best medicine for restoring long-term health.
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