The Risk Factors, Effects on the Brain, and Signs of Substance Abuse

Every year, millions of people struggle with substance abuse from alcohol, drugs, and other substances. These disorders can have long-lasting effects on a person’s physical and emotional state.

If you or someone you love has developed a substance use disorder, you’ll want to learn more about what this means, risk factors that could lead to it, and how to help.

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is a pattern of someone excessively consuming alcohol, drugs, or prescriptions. It becomes a problem when these substances negatively affect a person’s physical or mental health as well as their life.

While some substances are more commonly abused than others, any consumables can fall into this category including:

  • Alcohol
  • Opiates such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl, codeine, and others
  • Stimulants such as Adderall or cocaine
  • Sedatives
  • Anabolic Steroids
  • Marijuana
  • Phencyclidine
  • Hallucinogens
  • Nicotine or cigarettes
  • Inhalants

Many people are able to manage their substance use at first, but it can quickly become abuse or even addiction and chemical dependency. This leads to a psychological and physiological reliance that they need to function on a daily basis.

Risk factors for substance abuse

Although substance abuse has the potential to affect anyone, there are risk factors that could increase a person’s odds of developing a problem.


Up to 75% of people who develop substance use disorders are due to genetics. If someone has any blood relatives who have struggled with substance abuse, they are at risk of developing this disorder.

Age of first use

Millions of people every year consume alcohol before the legal drinking age of 21 years old. Having this and other substances in earlier stages of their lives make individuals more likely to develop a problem at a later age.

Major lifestyle changes

Often used as a coping mechanism, substance abuse can develop after a significant change in someone’s life. This could be a divorce, losing a family member, getting hurt in a car accident, losing a job, or other negative events.

Existing mental health conditions

People who are managing other mental health conditions may turn to alcohol, drugs, and other substances as a way to relieve their physical or emotional pain. This could also include psychological trauma such as sexual abuse, injury, or physical assault.

Lack of support system

If someone doesn’t have anyone they can rely on in their lives for love or support, they’re more likely to abuse substances rather than seek professional help.

Effects of substance abuse

There are many negative effects that come with substance abuse that could have both short-term and long-term impacts. The most common effects of substance abuse include:

  • Nausea and lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Liver damage
  • Abnormal heart rate or heart attack
  • Weak immune system
  • Lung disease
  • Trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Seizures or stroke
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of focus
  • Poor decision-making

Substance abuse effects on the brain

Most people develop a substance use disorder because of the “reward” effect or “high” that they feel when taking it. Drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and nicotine affect the limbic system of a person’s brain, which manages their emotional and behavioral responses.

Overuse of any substance could lead to disruptions in the brain’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body, which can impact an individual’s mood or overall cognitive function. It can negatively affect general thinking abilities including memory skills.

In some cases, substance abuse may even result in permanent brain damage.

What are the signs of substance abuse?

The symptoms of substance abuse vary greatly depending on the substance a person is taking and whether they have any other pre-existing mental health conditions. Though it’s impossible to narrow down any one or two specific things to watch for, there are some ways to tell if your loved one has a problem.

The most common signs of substance abuse include:

  • A need or strong desire to drink or do drugs regularly
  • Requiring higher doses of the substance to feel its effects
  • Always having a supply of the drug or alcohol nearby
  • Singular focus on getting their next fix
  • Using the substance even when it negatively affects their life
  • Stealing or breaking other laws to obtain the substance
  • Spending excessive amounts of time recovering from use
  • Driving while under the influence
  • Unable to stop using the substance
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when going too long without the substance

Additional issues that arise from substance abuse can be seen when an individual is having frequent issues at work or school. They may be missing classes or taking numerous days off at a time.

Other substance abuse signs are negative behavioral changes, poor hygiene, and money troubles from spending more than they have on drugs or alcohol.

Substance abuse treatment

If you or someone you love is managing substance abuse, it’s important to know that there is help open to you.

OC Specialty Health & Hospitals offers streamlined and effective substance abuse treatment programs to assist people in overcoming these disorders.

To learn more or to get started, please call our OC Specialty Health & Hospitals team at 949-900-8426 or 877-467-2223.

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