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Dangers of Drug Addiction

Even for professional counselors and doctors, it can be hard to identify the point where recreational drug use crosses over into addiction.

But it isn’t hard to recognize the damage that drugs can cause to a person, a family or a community. The dangers of drug addiction are far-reaching, ranging from an individual to a national level. When you’re ready to confront your own addiction, your main concern should be how drug abuse can affect your life and the lives of those around you.

The exact cause of drug addiction remains a mystery, but according to the National Institutes of Health, there are certain factors that may make certain people vulnerable to addiction:

  • An underlying mental disorder, like schizophrenia, depression or generalized anxiety
  • A low sense of self-worth combined with a tendency to respond to peer pressure
  • Exposure to high levels of stress from personal, professional or financial sources
  • Exposure to an environment where drug use is accepted and drugs are readily available

Education alone isn’t enough to help an addict get clean. But learning about the dangers of drugs can be an important step if you’re thinking about experimenting with heroin, marijuana or meth — or if you’re wondering whether you’re ready to seek help for addiction.

Phases of Addiction

The term “drug” can refer to any chemical substance that alters your brain chemistry, affects your feelings and perceptions, or changes the way your body functions.

Drugs may include prescription medications, illegal street drugs, marijuana or alcohol. Some users seek out drugs in order to relax and unwind, while others turn to chemicals to expand their perceptions or give them energy. For many addicts, drugs are a way to relieve physical or emotional pain.

Drug addiction rarely happens overnight. You may start by doing a little speed to lose weight or taking prescription pain medication after a car accident. Before long, you may notice that you’re spending more time thinking about how you’re going to get the drugs, when you’re going to take them and how you’re going to pay for them. You may feel anxious, depressed or angry when a deal falls through or you can’t get your prescription filled. The Merck Manual provides an analysis of the stages of drug dependence:

  • Tolerance. Your body gets used to a certain amount of the drug. You can tell that you’ve reached a state of tolerance when you find yourself needing more of the drug to get the effects you’re looking for.
  • Psychological dependence. You’ve gotten used to the sensations that a drug generates, and you feel disoriented, edgy or unable to function when you can’t take the drug. Psychological dependence doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re physically dependent on the drug, but the compulsion to use the substance may be so powerful that it feels like a physical addiction. Drugs that often cause psychological dependence include marijuana, meth and hallucinogens.
  • Physical dependence. Your body experiences strong withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug, such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking or seizures. Drugs that can cause physical withdrawal symptoms include alcohol, heroin, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax and Ativan) and cocaine.
  • Addiction. Although there’s no universal definition for drug addiction, this condition is often defined by a compulsive need to seek and obtain the drug of choice. Addiction is also defined by the dangers that it presents to the user, including the danger of physical illness, the threat of violence, exposure to crime, the destruction of personal relationships and the loss of personal integrity.

By the time a drug user reaches a state of addiction, he or she may be beyond the point of asking for help. Intervention by loved ones, employers, social workers or law enforcement may be necessary to keep the addict from harming herself.

If you’re at an early stage of chemical abuse, it’s not too soon to seek treatment. You have the power to stop the progression of drug dependence whenever you’re ready, as long as you have support from a health professional, an addiction counselor or a supportive friend.

Losing Your Health

By the time you reach the addiction stage, you may have stopped caring about how drugs are affecting your health. On the other hand, you may be terrified of what you’re doing to your body, yet feel that you’re powerless to stop the damage. Even if you know that help is available, your addiction may leave you paralyzed when it comes to making that first phone call.

The University of North Carolina reports that depending on the type of drug you use, drug addiction may cause:

  • Irregular or rapid heart rate (cocaine, marijuana, meth, PCP)
  • Heart failure (cocaine, meth)
  • Blood-borne diseases like hepatitis or HIV (injectable drugs)
  • High blood pressure (cocaine, meth, PCP)
  • Impotence or infertility (marijuana, meth, narcotic drugs)
  • Learning and memory problems (marijuana)
  • Lung damage (marijuana, PCP)
  • Psychosis (LSD, cocaine, meth)
  • Respiratory depression and coma (tranquilizers, narcotics)
  • Seizures (tranquilizers, cocaine, narcotics)

Addiction also puts you at risk of violence, accidental or self-inflicted injuries, motor vehicle accidents and sexually transmitted diseases. When you’re addicted, it can be hard to make wise decisions about your body. Addicts often neglect their health and may be unaware of their declining mental and physical condition. Because denial is a big part of addiction, an addict may be able to convince himself that he’s perfectly okay, even if he’s losing weight, has heart palpitations, suffers from paranoia or has serious dental problems.

Addiction and Pregnancy

Illegal drug use poses serious dangers to a growing baby. According to the American Pregnancy Association, using street drugs when you’re pregnant may cause:

  • Miscarriage
  • Problems with the placenta
  • Premature delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • Withdrawal symptoms in your newborn baby

In severe cases, using street drugs may lead to the death of the baby and/or the mother. You can protect yourself and your infant by getting the help you need to have a healthy pregnancy.

Losing Your Relationships

Some of the greatest dangers of addiction don’t involve injury, illness or homicide, but the death of close personal relationships.

By its nature, addiction separates the user from his or her loved ones, so that the addict’s relationship with the drug takes precedence over everything else. Addicts may become secretive, isolated and defensive in the early stages of substance abuse. As the addiction progresses, they may abandon their marriages, children or intimate partnerships so they can pursue their drug use without any restraints.

Professional relationships are quickly destroyed by addiction. When you give your life over to drug use, it’s hard to maintain a regular work schedule.

Many drug addicts are exposed by their employers, who catch them making dangerous mistakes or using drugs at work. Once you’ve destroyed a professional relationship, it can be difficult to get re-established in your field. By seeking help for your addiction early, you may be able to avoid losing your job, your professional credibility and your reputation in your industry.

Rebuilding personal relationships isn’t always easy. Drug abuse takes an emotional and financial toll on a relationship, and trust is often shattered by the addict’s erratic, dishonest or violent behavior. Physical or verbal abuse can make an injured partner justifiably cautious about getting involved with the addict again, even after he or she gets clean.

A comprehensive treatment program for drug addiction includes family counseling as well as individual therapy and participation in a support group. While it’s possible to restore precious relationships, the process can take a lot of time and emotional energy. Professional therapists can help you bridge the gap created by your addiction, so that you can initiate honest communication with the people you love.

Drug Addiction and Crime

It’s no accident that drug-related crime has become a focus of concern among US government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that according to these 1997 Bureau of Justice statistics:

  • 29 percent of inmates incarcerated in state prisons were using drugs when they committed crimes of violence
  • 36 percent of inmates in state prisons were using drugs when they committed crimes involving the theft or damage of property
  • 41.9 percent of inmates in state prisons were using drugs when they committed crimes involving drugs
  • 22.4 percent of inmates in state prisons were using drugs when they committed crimes involving weapons

Losing Yourself

The final danger of addiction is the loss of self. You can lose yourself by destroying your health, by trashing your integrity, by abandoning your personal relationships and by giving up your dreams for the sake of drugs. Many addicts feel like they’re fighting an internal battle between the part of them that wants to recover and the part that’s intent on destruction. Very few drug addicts fight this battle alone and win.

Recovery requires reaching out to people who care: addiction specialists, mental health professionals, relatives, friends and support groups.