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Substance Abuse is one of the leading health issues in the United States, impacting millions of lives. Statistics suggest that around 60.2% or 165 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 years abuse drugs, including tobacco and alcohol. The prevalence of overdose-related deaths is also at an all-time high, with an annual increment rate of 4%.
The growing problem of drug addiction is triggering health issues and burdening the country’s economy. The cost associated with drug abuse is known to be comparable to the ones linked with chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes. These alarming statistics make it necessary to understand more about what drug addiction is, its types, and how to keep it under control.
Drug Addiction: An Outline
The American Psychiatric Association defines drug addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) as a condition that forces an individual to use a drug uncontrollably to the point of a detrimental outcome. People with this issue often undergo changes in the structure and function of their brains, which lead to cravings, behavioral changes, personality issues, and more.
The human brain is made up of a network and circuitry of neurons. When a neuron gets a signal from its partner neuron, it fires up and passes it on to other neurons within the circuit. In this way, neurons collaborate to carry out specific functions. When drugs enter this system, they disrupt these neurons and the transmission of their signals. Because of their peculiar chemical composition, some drugs like heroin and marijuana attach themselves to specific neurotransmitter receptors in the brain to send abnormal messages through the brain’s neuronal circuit.
These drugs also impact the basal ganglia, an essential part of the brain that controls a person’s executive functions, emotions, habits, and routines. As this part of the system gets affected due to overstimulation by drugs, the brain experiences euphoria. This euphoria creates the brain’s temptation to use more drugs. Over time, the circuit creating euphoria as a response to the drug’s effect becomes less sensitive and requires the drug in higher amounts to produce the same high. This is how a person develops drug addiction.
Types of Addictive Drugs
As soon as a drug enters the system, a dopamine neurotransmitter switches on and lights up the brain circuitry to produce euphoria. The intensity of this euphoria and the associated effects secondary to drug use may vary depending on the type of drug an individual uses.
Mentioned below are some types of drug addiction along with their symptoms to look out for:
Using alcohol disrupts several areas in the brain that control speech, memory, judgment, and balance. Long-term drinks even experience changes in their neurons, such as size reduction. Other side effects of abusing alcohol include blackouts and memory gaps. Despite the clear indication of significant impairments due to alcohol use, this type of drug addiction may lead to an overdose. An overdose of alcohol may present in the form of the following symptoms:
Difficulty remaining conscious
Extremely low body temperature
Slow heart rate
Absent gag reflex
Permanent brain damage
Heroin is a processed form of morphine that comes from poppy plants’ seed pods. People commonly smoke or inject it to feel the characteristic “rush” as the drug binds with the mu-opioid receptors in the brain to activate dopamine levels. Some other effects of using heroin include:
- Flushing of the skin
- Heaviness in the extremities
- Drowsiness that may persist for several hours
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Clouding of mental function
- Slowed heart function and breathing
Sourced from coca leaves in South America, cocaine is a popular illicit that users inhale, smoke, or inject in a vein. As soon as the drug absorbs into the bloodstream, it stimulates the reward pathway in the brain, which floods the entire central nervous system with dopamine. As a result, users feel a high or euphoria within minutes of using this drug.
Long-term use of cocaine is likely to alter the way the brain responds to stress permanently. In the short term, the use of this drug may lead to the following side effects:
- Constricted blood vessels
- Dilated pupils
- Increased body temperature
- Dilated pupils
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
- Restlessness and irritability
- Tremors and muscle twitches
- Bizarre, erratic, aggressive behavior
- Anxiety, panic, and paranoia
Cocaine may also exert the following long-term physiological effects on the users:
- Loss of smell
- Swallowing problems
- Damage to different organs
- Irritation of the nasal septum, causing a chronically inflamed, runny nose
Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is a very addictive stimulant drug that directly affects the central nervous system. Most users ingest it orally in a pill form, while others may snort, smoke, or inject its powder by mixing it with alcohol or water. The moment meth reaches the bloodstream, it spikes the dopamine levels in the brain while reinforcing the need to use more of it in the future.
