You Bet Your Life: The Risks With Untreated Addiction

How many people would knowingly risk their lives by continuing to do something that was dangerous? Would you walk in front of a speeding car, knowing that impact would almost certainly kill you? Would you drink poison on a dare, knowing full well that you could die before an antidote could be administered? Would you deliberately weight yourself down with anchors and slip to the bottom of a lake as a way to test your escape abilities? While these may seem ridiculous to the average person, they’re nothing compared to the risks people take every day with untreated addiction.

In short, untreated addiction can shave years off your life – decades, even. It’s more than just having a good time that you should be thinking about. You should be considering what you’re doing to your body by continuing to drink alcohol to excess, pop painkillers like candy, smoke crack cocaine, inject or snort heroin, do meth, or any combination of illicit drugs and alcohol.

It’s more like Russian roulette in that you never know when what you take is capable of killing you. Sometimes you can die quickly from an overdose. Other times you’ll suffer a protracted and agonizing death. Not quite what you had in mind when you thought about copping a buzz, is it? Even if you think it can’t happen to you, or that you’ve been doing alcohol and drugs for so long that you believe you’re immune to harm, you’d be wrong.

You could be dead wrong.

The Walking Undead – Yet

Here are some statistics that are meant to shock you. The sad part is that they’re all true. Did you know that there are 22.5 million people today who are classified as dependent upon or abusing substances? That’s the finding of the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Of this vast number, 18.7 million persons aged 12 and older were classified with dependence on or abuse of alcohol. Marijuana/hashish dependence or abuse accounted for 4.3 million. Pain reliever dependence/abuse was next at 1.9 million, followed by cocaine at 1.1 million. Some 481,000 were dependent upon or abused tranquilizers, 399,000 abused or were dependent on heroin. Stimulants and hallucinogens each accounted for 371,000 persons classified with dependence or abuse. Inhalants were next at 164,000 and sedatives were last at 147,000 persons aged 12 or older classified with dependence or abuse.

Equally shocking is the small number – relative to the number needing treatment – of individuals who actually received treatment for substance abuse or dependence in 2009. Only 4.3 million people aged 12 or older received treatment for alcohol or illicit drug use in the past year.

For those who care to do the math, that leaves approximately 18.2 million people walking around with untreated addiction. Those are staggering numbers and pose a huge risk to both the individual (who’s playing Russian roulette with his or her life) and family members.

How Bad Can It Get?

Maybe you think that your daily consumption of booze and pills is perfectly under control. You sometimes overdo it and suffer the consequences the next day, but what about when your tolerance changes and you require more and more of the substances to achieve the same effect? You are rapidly approaching the point of addiction – and courting disaster if you leave it untreated.

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but there are some very real risks of untreated addiction. They vary according to type of substance, dose, purity, length of addiction, frequency of use, and other medical conditions that may be present, co-occurring mental health disorder, genetic predisposition, environmental conditions, and other factors.

Here are just a few of the potentially fatal risks with untreated addiction.


Since so many Americans are classified as dependent upon or abusing alcohol, we’ll begin by looking at some of the dangers associated with alcoholism. Drinking to excess and for a long period of time can lead to alcoholism, or alcohol addiction. Some of the potentially fatal complications of alcoholism include:

·        Liver disorders – Too much alcohol can cause alcoholic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. Over the course of years of heavy drinking, hepatitis can lead to scarring and progressive destruction of the liver. This condition is called cirrhosis of the liver, and it is irreversible.

·        Heart problems – Excessive drinking may lead to high blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart failure or stroke.

·        Digestive problems – Inflammation of the stomach lining (a condition called gastritis) can be caused by alcohol. Gastritis interferes with the absorption of B vitamins as well as other nutrients. In addition, heavy drinking also damages the pancreas, a vital organ that produces hormones to regulate metabolism and enzymes that help the body digest carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

·        Diabetes complications – Persons with diabetes are playing with fire if they drink to excess. That’s because alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from the liver and can increase the risk of low blood sugar (a condition called hypoglycemia). This is particularly dangerous if you already have diabetes and are taking insulin to lower your level of blood sugar.

