In short: yes, addiction can kill.
But rather than keep it at that, it’s better to go in-depth into how and why addiction can kill you – and how you can keep it from killing you.
There’s no doubt that addiction carries with it a lot of baggage. It can lead to long-term damage to your health – addiction can change how you behave and feel and cause irreparable damage to your relationships and future. An addiction will completely change your life – that’s inevitable. It’s up to you whether the result is a good change or a bad change.
But beyond life-altering consequences, career-ending events, and behavioral changes that will rend the ties between you and your family and friends, addiction can kill by overdose.
How Addiction Works – And Why Overdose Happens
The most common definition of an addiction is an unstoppable urge to do something or consume a substance, driven often by a physiological dependence or perhaps a psychological one. For example, gambling addiction is a real problem that affects hundreds of thousands of Americans, but it isn’t a physical addiction because a drug has altered the physiology of the brain. It’s still a chemical problem at heart because of the addiction to that specific behavior and its potency as an endorphin trigger – but the issue is deeply psychological.
In physical addiction, overuse of a substance leads to changes in the way the brain perceives pleasure, creating a physical hook that makes abstinence exceptionally difficult while introducing new symptoms in the absence of the drug. These “withdrawal” symptoms further motivate someone to satisfy their craving, creating an endless cycle where addiction can kill more easily by increasing the risk of overdose.
As the cycle goes on, the drug loses its effectiveness. Alcohol affects the GABA receptors in the brain. Cocaine and methamphetamine act as stimulants, blocking the reuptake of dopamine. Heroin affects the brain’s opioid receptors. While these drugs all act differently and create a different kind of high, they all cause a drastic and powerful reaction in the brain. The natural inclination for anything radical is to get used to it, to reduce its effectiveness. In other words, to “normalize” it.
The brain and the body become used to its unnatural chemical effects – so the answer is to up the dosage. Yet like any substance, too much means your addiction can kill you. And that’s how an overdose occurs.
Alcohol is already a poison – too much in the bloodstream leads to organ failure and death. Nicotine is also extremely poisonous but rarely leads to an overdose – instead, it keeps the user hooked long enough for tobacco’s other health hazards to cause death. Cocaine and methamphetamine can lead to heart failure, overworking the organ until it stops, or causing a stroke. And heroin causes you to forget how to breathe.
Any drug addiction can kill you because the only way to stay high is to increase the dosage to unsafe levels periodically. The only way to prevent that is not to use them.
How Drugs Destroy The Body And Addiction Can Kill
You don’t have to wait for an overdose to see the effects of drug use on the body. Drug use can cause permanent damage or leave physical and psychological marks that take decades to fade away. Here are a few ways in which addiction can kill or destroy the body:
Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine cause feelings of elation by blocking the reuptake of certain “happiness” neurotransmitters, thus increasing the overall abundance of said neurotransmitters in the brain. However, they also have drastically negative effects on the body.
Methamphetamine addiction can kill appetite, leading to massive weight loss, and cause skin sores, dental problems, and long-term brain damage. Cocaine can burn out nasal cavities if snorted, similarly affecting long-term thinking. Due to increased heart rate and blood pressure, long-term use of stimulants can also lead to heart damage and a myriad of cardiovascular issues.
From powerful tranquilizers to anxiety medication and alcohol, sedatives can be highly addictive and dangerous. Alcohol is the biggest culprit due to its widespread use and abuse. Long-term alcohol abuse and addiction can kill by leading primarily to liver, heart, and brain damage, as well as cause kidney failure.
Anxiety medication, such as Xanax, is prone to abuse as well. Common long-term effects of abusing prescription sedatives include cognitive and memory impairment, psychosis, aggressive behavior, and depressive symptoms.
Opioids, like prescription opiates and heroin, are among the most dangerous drugs because of their addictiveness and availability. Heroin is especially dangerous because it’s rarely pure.
Often cut with toxic additives or a lethal dose of fentanyl or carfentanil (an opioid so powerful it can be considered a nerve toxin), heroin can cause long-lasting and even permanent brain damage, deteriorating the brain’s white tissue and leaving the user with slower cognition, impaired memory, and limited reasoning skills.
Overdose Rates Today
While we understand addiction a bit better today than ever, we as a nation struggle with addiction more than at any other historical period. Drug overdose deaths reached 107,000 in the US in 2021, and the numbers may continue to rise. In fact, among Americans under the age of 50, drug overdose is the leading cause of death, pulling ahead of chronic health issues and car accidents.
To prevent becoming a casualty, seek treatment from your local Houston IOP treatment center or another program that can help you sober up. The sooner you get help, the better your chances – and if you’ve got people you can rely on and trust, your chances are even better.
- Treadwell SD, Robinson TG. Cocaine use and stroke. Postgrad Med J. 2007;83(980):389-394. doi:10.1136/pgmj.2006.055970
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine misuse? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published October 2019. Accessed October 16, 2022. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-are-long-term-effects-methamphetamine-misuse
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed October 16, 2022. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/opioids
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Percentage of overdose deaths involving methadone declined between January 2019 and August 2021. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published July 13, 2022. Accessed October 16, 2022. https://nida.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/2022/07/percentage-of-overdose-deaths-involving-methadone-declined-between-january-2019-august-2021
- CDC. Saved Request: Underlying Cause of Death, 1999-2020, D15F907. Accessed October 16, 2022. https://wonder.cdc.gov/controller/saved/D76/D15F907
Last medically reviewed October 16, 2022