The Long-Term Impacts of Drug Use


All areas of drug use are being continually studied by scientists and researchers with the hope of finding new, crucial information that can eventually lead to people overcoming their addiction. Additionally, looking into the impacts regarding drug abuse has also helped shape society’s attitude about it because substance use disorder is considered a disease. But when someone uses for a long time, what is the long-term impact it can have on their body?

Drug Use by the Number

To understand the long-term impacts of drug abuse, it can be helpful to first explore some of the statistics behind the addiction. (All statistics below are from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.)

In 2019, 8.3 million people aged 12 and older dealt with at least one illicit drug use disorder. The illicit drugs named in this study include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, methamphetamine or prescription psychotherapeutic drugs that were misused. Here are three specific drugs of use and their long-term impacts.

  • Heroin: About 438,000 people aged 12 and older dealt with heroin use disorder in 2019.
  • Cocaine: About 1.0 million people aged 12 and older dealt with cocaine use disorder in 2019.
  • Prescription opioids: About 1.4 million people aged 12 and older dealt with prescription opioid use disorder in 2019

Although the statistics above don’t say exactly how many pre-teens or teenagers or abusing drugs, it’s notable to see that some people do get started experimenting with substances at a young age. This could mean that when people realize they need help for their addiction, they have already been using for years or even decades. 

Long-Term Health Effects of Drug Use

“Drugs can alter important brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions,” says the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). They highlight three specific areas of the brain that are impacted by drug abuse:

  • Basal ganglia: This is responsible for motivation, formation of habits and routines, and known as the brain’s “reward circuit.”
  • Extended amygdala: This has a role in stressful feelings which characterize a withdrawal from the initial drug use.
  • Prefrontal cortex: This controls the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions and exert self-control over impulses.

When we break down the long-term impacts of drug abuse by specific drugs, we notice that there are different ways that different drugs can impact the brain and body over time. Here are some examples of the impact from specific drugs:

Heroin, for example, changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain. This creates long-term imbalances in different systems that are not easily reversed, according to NIDA. It has also been found that heroin use can deteriorate white matter in the brain which directly impacts decision-making, behavior regulation and responses to stress. There is also a risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C as a result of heroin use, states NIDA.

Frequent cocaine usage can lead to a change in the brain’s reward system, specifically that “the reward pathway becomes less sensitive to natural reinforcers,” says NIDA. Similarly, the circuits that regulate stress also become very sensitive, which can lead to “increased displeasure and negative moods when not taking the drug, which are signs of withdrawal.” Extensive cocaine usage can lead to an increased risk for stroke, seizures, brain hemorrhages and movement disorders. Lastly, infectious diseases can also occur because of the various impacts of intoxication.

Prescription opioid abuse can also have long-term impacts. One of the most dangerous effects of prescription opioid misuse, reports NIDA, is “slowed breathing which can cause hypoxia, which is a condition that results when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage or death.”

Addiction is a disease and there is help out there that can work for you. It’s not too late to get help and heal the body and mind. You will have the freedom to live a healthy and happy life. If you’re ready to enter treatment for drug use, Casa Palmera is here for you. Call our staff today at (855) 508-0473. We offer both residential and outpatient treatment programs that can suit your needs. We believe in holistic care that considers your life experiences, past trauma, personality, friends, family, nutrition, fitness level, medical history, spirituality and desires for the future. Let us create an individualized plan for you.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.