Health Risks of Untreated Addiction

Contributor: Staff at Bayside Marin

Many people either have engaged in or know someone who has engaged in substance use at least once in their life. Whether it’s through an illicit drug, a prescription painkiller, or an alcoholic beverage, substance use is common among people from all walks of life and is a serious health risk.

According to data collected in 2020 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 21.4% of Americans age 12 and older (59.3 million people) reported engaging in illicit drug use. Among them, 6.6% (18.4 million people) struggled with at least one illicit drug use disorder. The same survey found that 50% of those age 12 and older (138.5 million people) drank alcohol, with 10.2% (28.3 million people) suffering from alcohol use disorder that same year [1].

Occasional use, and even a single instance of substance use, can result in an addiction. If the person doesn’t seek help, the addiction may progress and pose more serious risks to their overall well-being.

Signs of and Health Risks for Addiction

Addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, is a complex condition that changes the way the brain functions. These changes can cause people to experience intense cravings and act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t [2]. The disorder is characterized by behaviors, including chronic use of alcohol or drugs, that persist despite the devastating effects they have on a person’s health, career, or relationships.

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Depending on the specific substance, amount, and frequency of use, people who struggle with addiction may be at risk of experiencing a number of adverse effects. Substance use disorders can occur in a broad range of severity, with symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening. Here are some signs of addiction to watch for:

  • Uses the substance in large quantities or for extended periods of time
  • Uses the substance in dangerous or risky situations
  • Has intense cravings for the substance
  • Experiences withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance
  • Attempts to stop using the substance but cannot control their use
  • Requires more of the substance to feel the same effects

The reality is that addiction can develop due to a wide variety of factors and influences early on or later in a person’s life [3]. These are just a few common risk factors for addiction:

  1. Environment. If you’ve ever been exposed to alcohol or drugs, you may find it challenging to avoid these substances. Likewise, going through or witnessing something traumatic might make you feel more inclined to engage in substance use.
  2. Genetics. Addiction can run in families. If you have a family member who currently struggles or has struggled in the past with addiction, you’re more likely to suffer from addiction yourself.
  3. Co-occurring disorders. Underlying mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol or drug addiction.

As mentioned above, addiction and other mental health conditions typically go hand in hand. It’s important to understand the unique health risks involved for those who have an addiction and a co-occurring condition.

Untreated Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

It is estimated that about 50% of people who are living with a substance use disorder have one or multiple mental health concerns, which is referred to as a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis [4]. They may use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate instead of reaching out for help, but this only causes their symptoms to worsen [5].

Girl looking at beach and overcoming health risks of addictionWhat’s more, an addiction that occurs with another mental illness and remains untreated can have numerous unintended consequences [6]. These include:

  • Job loss, financial hardship, or homelessness
  • Increased risk for arrest, incarceration, and other legal troubles
  • Failing or ruined relationships with friends, family, and partners
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Damage to the liver, heart, brain, lungs, and other organs
  • Increased risk for hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases
  • Accidental poisoning, overdose, injury, or death
  • Worse treatment outcomes
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Development or worsening of chronic health concerns such as diabetes, chronic pain, heart disease, and certain types of cancer

The more a person continues to engage in a pattern of substance use, the more both the likelihood and severity of negative outcomes increase. This is especially true for someone who does not seek professional support for an addiction. But addiction is not a life sentence.

Recovery from the Health Risks Is Possible

It is a common misconception that a person must be far gone before they should receive addiction treatment. According to Dr. Thomas McLellan, identifying the early signs of a potential drug or alcohol addiction — a term he coined “preaddiction” — could draw more attention to the risks associated with the early stages of a substance use disorder [7]. Doing so may help people get the care they need before a mild or moderate addiction becomes more severe and is left untreated.

There are many treatment options available for those who are battling a substance use disorder. These include various levels of care, such as detoxification services, residential rehabilitation, and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs).

Detox allows patients who are heavily dependent on drugs or alcohol to rid their bodies of illicit substances in a supervised clinical setting. Another option is residential treatment, which gives patients the opportunity to step away from everyday stressors and focus on their recovery. Residential treatment centers usually offer an array of therapeutic interventions and round-the-clock care. People also have the option of receiving treatment in an IOP, a program that offers more flexibility with their schedule while also giving them the chance to receive education, treatment, and support to help prevent relapse.

Seeking help for a substance use disorder may seem off-putting or scary at first. But with the appropriate level of care and support, someone who is struggling with an addiction can minimize their risk of sustaining long-term damage and end their relationship with drugs or alcohol.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved from

[2] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

[3] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, August 5). Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved from

[4] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness. Retrieved from

[5] National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Substance use and co-occurring mental disorders. Retrieved from

[6] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Substance use disorder treatment for people with co-occurring disorders. Retrieved from

[7] McLellan, A.T., Koob, G.F., & Volkow, N.D. (2022). Preaddiction—A Missing Concept for Treating Substance Use Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.1652.

About Our Sponsor:

Bayside Marin is a nationally respected provider of personalized residential and outpatient services for adults age 18 and older of all genders who have developed substance use disorders and certain co-occurring mental health concerns. With multiple luxurious residences in the hills overlooking San Rafael, California, Bayside Marin is uniquely prepared to offer world-class care and comprehensive support within a discreet, private, and comfortable environment. For more information, please visit

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 1, 2022
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 1, 2022
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.