We know substance abuse is harmful to the human body, but what exactly is the extent of the damage done? It’s important to remember that drugs are chemicals. Because different drugs have different chemical structures, they affect the body in different ways.

Most damage can be undone through medically supervised detox and treatment, but in some cases, the damage is permanent.

The consequences of addiction can include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Lung disease
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Mental disorders
  • Stroke, seizures, organ damage
  • Cancer, changes in appetite or heart irregularities
  • HIV / AIDS

How Drugs Affect the Body and Brain

Different drugs affect the body in different ways. The brain and body have a normal way of functioning on a day-to-day basis. There are very specific patterns that regulate how the brain and central nervous system work together for healthy living. Any type of chemical suddenly introduced to the body disrupts the chemical messengers in the brain, sending different signals to the body. This is why individuals see, think and act differently than they normally behave when they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Physical effects of drug addiction vary by the class of drug in the body. Here’s an overview of the effects of addiction based on the different types of drugs.


Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that produce hallucinations. These include LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, acid, trips and tabs. The short-term physical effects of hallucinogens on the body include:

  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Distorted sense of space and body
  • Tension and anxiety leading to panic attacks
  • Dizziness, drowsiness or nausea


Over time, use of hallucinogens use can result in psychological dependence, increased tolerance and impaired memory and concentration. One of the most dangerous effects is flashbacks – unpredictable recurrence of prior drug experience even without taking the drug. Flashbacks happen spontaneously days, weeks or years after the drug was taken.


Opiates are unfortunately a commonly abused substance due to its prevalence in prescription pain medications. However, both prescription drugs and recreational drugs can contain opiates, which are narcotics that dramatically affect the function of the brain and body. The pain relief and feelings of euphoria are what make opiates so popular and addictive. It doesn’t take long for the brain to become dependent. Opium changes the way nerves communicate in the brain. Prolonged use can result in serious dependency where the abuser is compelled to take opium for the brain to be able to function.

Opiates include:

  • Oxycodone
  • Heroin
  • Codeine
  • Morphine


Aside from changes in brain function, opiates also affect the nerve cells that operate the limbic system and the spinal cord. Because opiates provide pain relief and boost endorphins, withdrawal can be painful. It’s important to seek medically supervised detox from opiate substance abuse or addiction.


Barbiturates are depressants that have a dramatic effect on one’s central nervous system. Though typically prescribed by physicians, barbiturates are physically and psychologically addictive and produce a wide spectrum of effects. They cause individuals to become sedated, disoriented and sluggish. The pupil’s of the user’s eyes will dilate and they will experience problems with coordination.

Over time, barbiturates cause sleeping disorders, menstrual irregularities, respiratory problems and a lack of sex drive. Similar to opiates, barbiturates can cause irreversible damage to the brain after long-term use. Tolerance and dependency can be developed very quickly; in many cases, it’s possible to become addicted to barbiturates in less than one week. Because abusers develop powerful psychological dependence, extensive psychological therapy is necessary for lasting addiction recovery from barbiturates.


Inhalants are a class of everyday items that individuals inhale for the sole purpose of getting high. This can include gasoline, hairspray, paint and other volatile vapors. Inhalants deprive the body of oxygen, which forces the heart to work harder and even beat irregularly. Similar to oxygen, the substance inhaled is absorbed into the body’s blood, brain, fatty tissues and nervous system. Unlike oxygen, however, the body cannot easily rid itself of inhalants. As foreign chemicals build up, the nervous system is poisoned and will begin to malfunction. This can result in damage to the heart, kidneys, brain, liver, bone marrow and other critical organs. It’s not uncommon for users to experience nausea, nosebleeds and loss of smell.

Not all inhalants are household items or street drugs. Even prescribed medicines such as asthma pumps can be addictive. Regardless of which gas is inhaled, the body can react violently or even shut down as chemicals distort the brain’s communication with the rest of the body.


Having too much to drink – whether it’s binge drinking or over a prolonged period of time – can take a serious toll on your body. Becuase the body absorbs alcohol into the bloodstream, every part of your body is put at serious risk. Though men and women metabolize alcohol differently, the effects are the same.

Alcoholism has been shown to damage the following internal organs:

  • Brain, interfering with the brain’s natural communication pathways.
  • Heart, contributing to high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy and stroke.
  • Liver, poisoning the organ and leading to inflammation.
  • Pancreas, causing the pancreas to produce toxic chemicals that prevent digestion.
  • The immune system, making your body an easier target for disease.