·        Birth defects – While alcoholism may not kill you, if you become pregnant, your child may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting in physical and developmental problems.

·        Bone loss – Chronic drinking leads to bone loss because the substance interferes with the production of bone. This can lead to a condition called osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and an increased risk of fracture.

·        Increased cancer risk – Numerous cancers are linked to chronic alcohol abuse. These include cancers of the mouth, throat, breast, liver and colon.

·        Neurological complications – There are many neurological complications that may result from alcoholism. Excessive drinking affects your nervous system and can result in dementia, numbing of hands and feet, short-term memory loss, and disordered thinking or confusion.

·        Motor vehicle accidents – Anyone who drinks too much alcohol is at greater risk of becoming involved in a motor vehicle accident. Among teens, especially, alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents are a major cause of teen death.

·        Greater risk of homicides, suicides, drowning – Excessive alcohol consumption is also associated with a greater risk of death in homicides, suicides and drowning. Again, this risk is also often found among teens who engage in excessive drinking.

Drug Addiction

Taking prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes (to get high) or using illicit drugs can result in dependence or addiction. This opens up the very real possibility of a number of life-changing (and life-threatening) complications.

·        Overdose – The most serious complication that could occur is sudden death from overdose. Taking certain drugs is particularly risky, especially when taken in large doses or in combination with alcohol. Unconsciousness, coma, and subsequent death may occur. If recognized and medical assistance is summoned in time, an individual who overdoses may be treated and come out of the life-threatening situation. But it’s a very iffy situation and, again, playing Russian roulette.

·        Suicide – People who do drugs are more likely to commit suicide, or attempt to do so, more often than people who don’t do drugs.

·        Accidents – Under the influence of drugs, people are much more likely to get behind the wheel and drive – or engage in other dangerous activities.

·        Health problems – Using drugs over a long period of time can result in a number of health problems. Some of these problems can be short- or long-term in duration and depend on the type of drug taken, in what dose, in combination with other drugs and/or alcohol, frequency, purity, and other factors (such as pre-existing medical condition).


Medical consequences of chronic heroin use by injection include scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of heart valves and blood vessels, boils (abscesses) and other soft-tissue infections, liver or kidney disease. In addition, lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis) may follow due to the addicted user’s poor overall health condition and the fact that heroin depresses respiration.

Additives in heroin sold on the street may include substances that don’t readily dissolve. These may clog blood vessels leading to the brain, liver, kidney, or lungs. When this happens, it can cause infection or even cell death in vital organs. Immune reactions can cause rheumatologic or arthritic conditions.

Sharing of contaminated needles or fluids increases the risk of the addict/abuser contracting infections with hepatitis B and C, HIV and a number of blood-borne viruses. These viruses may then be passed along to sexual partners and children.


Meth death is the most serious consequence of abuse of this highly toxic and addictive substance. Death can occur in a number of forms. Severe anorexia can result when the meth addict neglects eating and is obsessed only with getting and using meth. Hyperthermia, convulsions, and cardiac collapse are other forms of death that result from meth addiction.

The family members of meth addicts are usually the first to suffer, since the meth addict’s aggression and irritability is often directed to those close to him or her – or who are seen as standing in the way of continued meth abuse.

Intravenous delivery of meth is associated with all the risks that come from IV drug use. Risks for HIV, hepatitis, and blood-borne infections increased because the meth addict, particularly when tweaking (high on meth), since the meth abuser doesn’t care then about sanitary practices. Sexually-transmitted diseases are also a risk associated with meth use, especially since meth is often used to enhance sex. In addition, many meth addicts, male and female, use sex as a way to finance their addiction.

