In Harm’s Way: More Facts About How Drug Abuse Puts Your Whole Body at Risk

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

“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

Research has shown that drug abuse and addiction can affect almost every system in your body.

Below, find out facts about the harmful health effects of various drugs throughout the body. 

Cocaine—Cocaine restricts blood flow to the brain, increases heart rate, and promotes blood clotting. These effects can lead to stroke or heart attack. Recent NIDA research suggests that cocaine also limits the body’s ability to fight infection. This means that cocaine abusers are at greater risk for infectious illnesses such as hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS.

For more information, go to NIDA Drugs of Abuse: Cocaine

Ecstasy (MDMA)—Ecstasy speeds up heart rate and blood pressure and disrupts the brain’s ability to regulate body temperature, which can result in overheating to the point of hyperthermia. When this happens, abusers begin to sweat, but can’t cool off. In a hot and crowded dance atmosphere, this can be life-threatening if medical care is not delivered quickly. Treatment of hyperthermia requires prompt medical attention, as it can rapidly lead to muscle breakdown, which can, in turn, result in kidney failure.

For more information, go to NIDA for Teens: Ecstasy 

morefacts.JPGHeroin—Medical consequences of chronic heroin injection abuse include scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, and liver or kidney disease. Lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis) may result from the poor health condition of the abuser as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration. Heroin abusers who share needles can pass the virus to each other. They can also spread other blood-based diseases like hepatitis C and tuberculosis. Heroin overdose can slow the respiratory system until breathing stops and the person dies.

For more information, go to NIDA Drugs of Abuse: Heroin

Inhalants—Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death within minutes of a session of repeated inhalations. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person. Sudden sniffing death is particularly associated with the abuse of butane, propane, and chemicals in aerosols. Also, high concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system so that breathing ceases. Deliberately inhaling from a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area, for example, greatly increases the chances of suffocation.

For more information, go to NIDA for Teens: Inhalants

Marijuana—People who smoke marijuana often develop the same kinds of breathing problems as cigarette smokers, including coughing and wheezing. They tend to have more chest colds than nonusers. They are also at greater risk of getting lung infections, like pneumonia. Some studies show that when people have smoked large amounts of marijuana for years, the drug takes its toll on mental functions. Heavy or daily use of marijuana affects the parts of the brain that control memory, attention, and learning. A working short-term memory is needed to learn and perform tasks that call for more than one or two steps. In long-term marijuana abusers, some changes in the brain are similar to those seen after long-term abuse of other major drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and alcohol.

For more information, go to NIDA: Marijuana: Facts for Teens. or NIDA Facts on Drugs: Marijuana

Methamphetamine—Methamphetamine can cause cardiac damage, elevates heart rate and blood pressure, and can cause a variety of cardiovascular problems, including rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. Methamphetamine also increases wakefulness and physical activity, creating the potential for a combination of activity and overheating (hyperthermia) that, as with ecstasy, can lead to convulsions and a dangerous, sometimes lethal, elevation of body temperature.

For more information, go to NIDA InfoFacts: Methamphetamine

Prescription Drugs—Prescription medications such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives can be very useful when prescribed by a physician in a specific dosage for a specific patient. Sometimes, however, people abuse prescription medications as they would an illegal drug—for nonmedical reasons and not as prescribed. This is a serious health issue, because the nonmedical use of prescription medications like opioids (Vicodin, OxyContin), central nervous system (CNS) depressants (Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall) can lead to addiction and other health risks, just like illegal street drugs. When abused, both prescription drugs and illegal drugs alter normal brain function. Drug abusers experience this as a rush of pleasurable feelings, but these feelings do not last, and continued drug abuse can lead to addiction. Just like people who are addicted to illegal drugs, prescription drug abusers can experience craving, addiction, physical dependency and withdrawal, and other dangerous—sometimes even fatal—side effects. Taking a single large dose of a prescription opioid or depressant could lead to severe breathing difficulty. Taking high doses of a prescription stimulant can lead to irregular heartbeat, seizures, or dangerously high body temperature.

For more information, go to NIDA Drugs of Abuse: Prescription Medications

Steroids—The major health consequences from abusing anabolic steroids can include liver tumors and cancer, jaundice (yellowish pigmentation of skin, tissues, and body fluids), fluid retention, high blood pressure, increases in LDL (bad cholesterol), and decreases in HDL (good cholesterol). Other side effects include kidney tumors, severe acne, and trembling. As in the case of heroin or any drug abuse via needle injection, people who inject anabolic steroids run the added risk of contracting or transmitting hepatitis, which causes serious damage to the liver, or HIV/AIDS. In addition, there are some gender-specific side effects: 

  • For guys—shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, breast growth, increased risk for prostate cancer.
  • For girls—growth of facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, enlargement of the clitoris, deepened voice.
  • For all—growth halted prematurely through premature skeletal maturation and accelerated puberty changes. This means that teens risk remaining short for the remainder of their lives if they take anabolic steroids before the typical adolescent growth spurt.

For more information, go to NIDA Drugs of Abuse: Steroids

Tobacco and Secondhand Smoke—Smoking harms every organ in the body. Cigarette smoking accounts for about one-third of all cancer deaths, including those from lung cancer. In fact, cigarette smoking has been linked to about 90 percent of all lung cancer cases. Research shows that smoking increases the risk of heart disease. Secondhand smoke exposure causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and severe asthma. In adults, secondhand smoke causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer. Scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. 

For more information, go to: 

NIDA for Teens: Tobacco Addiction
The Deadly Effects of Tobacco Addiction 
Why Secondhand Smoke Is Dangerous
The Science of Nicotine Addiction 

Drugs and HIV/AIDS and Other Infections—Every day in America, approximately 10 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS—and many of them are infected through risky behaviors associated with drug use. When you use drugs or alcohol, you might be more willing to do things that are risky to your health. This is because drugs can change the parts of your brain that you use to weigh risks and benefits before making decisions. Besides increasing their risk of HIV infection, individuals who take drugs or engage in high-risk behaviors associated with drug use also put themselves and others at risk for contracting or transmitting hepatitis C (HCV), hepatitis B (HBV), tuberculosis (TB), as well as a number of other sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and genital herpes. Injecting drug users (IDUs) are also commonly susceptible to skin infections at the site of injection and to bacterial and viral infections, such as bacterial pneumonia and endocarditis, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious health problems.

For more information, go to NIDA for Teens: HIV/AIDS.

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


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