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COVID-19 and Addiction: How the Virus Has Affected Users

COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of life for many people. Different parts of the world have had unique experiences with the virus, but the vast majority of Americans have experienced COVID-19 in some way. Whether you’ve been sick, lost someone to the virus, or struggled financially, 2020 has been a challenging year for many. 

However, COVID-19 has had a particular impact on specific people. People in lower tax brackets, people who require regular medical attention, small business owners, and older people have all faced particular challenges during the pandemic. However, one of the most troubling consequences of the virus occurs when one epidemic meets another. 

The addiction problem in the United States has grown for the past decade. Since overdose death rates had been on the rise since the 1990s, 2018 was the first year in many where overall overdose deaths were lower than the year before. 

At 67,367 deaths, the rate is still extremely high, but at least it hasn’t risen. However, the coronavirus may have kept 2018 from being a turning point in the fight against addiction. COVID-19 could have a multifaceted impact on someone with a substance use disorder. Plus, people with substance use problems may be particularly vulnerable to the virus. 

Learn more about the impact COVID-19 could have on people with substance use disorders.

Are People with SUDs Vulnerable to COVID?

Substance use disorder and COVID-19 have a bi-directional relationship. That means the virus can worsen the disease of addiction, and addiction can worsen the virus. But how can substance use problems make you more vulnerable to substance use disorders?

As a disease primarily a respiratory infection, people with compromised lungs are at higher risk of experiencing dangerous symptoms of the virus. COVID-19 can damage the lungs in even otherwise healthy people. Tobacco smokers are extremely vulnerable to this disease. However, other drugs that are inhaled or smoked, like marijuana and crack, may also be vulnerable to the virus. Many illicit substances can affect the respiratory system or cause lung disease, including cocaine, heroin, ketamine, inhalants, PCP, and others.

Many drugs, including alcohol, can also affect the heart. For instance, long-term alcoholism has been associated with heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. There is some evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can have a damaging effect on the heart, possibly due to systemic inflammation. If you’ve struggled with a substance use disorder that has affected your heart, you may be more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19. Drugs that can cause heart disease can include alcohol, opioids, cocaine, meth, amphetamines, and others. 

Other diseases that may be caused by substance use problems can also make you more vulnerable to COVID-19. Chronic substance use issues have been linked to diseases like cancer, diabetes, HIV, and other health problems that can also put you at risk for COVID-19.

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How Does COVID-19 Complicate Addiction?

Addiction issues may make you more vulnerable to the virus, but the virus can also have a negative impact on substance use problems. There are several ways in which the virus can create challenges for people with substance use problems, whether they are in recovery or active addiction. 

High-Stress Can Be Dangerous


Addiction often preys on negative emotions. Addiction is a disease that affects the reward center of the brain, which is designed to pick up on activities that cause a release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. Resting and relaxing, eating a good meal, exercise, and positive physical contact can all release the chemicals. 

The reward center teaches your brain to repeat these actions, which are generally healthy and necessary to sustain life. When you’re feeling negative emotions, your brain will remember that those rewarding activities caused you to feel good. 

As a response, it may cause you to crave these activities. That’s why a warm hug or a pint of ice cream can soothe negative feelings. Addiction is a disease that involves the high-jacking of this important system and causing you to treat substance use like it’s one of these life-sustaining activities.

Drug-addicted person wahshing their hands to prevent covid-19

Drugs can also influence those feel-good chemicals in your body with potent effects. Your brain associates drug use with the powerful release of feel-good, mood-boosting chemicals. After a while, cravings to use drugs turn into compulsions that are challenging to control. Even if you realize that you have an addiction, it can still be difficult to stop. That’s why addiction is often identified by compulsive drug use, despite consequences. 

But what does that have to do with COVID-19?

The worldwide pandemic has caused tremendous upheaval all over the country. People are out or work, worried about their health and dealing with all the consequences the virus has brought. People who have gone through recovery are practiced in learning to anticipate and cope with negative emotions that may lead to triggers and relapse. But the virus and its consequences could challenge even the most diligent people in the recovery community. 

Limited Access to Health Care

People with substance use disorders often need quick access to health care, and they often struggle to get it. Even without a pandemic, people with SUDs may have trouble accessing and paying for health care. However, addiction can cause serious health-related complications because of both acute and chronic use. Substance misuse can cause dangerous overdoses and long-term health complications that require medical care. The virus has placed a significant burden on the health care system, especially in certain states and cities. People with health care needs may struggle to get treatment because of the increased demand for health care for people with the virus.

The virus may also create another barrier to addiction treatment. While people self-isolate, they may be afraid to seek help for substance use disorders, despite the fact that it’s vital medical care.

Quarantine and Isolation

Quarantine can help keep your community safe from spreading the virus out of control, but it can be dangerous for people in recovery if it turns into social isolation. Community connection is important in addiction recovery. Staying connected to others strengthens your support system and ensures accountability. A person in quarantine with no regular schedule or people checking up on them are vulnerable to relapse. Idleness, isolation, and a sense of purposelessness can create negative emotions that trigger cravings. However, there are ways to connect with others, even in quarantine, that can help you avoid a sense of isolation.

Dealing with Addiction During a Pandemic

It’s clear the coronavirus pandemic has created a tough situation for people with substance use disorders. However, even in a pandemic, there are solutions to addiction. Addiction is considered a disease, and addiction treatment is health care. Ignoring an ongoing substance use disorder could lead to serious and even deadly consequences. If you feel like you have a substance use problem, you can and should seek help, even if your state is in quarantine. Addiction treatment includes various approaches, some of which accommodate remote participation, depending on your needs. 

If you’re in recovery, it’s important to realize that relapse isn’t inevitable. Reach out to people in your community and support system to talk about your challenges. Avoid isolation, idleness, and unchecked negative emotions. Even during a pandemic, resources are available to help you safeguard your recovery.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Commissioner, O. (2020, November 27). COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved December 09, 2020 from https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/covid-19-frequently-asked-questions

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 14). Respiratory Effects. Retrieved December 09, 2020 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/health-consequences-drug-misuse/respiratory-effects

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, October 19). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved December 09, 2020 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Weiss, C. (2020, April 3). How does COVID-19 affect the heart? Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/how-does-covid-19-affect-the-heart/

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