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Long-Term Alcohol and Drug Addiction Effects

The longer an addiction to drugs or alcohol lasts, the more stress and strain it places on an individual. There is an overwhelming number of long-term physical and emotional effects that drug abuse and addiction can have on a person.

The following information is designed to help you understand how addiction can harm your physical and mental health and how getting treatment can help to repair this damage.

Psychological Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse

Addiction is frequently intertwined with other mental health issues, but this relationship doesn’t always have a clear directionality. For example, people who suffer with mental disorders—such as anxiety—may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.1 Furthermore, substance use disorders (SUDs) can be the cause of certain mental disorders.1 About 17 million adults in the United States (6.7%) experienced a co-occurring SUD and mental illness in 2020.2

The psychological distress associated with substance misuse can range from mild to serious. At any level of severity, this distress can have a profoundly negative impact on the life of someone addicted to drugs or alcohol. Among the most common long-term mental health issues associated with drug abuse and addiction are:

  • Depression: There is a clear association between substance abuse and depression, as well as other mood disorders.3 This relationship could be attributed to preexisting depression that led to drug abuse, or it could be that substance use caused changes in the brain that increased depressive symptoms.3 Some people use drugs to self-medicate symptoms of depression, but this only alleviates the symptoms while the user is high. It may even make depression symptoms worse when the user is working through withdrawal. Many drugs have a withdrawal syndrome that includes depression or other mood disturbances, which can complicate recovery.
  • Anxiety: Addiction is also associated with anxiety and panic disorders.1 Again, the cause is difficult to discern and can be different among individuals. For one person, they could develop a pattern of abuse after using drugs (e.g. benzodiazepines like Xanax) to cope with their symptoms. Another person could have a long-standing pattern of drug abuse and consequently develop anxiety problems. Many substances, particularly stimulants like cocaine, can cause anxiety.4 Other drugs, like benzodiazepines, can bring about increased anxiety as part of their withdrawal syndromes.5
  • Paranoia: Some drugs, like cocaine and marijuana, can cause feelings of paranoia that may be amplified with long-term misuse.4,6 In addition, people struggling with addiction may feel that they need to hide or lie about their substance use, indicating a fear of being caught. The fact that many substances of abuse are illegal can also contribute to mounting feelings of paranoia among long-term substance users.

Sometimes, drug misuse can increase a user’s risk of developing a mental disorder. For example, there is evidence that smoking marijuana during adolescence can increase a person’s risk of psychosis during adulthood.3 These associations, however, may be most pronounced in those with a genetic predisposition for psychological issues. Substance addiction and mental illness are disorders that develop due to many different factors, both genetic and environmental.3 When a person with a genetic predisposition for developing psychological disorders abuses drugs, they may further increase their risk of developing a mental illness in the future.

Physical Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse

In addition to the numerous mental health issues that can occur because of long-term drug addiction, there are also several issues affecting the physical health of the individual who is misusing drugs over a sustained period. Long-term drug abuse can affect:

  • The kidneys. Kidneys can be damaged both directly and indirectly by habitual drug use over a period of many years. Abusing certain substances can cause various types of renal toxicity and renal complications, leading to acute or chronic renal failure.7 Kidney failure is not uncommon among long-time users of opioids, cocaine, and alcohol.7
  • The liver. Liver failure is a well-known consequence of alcoholism, but it also can occur with individuals using cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants, and cocaine habitually over many years.8 The liver is important for clearing toxins from the bloodstream, and chronic substance abuse can overwork this vital organ, leading to liver damage and even liver failure.8
  • The heart. Many drugs have the potential to cause cardiovascular issues, which can range from increased heart rate and blood pressure to aberrant cardiac rhythms and myocardial infarction (i.e. heart attack).9 Injection drug users are also at risk of collapsed veins and bacterial infections in the bloodstream or heart.9
  • The lungs. The respiratory system can suffer damage related to smoking or inhaling drugs, such as marijuana and crack cocaine.10 In addition to this kind of direct damage, drugs that slow a person’s breathing—such as heroin and prescription opioids—can cause serious complications for the user.10

Another danger that is well known to long-term drug abusers is mounting tolerance. Tolerance is dangerous as it causes the individual to use more and more of a drug to achieve the desired euphoric or stimulated state. This puts the individual at an elevated risk for overdose and even death.

Behavioral Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse

Addiction isn’t just about drug abuse; it is an entire set of behaviors and habits surrounding substance use. When it takes over a person’s life, they may find themselves doing things they never expected and feel overwhelmed with various challenges. Addiction looks different for every individual.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is what clinicians use to determine if a person is struggling with a substance use disorder, and among its diagnostic criteria are several characteristic psychosocial and behavioral changes that addicted individuals often exhibit, such as:11

  • Taking a substance in higher doses or for longer than intended.
  • Wanting to quit using but being unable to.
  • Spending a lot of time trying to get, use, or recover from a substance.
  • Craving a substance or having a strong desire to use it.
  • Being unable to fulfill school, home, or work obligations because of substance misuse.
  • Continuing to use a substance despite recurring or persistent social or interpersonal problems related to use.
  • Reducing or stopping important social, recreational, or occupational activities due to substance use.
  • Recurrent substance use in physically dangerous situations.
  • Consistent substance use despite knowing that it is causing or worsening psychological or physical problems.

Other behavioral changes common to individuals struggling with addiction include:

  • Lying to friends/family members.
  • Becoming more secretive and/or suspicious.
  • Changing friend groups.
  • Getting into legal trouble.
  • Going into debt/spending money exorbitantly.

Regardless of how addiction manifests, it is vital that the person gets help before it’s too late.

Finding Help for Long-Term Substance Abuse

If a person is struggling with substance misuse for a long period of time, they may be inflicting severe damage on their body and brain. Addiction can affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, and yet sometimes, they may not realize or acknowledge that they have a problem. In this case, friends and family members may want to consider organizing a professional intervention. This involves contacting an addiction intervention professional—or an interventionist—to help lead a group discussion with the struggling individual and the people who care about them.

Addiction Treatment Types

There are many different treatment options for those with substance use disorders. Inpatient treatment allows the patient to stay in a 100% sober treatment facility for the duration of the treatment program. For those with co-occurring mental disorders, dual diagnosis inpatient programs will provide care for the individual’s addiction recovery and psychological needs. Inpatient treatment is a good way to escape the stressors and triggers of everyday life and focus entirely on recovery.

Outpatient programs are another option for people struggling with addiction. In an outpatient program, an individual will continue to live at home throughout the program, checking in for treatment sessions on a regular basis. These are an effective option for people who cannot take time away from home, but they do require a higher level of self-motivation to maintain abstinence, since the home environment can present potential triggers.

Regardless of what type of addiction treatment program a person chooses, what matters the most is getting and staying clean. The sooner a person gets help, the less damage their addiction can cause them and the people around them. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. Please reach out and get started on the recovery journey today. You can contact us free at at any time, day or night.

Additional Resources on Health Insurance Providers and Coverage Levels

Visit the links below to find out more about your health insurance coverage levels, how to get your insurance company to pay for drug and alcohol rehab, and how to pay if you don’t have insurance.

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