Alcoholism has also been known to cause mouth, throat, breast or liver cancer.

Aside from the long-term risks of drinking alcohol, there are immediate risks as well. Binge drinking, for example, can result in alcohol poisoning that shuts down the body. This is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. The physical, emotional and psychological effects of alcohol can destroy relationships at home and at work.


Cannabinoids such as marijuana have acute effects including euphoria, slowed reaction time, distorted sensory perception, increased heart rate, panic attacks and psychosis. Cannabinoids function like a “dimmer switch,” controlling what happens when cells send, receive and process messages. Because cannabinoid receptors are spread throughout the body, the effects of THC overwhelm the system, interfering with the ability of natural cannabinoids to do their job of helping communication between neurons. This sort of disruption can throw the body’s entire communication system off balance.


Stimulants include street drugs such as cocaine and crack and prescription medications such as dextroamphetamine (Adderall and Dexedrine) as well as methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta). Though stimulant prescriptions are meant to help the user improve concentration and focus, it’s not uncommon for these drugs to be misused and abused. The nonmedical use of cognitive enhancers is increasingly common in some academic professionals, athletes, performers, and high school and college students. Because stimulants increase blood pressure and heart rate, they create potential health risks including cardiovascular events, addiction, and psychosis.

Club Drugs

These drugs got their name due to their prevalence among young adults who abuse them at dance parties, clubs and bars. Club drugs are particularly dangerous due to the mysteriousness of the ingredients they are made from. Several synthetic substances are fraudulently sold as Ecstasy or other drugs making their use a virtual game of roulette. Club drugs can make a person overheat, sending internal temperatures soaring up to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Such a high temperature can result in organ failure, seizures, fainting and even death.

The following drugs are generally classed as club drugs:

  • Ecstasy
  • LSD
  • Methamphetamine
  • Rohypnol
  • GHB
  • PMA / PMMA


After using club drugs, an individual might feel depressed in the middle of the week. The user might begin taking club drugs daily just to try to lift the depression, even if there isn’t a party to attend.


Talk with any smoker, and he or she will tell you that nicotine is an incredibly addictive drug. Nicotine is so addictive that only 7% of smokers who try to quit in any given year are able to do so. Despite awareness campaigns and widespread medical research showcasing the dangers of smoking, nicotine is among the most heavily used addictive drugs.

Approximately 90 percent of lung cancers can be attributed to smoking. An additional 38,000 deaths per year are attributed to the consequences of secondhand smoke. Nicotine doubles as both a stimulant and a sedative. The chemical reaction of adrenal glands and blood pressure to nicotine is similar to the body’s reaction to cocaine and heroine. The brain releases dopamine to the motivation and reward centers in the brain, which is thought to underlie the pleasurable sensations smokers experience.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription stimulants have the same types of effect on the body as speed, including loss of appetite, insomnia and increased heart rate. When prescription drugs are taken other than as prescribed, the long-term consequences can include:

  • Permanent damage to blood vessels of the heart and brain
  • Liver, kidney and lung damage
  • Malnutrition and unwanted weight loss
  • Strong psychological dependence; psychosis
  • Damage to the brain, resulting in strokes or possibly epilepsy


Anyone abusing pain relievers, tranquilizers, sedatives or stimulants will need medically supervised detox to safely come off these drugs and achieve lasting sobriety. It’s important that detoxification is completed before rehabilitation.

Dissociative Drugs

Laboratory studies show that dissociative drugs disrupt the actions of the brain chemical glutamate. This results in distorted cognition, emotion and perception of pain. When glutamate is disrupted on nerve cells throughout the brain, the user experiences visual and auditory distortions as well as a sense of floating and dissociation. Use of dissociative drugs can result in numbness, impaired motor function, anxiety and body tremors.

As tolerance to the drug increases, it’s common for users to become addicted. When attempting to stop using dissociative drugs, individuals may experience severe withdrawal symptoms such as persistent speech difficulties, memory loss, and suicidal thoughts. These symptoms can last up to a year or more after chronic abuse stops.

Get Drug Addiction Treatment Today

If you or someone you love is addicted to any of these substances, it’s critical to get professional help as soon as possible. At JourneyPure, we utilize cutting-edge technologies and the latest research to create a tailored treatment program that addresses your specific needs. Our counselors and therapists are here to help you understand and address the root of your addiction, setting you up for long-term success that minimizes the chance of relapse.