The Effects of Addiction on Veterans

The negative consequences of addiction (i.e., substance use disorder, SUD) have caused major public health problems in the U.S. for years. The occurrence of risk factors that contribute to addiction (such as chronic pain or mental health complications) is also higher among veterans. Heavy alcohol drinking and smoking cigarettes are the most commonly used addictive substances among military servicemembers and veterans – often leading to long-term health complications.

A study of first-time visits to VA health care centers revealed that approximately 11 percent of veterans meet the criteria for an addiction. Male veterans are about twice as likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol as female veterans, but addiction is higher among all non-married veterans. Misuse of prescription opioids also increased considerably among veterans throughout the 21st century.

Starting in the 1940s, the VA has researched SUDs in the veteran population. In addition to the negative health consequences of addiction, societal problems like homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and unemployment are other potential effects.

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Health Effects of Addiction on Veterans

Activities like heavy or binge drinking and cigarette smoking may be part of the military culture and used by servicemembers to bond or let off steam. Most veterans are aware that these substances contribute to poorer overall health but rely on them to cope or feel normal.

The table below illustrates the common long-term health problems caused by addiction.

Substances of Abuse Long-term Health Effects
Alcohol Cancers, depression and anxiety, digestive problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, learning and memory problems (i.e., dementia), liver disease, weakened immune system
Benzodiazepines Depression, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, impaired thinking and memory lossy, lethargy, nausea, personality changes, skin rashes, weakness, weight gain
Cigarettes Cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, heart disease, lung diseases, stroke, increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, and weakened immune system
Cocaine Bleeding within the brain, chest pain, inflammation of heart muscles and aortic ruptures, gastrointestinal tears and ulcers, loss of appetite and weight loss, malnourishment, movement disorders, stroke
Methamphetamines Significant anxiety, delusions (i.e., sensation of creeping insects beneath the skin), mood disturbances, paranoia, skin sores, tooth decay, visual and auditory hallucinations, weight loss
Opioids (incl. heroin) Brain deterioration, constipation, depression and antisocial disorder, extreme physical dependence, inability to regulate behavior, insomnia, lung complications (incl. pneumonia and tuberculosis), sexual dysfunction (in men)

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Addiction and Mesothelioma Treatment

Addiction can affect more than a veteran’s overall health. If a veteran has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, his or her addiction can affect everything from the initial prognosis to the available cancer treatment options. For instance, substances that reduce the function of the heart –like alcohol – make recovering from surgery more difficult. Similarly, smoking cigarettes can worsen the symptoms of mesothelioma and weaken the immune system.

Many veterans are diagnosed with co-occurring disorders and may undergo simultaneous treatment for mesothelioma and other disorders. Many substances of abuse (and their effects) cause negative interactions with treatment drugs. Subsequently, stopping substance abuse is a vital first step in preparing for SUD therapy as well as mesothelioma care.

The VA provides medical treatment (including medication) and counseling as part of its addiction resources program. Veterans may receive addiction therapy directly from a VA health center or a partner program while they are in treatment for mesothelioma. Anyone who qualifies for VA health benefits can access these resources.

FAQ About Addiction and Veterans With Mesothelioma

  • How can drugs or alcohol affect mesothelioma treatment? Taking illicit drugs, medication that hasn’t been prescribed, and drinking alcohol can worsen an individual’s health prior to treatment. Therapies like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can take a physical toll on the body – substance abuse may affect recovery time and side effects after treatment.
  • How does smoking cigarettes affect mesothelioma? Cigarettes have been shown to aggravate the symptoms of mesothelioma and may also play a role in their initial development. Quitting smoking as soon as possible is the best way to slow or reverse some respiratory damage.
  • What are common co-occurring disorders? For patients with mesothelioma as well as veterans, depression is a common co-occurring disorder. Many try to cope with depression by misusing alcohol or drugs or relying on cigarettes to relax.
  • Can I receive addiction and mesothelioma treatment from the VA? Yes. The VA health care system offers multiple benefits to treat mental and medical disorders. You may qualify for health benefits, a monthly veterans disability compensation, and more.

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