Effects of drug use on the brain and body

Drug addiction is a treatable chronic disease that involves a complex interplay between a person’s environment, brain circuits, genetics and life experiences.

Despite the negative effects, addicts continue to use drugs compulsively.

Substance abuse has many potential consequences, including overdose and even death. Learn about the short- and long-term effects of drug addiction. Discover treatment options for common symptoms.

short term impact

People may become addicted to any psychoactive (“mind-altering”) substance. Common addictive substances include alcohol, tobacco (nicotine), stimulants, hallucinogens, and opioid pain relievers.

Many of the effects of drug addiction are similar no matter what substance someone uses. Below are some of the most common short-term effects of drug addiction.

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physical effect

Medications can have many short-term physical effects. These may include:

  • shallow breathing
  • Elevated body temperature
  • heart rate too fast
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • drowsiness
  • slurred speech
  • decreased or increased appetite
  • incoordination

Even in the short term, substance abuse can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms:

  • Dependence: People quickly become physically dependent on a substance. This means they need more of this substance to get the same “high”.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: When people who are dependent on the drug stop using it, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as excessive sweating, tremors, panic, difficulty breathing, fatigue, irritability, and flu-like symptoms.

Substance Abuse and Drug Addiction

Although the terms “substance abuse” and “drug addiction” are often used interchangeably, they are different. A substance abuser uses a substance excessively, too frequently, or in other unhealthy ways. However, they can eventually control their substance use.

At the same time, drug addicts suffer from drug abuse that affects every aspect of their lives. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t stop abusing drugs.

psychological impact

Psychoactive substances affect parts of the brain involved in reward, pleasure and risk. They generate euphoria and well-being by flooding the brain with dopamine.

This leads to compulsive drug use in search of another euphoric “high.” The consequences of these neurological changes may be temporary or permanent.

Short-term psychological effects of substance abuse may include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • aggression
  • angry outburst
  • lack of inhibition
  • hallucination

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long term impact

If left untreated, drug addiction can lead to a range of serious long-term effects. These are some of the most common long-term effects of drug addiction on the brain and body.

physical effect

Drug addiction can have serious long-term physical consequences, including major organ damage and even death.

Some of the most common long-term physical effects of drug addiction include:

  • kidney damage
  • Liver damage and cirrhosis
  • various forms of cancer
  • Tooth decay
  • skin damage
  • infertility
  • stroke
  • Seizures
  • sexual dysfunction
  • cardiovascular problems
  • lung problems
  • overdose and death

Overdose deaths in the United States

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 100,000 people in the United States will die from drug overdoses in 2021.

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psychological impact

When someone continues to use drugs, their health deteriorates psychologically and neurologically. Some of the most common long-term psychological effects of drug addiction are:

  • cognitive decline
  • memory loss
  • Paranoid
  • frustrated
  • anxiety
  • mental illness

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signs of drug addiction

Signs of substance abuse and addiction include changes in behavior, personality, and appearance.

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s substance use, here are some red flags to look out for:

  • Changes in school or work performance
  • secret
  • relationship problems
  • risky behavior
  • Legal Issues
  • aggression
  • mood swings
  • changes in hobbies or friends
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • Unexplained odor on body or clothing

Drug Addiction in Men and Women

Men and women are equally likely to develop drug addiction. However, men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs, die from drug overdoses, and go to the emergency room for addiction-related health reasons. At the same time, women are more prone to strong cravings and repeated relapses.

How to Diagnose Addiction


While there is no single “cure” for drug addiction, it is as treatable as other chronic diseases. The main methods of treating drug addiction include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or family therapy, can help addicts develop healthier ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Behavioral therapy: Common behavioral therapies for drug addiction include motivation enhancement therapy (MET) and contingency management (CM). These treatments build coping skills and provide positive reinforcement.
  • Medications: Certain prescription medications can help relieve withdrawal symptoms. Some examples are naltrexone (for alcohol), bupropion (for nicotine), and methadone (for opioids).
  • Hospitalization: Some people with drug addiction may require hospitalization to detoxify a substance before long-term treatment can begin.
  • Support groups: Peer support and self-help groups, such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, can help addicts find support, resources, and accountability.

There are many different ways to treat drug addiction. Creating an individualized treatment plan with the help of your healthcare provider may be the most effective approach.

How to treat addiction?


Drug addiction is a complex chronic medical condition that leads someone to compulsively use psychoactive substances despite negative consequences.

Some short-term effects of substance abuse and addiction include changes in appetite, movement, speech, mood, and cognitive function. Long-term effects may include major organ damage, cognitive decline, memory loss, drug overdose and death.

Treatment for drug addiction may involve psychotherapy, medication, hospitalization, support groups, or a combination.

Related: Relapse after recovery

ask for help

If you or someone you know is experiencing substance abuse or addiction, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

Relapse after recovery

VigorTip words

If you are experiencing drug addiction, you are not alone. Drug addiction is common, but it is also preventable and treatable. The sooner you seek help and understand the effects of addiction, the sooner you can achieve long-term recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you fully recover from addiction?

    There is no “cure” for drug addiction. However, the treatment of drug addiction is as successful as the treatment of other chronic diseases. A combination of medication and behavioral therapy has been found to have the highest success rate in preventing relapse and promoting recovery.

  • How do you help someone addicted to drugs?

    If you suspect that a loved one is using drugs, address your concerns honestly, non-confrontationally, and without judgment. Focus on building trust and maintaining open lines of communication while setting healthy boundaries to keep yourself and others safe. If you need assistance, please contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

  • What are the most common signs of drug addiction?

    The most common signs of drug addiction include physical, behavioral, and mental changes. Signs of drug addiction may include:

    • exhausted
    • slurred speech
    • weight loss or gain
    • bloodshot eyes,
    • Unexplained changes in appearance

    Behavior changes can include:

    • underperforming at work or school
    • relationship problems
    • Risky and reckless behavior
    • illegal act
    • secrecy and dishonesty
    • loss of interest in friends or hobbies

    Mental and emotional changes may include:

    • irritability
    • ADHD
    • lack of motivation
    • anger
    • sad
    • anxiety
    • Paranoid