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It can result in a variety of debilitating health problems, including:1
The pervasive reach of substance use extends through several organ systems and their associated physiological processes. Here you’ll find an overview of the major organ systems and how they are impacted by drug use.
The types of substance-related health consequences likely to be faced by an individual will be dependent upon which drugs are being abused and with what frequency. For example, using marijuana from time to time may not impact a person’s health as negatively as chronic alcohol abuse; however, both can cause problems.
The health of the individual who is engaging in drug or alcohol abuse matters, too. Those who are immunocompromised, for example by HIV, may be more likely to suffer additional health effects.2 Drug abuse is associated with both contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, as well as with worsening the progression of these conditions.2,3
Our lungs and their life-sustaining functions are quite susceptible to the harms of various substances. Smoking cigarettes, crack cocaine, or marijuana may differentially contribute to the development of several respiratory issues and chronic pulmonary diseases including:4
Several substances—including opioids as well as central nervous system depressants such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other sedatives—are associated with significant respiratory depression, which may be fatal in severe cases.4 Combining these drugs is a significant risk factor for life-threatening respiratory depression.5
Other respiratory complications from substance abuse include:6,7
Injecting drug users are especially at risk for:8,9
The cardiovascular system is negatively impacted by most drugs of abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Drugs can affect the heart rate and rhythm and even cause heart attack.10 Cocaine is one drug known to adversely affect the heart—so much so that some researchers have named it “the perfect heart attack drug.”11
Drug abuse can also alter blood pressure, causing dangerous drops or spikes. Altered heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, and pathological changes in blood pressure may all contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke.11
Cocaine and amphetamines are strongly associated with cardiovascular risks, such as cardiomyopathy, or disease of the heart muscle, and both hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke.10,12
Injection drug use, in particular, can cause cardiovascular issues such as:10,11,13
Most drugs pass through the liver, as for many drugs the liver is the primary site of metabolism. This makes the liver particularly susceptible to injury from chronic abuse of or overdose on certain substances.
Of all drugs that have the potential to harm the liver, alcohol is at the top of the list. Chronic, heavy alcohol use can result in a spectrum of alcoholic liver diseases including:14
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:15
A lesser-known risk to the liver is that of acetaminophen. While safe in recommended/prescribed doses, taking a toxic amount of acetaminophen can cause:
In some cases, people combine multiple drugs not realizing that more than one contains acetaminophen. Many opioid painkillers also contain acetaminophen, and taking high and/or very frequent doses of these drugs (as is common with those addicted to painkillers) can result in serious liver injury.
In a 6-year analysis of 662 people who suffered from acute liver failure, it was determined that 42% of cases were attributed to acetaminophen-related liver injury.16 Concurrent use of alcohol can further decrease the threshold for acetaminophen toxicity and hepatic injury.
Injection drug use is also a huge risk factor for contracting hepatitis B and C. Untreated viral hepatitis may lead to cirrhosis of the liver, as well as liver cancer. Almost half of all cases of liver cancer develop in association with hepatitis C infection.3
“As time goes on, the ability to stop using drugs becomes increasingly difficult.”