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Here's What Happens If Your Substance Abuse Goes Untreated

By Neha Kashyap
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Carol Anderson, LMSW, ACSW on December 16, 2020
Not seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction can mean a host of negative consequences.

Seeking treatment for addiction can seem like a daunting task at first, but letting substance abuse go untreated can lead to a variety of negative consequences beyond just your health.

Addiction can eventually affect all areas of life, from work to relationships to finances, causing deep and lasting damage.  

“When substance use disorder ("substance abuse" or "addiction") is not treated, it can lead to a snowball effect in one’s life, including increased health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home,” Lisa Westerson, Senior Clinical Supervisor at Mountainside Treatment Center in Connecticut, says.

Long-term damage

The physical effects of long-term addiction include damage to major organs, including the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Alcohol, for example, can cause symptoms that mimic those of dementia. Drugs can affect the brain's regions that control impulses, pleasure seeking, and other cognitive functions needed for daily life.

However, brain damage from drugs can often be reversed. Abstaining from the addictive substance for long periods of time while sticking to treatment can eventually repair brain function.

The disease gets worse

Substance abuse is a chronic disease, and treating it like one can help with treatment. For instance, addiction can be a lifelong battle, and like other lifelong conditions, it requires a commitment to treatment and maintaining good health.

“If [an addiction] goes untreated for a long period of time, there is typically relapse and progression of the disease,” Dr. Joseph DeSanto, a doctor of internal medicine who is also a former addict, says. “There is a small percentage of individuals that achieve spontaneous sobriety and recovery, but these are seen less frequently because of the availability and potency of illicit and prescription drugs.”

But this doesn’t mean treatment isn’t possible. Addiction can be managed successfully. The key is maintaining the tools you learned in treatment through support groups and counseling. 

Relationships and mental health can suffer

Substance abuse can wreak havoc on relationships. Addiction can also make other mental health conditions worse while masking them. For instance, more than a quarter of those living with addiction also have a mental health condition that needs addressing.

“People who seek addiction treatment often have characteristics of co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, and trauma,” Patrick Dunn, a licensed therapist and President of Recovery Services at Landmark Recovery in Kentucky, says. “All of these issues including addiction block people off from creating relationships with others.”

However, treatment can mean getting to the core of these problems. A dual diagnosis can mean addressing mental health and substance use disorder at the same time.

Advice on kicking the habit for good

Tackling a substance abuse problem can be overwhelming, but with the proper treatment it can be done. The first step, admitting you have a problem and asking for help, is often the hardest.  

"The greatest myth about addiction is that people 'struggle' with it their whole life, [but] 60% of all people entering treatment for addiction will achieve sustained remission,"  Brad Lander, PhD, a clinical psychologist and addiction medicine specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says. "This number is better than rates for other chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and asthma."

Treatment & Resources: General Information