Cocaine and Crack Cocaine

Different routes of cocaine administration carry different risks. Some of these can prove fatal. Ingested cocaine can cause severe bowel gangrene, due to reduced blood flow. Intravenous cocaine users can experience allergic reactions either to the drug itself or to some additive in the drug. In severe cases, this may result in death. Since cocaine addiction tends to decrease appetite, users may become malnourished and emaciated.

Other effects of cocaine use – including crack cocaine – include respiratory failure, heart attacks, strokes, and seizures. Excessive use can result in bizarre, violent and dangerous behavior. Even using cocaine or crack cocaine for the first time is a risky venture. Death can occur suddenly after using the drug or a short time thereafter. 

Repeated doses of large amounts of cocaine can result in tremors, twitching, vertigo, paranoia, and a toxic reaction that’s very similar to methamphetamine poisoning.

Treatment Programs For Substance Abuse

Getting help first requires that you acknowledge your addiction and then seeking assistance to overcome it. There are a number of ways to get treatment for substance abuse and addiction.

·        Individual Consultation, Customized Treatment Plans – Go to medical clinics, such as the Mayo Clinic, and get a comprehensive evaluation. Then a customized treatment plan will be tailored for you. You can also begin with your family doctor and ask for referrals to a substance abuse treatment program.

·        Intensive Residential Addiction Programs – Many addicted individuals will benefit most from an intensive addiction program conducted at a specialized residential substance abuse treatment program.

·        Outpatient Addiction Program – There are also addiction programs available on an outpatient basis. These programs support strategies that help the individual with real-world sobriety.

·        Continuing Care or Aftercare Programs – These are a series of programs that focus on various stages of the individual in recovery. They include early recovery, recovery maintenance, family recovery, even a health professionals group.

·        Adolescent Intervention Group – For teens aged 12 to 17 with addiction problems, the adolescent intervention group is a family-centered program that provides help for addicted teens to overcome substance abuse.

Where To Find Treatment

If you’ve come to the decision that you don’t want to risk your life by continuing your addiction and are ready to seek treatment, where do you find it? A good way to start is to use the Treatment Facility Locator ( maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This is a searchable online database of more than 11,000 addiction treatment programs, including residential treatment centers, outpatient treatment programs, and hospital inpatient programs for drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Listings include treatment programs for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana addiction and drug and alcohol treatment programs for adults and adolescents.

No insurance and no money to pay for treatment? Never let that stop you. Use Detailed Search or List Search on the Treatment Facility Locator and check the boxes for “sliding fee scale” and “payment assistance.” Then call the facilities directly to ask about their policies.

Want to talk with a real person to ask about treatment facilities near you? Call the Treatment Referral Helpline toll-free at 1-800-662-HELP.

12-Step Groups

Whether you’re just beginning to consider getting treatment to overcome addiction or haven’t yet come to that determination, help yourself to take this huge step by going to 12-step group meetings. If your substance of abuse is alcohol, check out Alcoholics Anonymous. If it’s cocaine, go to Cocaine Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.). N.A. is also useful if you’re addicted to other types of drugs. There’s also Marijuana Anonymous, Methamphetamine Anonymous, and so on. If there’s a substance that’s abused, chances are that there’s a 12-step support group that’s been formed to help those who want to overcome their addiction.

It costs nothing to attend and all participation is anonymous. Worried about what it’s all about? Check out the various groups online. Go through their websites and get answers to your questions. You can also find groups and meeting times online. Many 12-step groups also offer online and telephone meetings as well as on-site meetings. And groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are available in every U.S. state and many international locations. Wherever you go, there’s a 12-step group that you can attend.

Bottom line: Don’t bet your life by ratcheting up the risks with untreated addiction. It’s time to get real and get some help so you can overcome what could very well kill you. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will you be able to stick it out and see positive results? That’s up to you. One thing is certain, however. If you don’t get help, you’ll likely continue to suffer negative consequences, many of which could end your life. Just remember that you won’t ever be alone – you have support always available to you through your 12-step groups.