Many drugs act as central nervous system stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulant medications, which raise blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. These drugs can also cause irregularities in heart functions and blood pressure levels, which may lead to heart disease, damage to cardiovascular systems, hypertension, or stroke. The longer drugs like this are abused, the more pronounced the damage is likely to be.
Ischemic heart disease is when blood and oxygen levels flowing into the heart are reduced, and this cardiovascular disorder may commonly be comorbid with substance abuse, particularly when substance abuse is perpetuated over a long period of time. Methamphetamine may cause an abnormal immune response, and with long-term use, this can cause a cardiovascular disorder known as vasculitis, which is a blood vessel inflammation, the journal Science Daily reports.
Cocaine is a known contributor to cardiovascular disease as well. Chronic cocaine abuse may be involved in the onset of a myocardial infarction, or MI, which is a heart attack. Cocaine use can also contribute to arrhythmia (irregular heart rate), endocarditis (inflammation in the lining of the heart), heart failure, and cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle itself). More than half of the emergency department (ED) visits for cocaine that were surveyed, and published in the journal Circulation, involved cardiovascular complications. Cocaine was the most common illicit drug involved in drug-related ED visits in 2011, with more than 40 percent of all illicit drug-involved ED visits related to cocaine, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports. The American Heart Association labels cocaine as a “heart attack drug,” as it increases blood pressure and may cause aortic stiffening and an increased thickness in the left ventricle wall of the heart. These cardiovascular abnormalities may cause medical heart problems.
Stimulant drugs can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system, as the constant rapid increase of oxygen and blood flow in the heart and surrounding areas can cause lasting damage and lead to a multitude of cardiovascular disorders. Likewise, sedative and central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs, like benzodiazepines, alcohol, marijuana, and opioids, also disrupt these functions by slowing everything down. Withdrawal symptoms for CNS depressants may include a rebound effect where all of the functions, like heart rate, respiration levels, blood pressure, and body temperature, that were slowed down as a result of the drug’s interaction are now reversed with the drug’s removal from the body. Some of the same cardiovascular disorders reported with stimulant drugs can occur, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) publishes.
Regular substance abuse may cause a chemical dependency to form. One of the side effects of this may be withdrawal symptoms when these substances are removed. Drugs or alcohol may worsen underlying heart conditions that may have existed prior to the initiation of substance abuse. Chronic alcohol abuse can also lead to a weakening of the heart muscle, which necessitates the heart working harder to pump blood. This can cause heart failure, known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
Respiratory, or pulmonary, medical conditions that are preexisting may be exacerbated by alcohol or drug abuse. Specifically, drugs that are smoked, such as heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth, and marijuana, may cause particular damage to the lungs and airways. NIDA publishes that smoking marijuana regularly over a period of time may cause respiratory and pulmonary damage as well as medical conditions that may include chronic bronchitis and problems related to the immunity functions in the lungs. Opioid and other CNS depressants also slow down respiratory functions, lowering breathing to potentially dangerous levels that may result in an overdose.
Smoking drugs can increase the odds for a comorbid lung infection or disease, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD occurs when the pulmonary immune system is disrupted and inflammation may occur, causing chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
Many of these respiratory conditions are regularly associated with smoking cigarettes, which may be more common in individuals who also abuse drugs or alcohol, TIP reports. Drugs and alcohol can also damage a person’s gag reflux, which may result in aspiration of gastric contents into the airway and can cause aspiration pneumonia, which is a serious medical condition.
Alcohol and drugs can interfere with digestion, eating habits, and the gastrointestinal system in the body. Stimulant drugs decrease appetite, for example, while alcohol and marijuana may increase it, which may lead to unhealthy weight loss or gain and malnutrition. Metabolic syndrome may be present in as many as 5-31 percent of substance abusers, which may be the result of poor nutrition, hypertension, hyperglycemia, and abnormal cholesterol levels, the journal Today’s Dietician publishes.
Diabetes may be more difficult to control with substance abuse as blood glucose levels may be harder to manage. Anemia, which is caused by low iron levels, may be present. Other essential vitamins or minerals may be out of balance due to substance abuse and subsequent poor nutrition, which can heighten gastrointestinal and other medical conditions.
Drugs may cause stomach ulcers or damage to the esophagus, especially if they are ingested regularly. Alcohol may increase the levels of gastric acid and lead to the onset of gastritis. SAMHA’s TIP postulates that around 60 percent of all pancreatitis cases may be the result of high levels of alcohol consumption.
Liver disease is also a common side effect of chronic high levels of alcohol consumption, as alcohol changes the fatty tissue in the liver. Chronic heaving drinking may lead to alcoholic hepatitis about 35 percent of the time and scarring, or cirrhosis, which around 10-20 percent of all heavy drinkers will develop, the American Liver Foundation publishes. Long-term opioid narcotic usage may create a medical condition known as narcotic bowel syndrome (NBS) indicated by nausea, constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain, the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology reports.
Alcohol abuse may increase the odds for developing certain forms of cancer, including esophageal, liver, breast, head and neck, and colorectal cancer, possibly as the result of these substances damaging the immune system, creating nutritional deficiencies, or disrupting DNA, the National Cancer Institute reports. Smoking drugs may introduce potential carcinogens to the body and raise the risk for the onset of cancer.
Skin infections may also be commonly comorbid medical conditions in those abusing substances, particularly individuals who inject drugs or those abusing meth. The use of dirty needles or not properly cleaning the injection site may cause bacterial infections or cellulites. Meth abusers may pick at their skin, while under the influence of the drug, potentially causing infections. Chronic abusers of meth may also suffer from dental disease, often called meth mouth, about 40 percent of the time, a study published in Today’s Dietician published.
Individuals who suffer from chronic pain may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and temporarily block pain sensations. Opioids, marijuana, alcohol, and benzodiazepines may temporarily help someone to relax, and narcotic drugs may provide short-term relief from pain. Opioid drugs are commonly prescribed for pain relief; however, these drugs are often abused, or used beyond their medicinal scope, as an individual may develop a tolerance to these drugs and need higher doses in order to keep feeling their effects. As dosage increases, so does the likelihood of developing a chemical dependency on opioids, and behavioral, physical, social, and psychological problems may be compounded.