Mentioned below are the short- and long-term effects of using methamphetamine:
- Decreased appetite
- Dental problems, collectively known as meth mouth
- Increased wakefulness and physical activity
- Faster breathing rate
- Intense itching, leading to skin sores
- Memory loss
- Increased blood pressure and body temperature
- Rapid, irregular heartbeat
- Extreme weight loss
- Sleeping problems
- Changes in brain structure and function
- Violent behavior
Smoking is not commonly considered a type of drug addiction, even though most smokers are addicted to nicotine. Like other drugs, nicotine can release dopamine in the brain to reinforce this behavior and trigger addiction. Smoking has been known to increase the risk of different types of cancer, such as cancers of the larynx, pharynx, mouth, lungs, pancreas, stomach, esophagus, kidney, bladder, and cervix. It may also increase the risk of blood cancer and contribute to respiratory illnesses such as emphysema, bronchiolitis, asthma, and COPD. Lastly, smoking is also detrimental to heart health.
Prescription painkillers work like heroin to trigger euphoric feelings in the brain. Opioids are among the most common painkillers that individuals abuse to cope with pain and other life stressors. The biggest side effect associated with painkiller addiction is a high risk of an overdose which may cause respiratory depression and even death.
Some examples of opioids include Hydrocodone, Fentanyl, Codeine, Morphine, and Oxymorphone. Taking too many opioids can lead to problems like nausea, respiratory depression, constipation, confusion, and drowsiness.
Mood Regulation Drugs
Mood-regulating drugs refer to psychiatric medications that treat issues like depression, hypomania, mania, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder. Three main types of these drugs include antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, and lithium. The side effects of their addiction depend on the type of drug a person is using. Regular monitoring is essential for such people to keep an eye on the potential stress these drugs may cause.
Sedatives are central nervous system depressants and include tranquilizers and hypnotics that slow down the activity in the brain. These medications are usually available for treating anxiety and sleep disorders and may include:
- Benzodiazepines to treat short-term sleep disorders
- Barbiturates to treat sleep disorders
- Non-benzodiazepines as sleep aid
The Common Signs of Drugs Addiction
The adverse signs of drug addiction are usually visible in behavior and physical health. If you suspect that someone around you is abusing drugs, keep an eye out for the following psychological and behavioral signs:
- Damaged or broken relationships
- Minimal social life
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Secretive or defensive behavior
- Unusual mood changes
- Using drugs to the point of intoxication
- Regularly missing school or work
- Stealing money from family or friends
Drug addiction can also lead to certain physical symptoms, such as:
- Rapid weight changes
- Unexplained bruises or marks, especially on arms
- Staggered walk
- depression or anxiety
- Unexplained breakout of acne
- Rash on body
- Needle marks on arms
- Unusual body odor
- Deterioration of personal appearance or hygiene
Treatment Protocols for Drug Abuse and Addiction
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is treatable, but the process might be uncomfortable and tedious. As a chronic disease, it is impossible to stop addiction within days, and recovery usually requires long-term treatment. The aim of treatment should be to address the underlying issues and behaviors that led to addiction in the first place.
Some common treatment modalities to keep drug abuse and addiction under control include one or more of the following:
- Behavioral counseling
- Medication to control withdrawal and relapses
- Inpatient stabilization and treatment
- Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse
The follow-up programs typically include participation in community support programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and family-based recovery systems.
What are the risk factors of drug abuse and addiction?
Experts believe that no single factor can predict a person’s vulnerability to acquiring a drug addiction. However, there are many risk factors to consider, half of which are genetic, while the other hand includes environmental risks. People with a family history of drug abuse are much more likely to be involved in similar habits than those with no significant family history. Similarly, environmental factors, such as a lack of family environment, peer pressure, etc., also increase the risk of becoming addicted to drugs. The earlier a person starts using drugs, the more likely they are to acquire an addiction. Lastly, people with co-existing mental health illnesses, such as PTSD and ADHD, are also at a significantly higher risk of addiction than people with sound mental health.
Can drug addiction lead to other mental health disorders?
It is not uncommon for someone fighting a drug addiction to have another mental illness simultaneously. However, it is difficult to check whether addiction led to the development of this mental illness or vice versa. Some studies suggest this connection because the same brain areas and genetics that trigger addiction and these mental illnesses are more or less similar.
What is the difference between drug addiction and dependence?
Dependence refers to a phenomenon where an individual acquires a physical tolerance to a drug. What this means is they start having withdrawal symptoms the minute they stop using drugs. Dependency is treatable by slowly weaning off the drug and changing the behavior patterns. On the other hand, addiction occurs when a person’s brain chemistry changes due to extensive or prolonged use of substances. Both dependence and addiction can lead to intense cravings, which force the users to use the drug despite acknowledging its negative impacts on life. The only way to break out of the cycle of addiction is through professional help.