GET THE FACTS: Drug Abuse Puts Your Whole Body at Risk

First published 2007. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

morefacts.JPGResearch shows . . .

“Drug abuse and addiction can affect almost every system in your body. You probably know that drugs affect feelings and moods, judgment, decision making, learning, and memory. But they can also cause or worsen other health problems—cancer; heart disease; lung disease; liver function; mental disorders; and infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. Some of these effects occur when drugs are used at high doses or after prolonged use, and some may occur after just one use.”

—Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA

  • Tobacco addiction increases risk of lung and heart disease, as well as premature aging of the skin.
  • Inhalants spread toxic chemicals throughout the body, and can causeblackouts and hearing loss as well as liver,kidney, and bone-marrow damage.
  • Methamphetamine can cause cardiac damageelevated heart rate, andconvulsions, and can also lead to diseased gums and teeth, known as “meth mouth.”
  • Cocaine has been linked to stroke and heart attack, as well as increased vulnerability to infection.
  • Drug abuse is linked to the top U.S. medical problems, including heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and mental illness.


HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, and Other Infectious Diseases
Nearly one-third of reported AIDS cases have been linked to injection drug use—heroin, cocaine, or any drug that abusers inject. One way that HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases are spread is through the sharing of needles or other injection equipment. But it is not only injection drug users who risk contracting or spreading infections. The intoxicating effects of all drugs of abuse affect judgment and decision making—leading users to engage in behaviors that could have dire health consequences, including the spread of HIV.

Mental Health Effects
Drug abuse might affect an existing mental disorder or result in one. More than half of those who are addicted to drugs have also had some form of mental illness—either at the same time as their addiction or at some other point in their lives. This is probably not due to chance: drugs affect many of the same brain systems that are responsible for mental disorders. There may also be common genetic and environmental causes of both. What we know from research is that long-lasting changes in the brain caused by chronic drug abuse may lead to depression, aggression, paranoia, and hallucinations.

Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, causing about 440,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone. Smoking leads to heart disease, lung cancer, and other lung problems, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Tobacco addiction is a direct result of nicotine—one of the many chemicals found in tobacco products—which acts on receptors in the brain and the body. Tobacco smoke also affects other body systems, changing their functions and ultimately leading to disease. Prenatal exposure to tobacco can have long-lasting effects on the next generation; and evensecondhand smoke is linked to diseases in those exposed.



Read the Label

Prescription medications may be mistakenly thought of as safe because they are prescribed by a doctor for an illness—but if they are not prescribed for you, then they are not safe for you.

Abuse of prescription opioids, such as Vicodin® and OxyContin®, can lead to addiction. Taking a single large dose could cause severe respiratory depression (includes difficulty in breathing or stopped breathing) that can lead to death. The same holds true for abuse of prescription central nervous system depressants, such as Xanax® and Valium®.

Abuse of prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin® or Adderall®, can lead to feelings of hostility orparanoia. Further, taking high doses of a stimulant may result in dangerously high body temperature and an irregular heartbeat. There is also the potential for heart system failure or fatal seizures.


FACTivate—for Your Life

Get More Facts! Find out more about the medical consequences of drug abuse and addiction at:

Check Up! See a doctor for regular checkups. Be sure to mention if you abuse drugs—this is confidential information your doctor needs to know. A prescribed medication might interact badly with a drug of abuse. 

Get Up! Do some type of physical activity every day for overall good health. 

Eat Healthy! Eat balanced meals, limiting your intake of fats and sweets, to give your body the energy it needs. 

Hydrate! Drink liquids throughout the day, especially while exercising. To nourish your body, reach for water instead of sugared drinks. 

Cover Up! Wear protective gear and sunblock when outside to block damaging rays. 

Speak Up! Talk to your parents or to another trusted adult about your health-related questions. Ask questions and insist on answers. 

Learn additional facts about how drug abuse puts your whole body at risk. 

Learn more about how to find reliable sources for health information on the Web.


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