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Physical Effects of Addiction: It's Not All In The Mind

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Pharmacology

Updated Feb 08, 2021

Physical Effects of Addiction: It's Not All In The Mind

Many people know of the emotional and mental toll addiction can have on people. However, the physical effects of addiction are often overlooked. There are short-term and long-term physical effects that can occur when someone has an addiction. It is important to know about these effects in order to better identify and manage addiction.

Physical effects of addiction

Substance tolerance

One of the defining qualities of addictions is tolerance to a particular substance. Drugs, alcohol, even food trigger the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that bind to certain receptors. These receptors are responsible to causing the effect of the substance.

For example, cigarettes contain nicotine which binds to nicotinic receptors in the brain and other cells. Nicotine is responsible for the lightheaded or “buzzed’ feeling people get when using tobacco and nicotine-containing products. However, nicotine is addictive and can cause people to crave it. Over time, more nicotine is needed to get the same effect. This eventually leads to dependency.

If you use tobacco or nicotine-containing products and find yourself using more and more, it is a sign you have become dependent. The same goes substances like drugs and alcohol.

How are Addictions Diagnosed and When to Seek Help

Withdrawal symptoms

Similarly, if you have been using nicotine for a while and try to stop you may experience unwanted side effects. Quitting cold turkey or stopping suddenly causes a drop in the available nicotine in the body. However, because of long-term use, the body has already created more receptors for it. This makes the body crave nicotine even more.

Withdrawal symptoms are one of the reasons why it is hard for many to quit smoking or stop using drugs. Aside from cravings, the physical effects of addiction and withdrawal include:

Fortunately, withdrawal symptoms are only temporary and get better on their own after a while. Typically the first week of quitting is the hardest, although some people continue to experience withdrawal symptoms for a month or more. Certain medications and therapies can be used to reduce these symptoms.


Related to withdrawal and cravings, some people may experience changes in their sleep patterns. Many people experience insomnia or inability to sleep or stay asleep. Stimulant drugs such as amphetamines cause increased heart rate and alertness. While using these drugs it is hard to sleep until the effects wear off.

Even depressant substances like alcohol can affect sleep. Usually depressants or “downers’ cause sleepiness, however, sleep is not usually peaceful. These substances may cause nightmares or interrupted sleep. In addition, sleep caused by CNS depressing drugs is generally lower quality than normal sleep.

physical effects of addiction

Changes in weight

One of the noticeable signs of addiction that others notice is weight loss. Many drugs and substances that cause addiction can result in weight loss. Stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can cause dramatic weight loss. Oftentimes, these drug users are thin and gaunt.

Because addiction can make people spend money on substances rather than food or other needs, weight loss is a consequence. In addition, the stimulant drugs and nicotine have appetite suppressing properties which make users less hungry to begin with.

On the other hand, certain substances can increase weight gain. Notably alcohol and marijuana can cause unhealthy weight gain. Alcoholic drinks, particularly beer, are full of empty calories and carbs which eventually result in weight gain in many people. Marijuana contains cannabinoids that stimulate appetite, often referred to as “the munchies’. These cannabinoids have been studied for use in cancer patients and those with eating disorders like anorexia to promote appetite.

Changes in skin and oral health

Lastly, people with addictions may have noticeable changes in their skin and oral health. Injectable drug users will likely have bruises and collapsed veins on their arms. They may cover these up with long sleeved tops.

Chronic tobacco users may have dry skin and mucosa, especially in and around the mouth. Because of this they may develop more wrinkles, mouth sores, increased phlegm, and have a dulled sense of taste. It is well-known that smoking increases the risk of cancer and opportunistic infections, therefore, smokers should be wary of new skin growths and discolorations.

Additionally, addictions can make people less concerned with their personal hygiene. As a result, they may have dental problems, bad breath, or body odor. These may further difficulties with social interaction or indicate how severe an addiction has become.

E-Cigarettes: Benefits and Risks

Key takeaways

In summary, the physical effects of addiction are just as important as the mental effects. Because physical effects can be seen, they are easier to spot than mental effects. When treating addictions, both the physical and mental aspects need to be addressed. Talk to a doctor or mental health specialist if you think you have an addiction and need help.

Learn more about Addiction here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Written by

Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD


Updated Feb 08, 2021

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