Drug abuse can lead to chronic brain disease

Drug addiction is classified as a brain disease because the abuse of drugs leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain. It adversely affects both your mental and physical health.

Drug abuse or misuse can lead to chronic brain disease that triggers compulsive drug seeking and drug use, despite awareness of the harmful consequences of this. It adversely affects not only those addicted but those around them as well.

Drug addiction is classified as a brain disease because the abuse of drugs leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain. It adversely affects both your mental and physical health.

In Zimbabwe the most abused drugs are marijuana (mbanje), crystal methamphetamine, which some call mutoriro, cocaine and codeine, which is commonly found in BronCleer cough syrup. Abuse of these drugs can lead to both short-term and long-term health problems.

Alcohol abuse and addiction is also a major problem in Zimbabwe, which has the highest number of 15 to 19-year-olds in Africa who engage in heavy “episodic drinking”, according to a World Health Organisation report entitled “Mental health among young people in the African Region”.

 Effects of drug abuse

Drug abuse effects depend on the type of drug, any other substances that a person is using and the person’s health history.

Drugs are commonly defined as chemical compounds that affect the mind and body. The exact effects vary among individuals and also depend on the drug, dosage and how they are being taken.

Most, if not all, drugs, can have short-term effects even when taken in moderation or according to a medical prescription.

For example, taking a prescription opioid as a doctor has instructed helps relieve moderate-to-severe pain. However, opioids can also cause drowsiness, shallow breathing as well as constipation.

Abusing a drug or misusing prescription medication may result in several short-term effects such as changes in appetite, sleeplessness, increased heart rate, slurred speech, changes in cognitive ability, a temporary sense of euphoria and loss of coordination.

Apart from these short-term effects, drug abuse or misuse may result in negative changes in other aspects of your life.

Some people with substance use disorder may, for example, experience an inability to stop using a drug, relationship problems, poor work or academic performance and difficulty maintaining personal hygiene.

There may be noticeable changes in their appearance, including extreme weight loss. They may also experience increased impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour, as well as loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities such as watching football or playing golf.

Drug abuse can also have several long-term effects, especially if the abuse is over an extended period.

Alterations in your brain structure and function due to chronic drug abuse may result in long‑term psychological effects such as depression, anxiety, panic disorders, increased aggression, paranoia and hallucinations. Long-term drug use can also adversely affect your memory, learning and concentration.

Physical effects of long-term drug abuse vary depending on the type of drug and the duration of use.

Research has linked chronic drug use with several health conditions. Cardiovascular disease can be triggered by stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines as these can damage the heart and blood vessels.

The long-term use of these drugs can lead to coronary artery disease, arrhythmia and heart attack.

Respiratory problems may result from drugs that people smoke or inhale as they can damage the respiratory system and lead to chronic respiratory infections and diseases.

Opioids slow your breathing by binding to specific receptors in the central nervous system that regulate respiration. These drugs can lead to slow breathing or heavy snoring by depressing your respiration.

Abuse of opioids can be life threatening as a person may stop breathing entirely after taking a large dose of an opioid or taking it alongside other drugs such as sleep aids or alcohol.

Kidney damage may also be experienced. The kidneys filter excess minerals and waste products from the blood. Heroin, ketamine and synthetic cannabinoids can cause kidney damage or kidney failure.

Chronic drug and alcohol use can damage the liver cells leading to inflammation, scarring and even liver failure. Taking too much of a drug or taking multiple drugs together can result in an overdose, which ultimately may lead to death.

 Abuse, misuse, addiction

Drug use becomes abuse when it is not needed for medicinal purposes and it starts to damage or impede aspects of your daily life, such as going to school or college, work or even parenting.

Drug misuse refers to the intentional therapeutic use of a drug product in an inappropriate way. Prescription drugs are among the most commonly misused drugs.

Drug abuse and drug misuse can lead to addiction. Substance use disorder occurs when you no longer feel in control of your need to use a substance and become dependent on it. You have become addicted to it.

Not everyone, however, who misuses or abuses drugs develops substance use disorder.


Finding the right treatment programme can be difficult. Something to think about when seeking treatment for drug abuse, misuse or addiction is whether inpatient or outpatient services would be the best fit.

Anyone providing drug addiction treatment should tailor it to suit your individual needs to ensure that it is effective.

Common treatment methods may involve behavioural therapy, which helps people build positive coping strategies and develop problem-solving skills.

Group therapy may also be recommended. This gives people the chance to acknowledge, share and work through the psychological aspects of recovery with a group of peers under professional guidance.

Medication to help minimise withdrawal symptoms may also be prescribed. Vocational training may be pursued, as there is sometimes a link between unemployment and chronic drug abuse.


The best way to prevent an addiction to a drug is not to take the drug at all. If your doctor prescribes a drug with the potential for addiction, take it only as prescribed.

To reduce the chances of your children turning to drug or alcohol abuse, give them a good example by not abusing these substances yourself. Develop a strong relationship with your children.  Make them aware of the dangers of alcohol or drug abuse. Listen to them when they talk about peer pressure. Be supportive of their efforts to resist it.

  • The information in this article is provided as a public service by the Cimas iGo Wellness programme, which is designed to promote good health. It is provided for general information only and should not be construed as medical advice. Readers should consult their doctor or clinic on any matter related to their health or the treatment of any health problem. — [email protected] or WhatsApp 0772 161 829 or phone 024-2773 0663