According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 27 million people ages 12 and older reported using illicit drugs in the previous 30 days; close to 140 million reported drinking alcohol, including almost 61 million who binge drank and over 16 million who ingested alcohol heavily; and close to 67 million people used a tobacco product. While some people can take a substance without developing cravings, compulsion, or addiction, many of the people who used substances in the survey were at risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. These struggles can damage many systems in the body, including the reproductive system.
Effects on a Woman’s Reproductive System
Women between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most likely to report problematic alcohol consumption, including binge drinking and heavy use, according to a report published in 2013. About 59 percent of women in the US now use marijuana regularly, a number that has increased rapidly since 2002. While illicit drug use among women of childbearing age is declining in general, some categories, such as opioid addiction or abuse, are on the rise.Abuse of the substances below often lead to reproductive problems, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs), difficulty becoming pregnant, problems in the physical and mental development of children, and menstrual issues.
- Alcohol: Consuming too much alcohol can lead to infertility. Women who drink during pregnancy take on the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) as alcohol crosses the placental barrier and affects growth. Also, low birth weight, premature birth, behavioral and neurological problems, and physical disorders are increased among women who drink while pregnant. Alcohol reduces inhibitions, which can lead to risky sexual behavior, and this can increase the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Alcohol use disorder is correlated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Cocaine: This stimulant can increase sexual activity, in part because of the drug itself and in part because of users’ desperation to acquire the drug. Increased sexual activity increases the risk of contracting an STI. Changes to the timing of ovulation and hormonal balances can increase the risk of infertility and lead to menstrual irregularity. Also, long-term cocaine users may experience changes in the fallopian tubes, making ovulation and pregnancy more difficult. Pregnant women who abuse cocaine are more likely to give birth sooner, and their infants are likely to have a lower birth weight.
- Marijuana: Reduced inhibitions leads to risky sexual behavior, which can increase the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Menstrual irregularity and increased risk of infertility due to changes in the ovulation cycle may occur with regular marijuana consumption. Women who ingest marijuana during pregnancy increase their child’s risk of cognitive problems, and infants are more likely to be underweight and born prematurely.
- Methamphetamines: These stimulants can make people who use them feel more sexual, which can lead to making riskier decisions in regard to sex and potentially contracting an STI. Use during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage and premature birth due to increased heart rate and blood pressure. Meth constricts blood vessels in the placenta, reducing the amount of oxygen and nutrients sent to the fetus, which can lead to birth defects, behavioral problems, and mental health disorders.
- Opioids: Like alcohol, opioids are CNS depressants that can relax users and induce a short, pleasant euphoria. Reduced inhibitions from feeling relaxed can lead to risky sexual behavior, which can increase the risk of a woman contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Menstrual irregularity from hormonal disruption can also occur. Children born addicted to opiates experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. A study found that about 21 percent of women who abused opioids developed hypogonadism, which reduces fertility.
- Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes during pregnancy increases the risk of low birth weight, developmental problems, premature birth, and stillbirth.
Effects on a Man’s Reproductive System
Men are generally more likely than women to abuse intoxicating substances, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drugs. Women and men are equally likely to develop struggles with addiction, but more women tend to struggle with alcohol and prescription medications.
When men abuse substances, or develop an addiction, the drug abuse is likely to affect their sexual and reproductive ability by disrupting hormones; damaging blood vessels, leading to erectile dysfunction; and even damaging sperm shape and count. Men who smoke anything are at a greater risk of all types of cancer, including testicular cancer. Various risks are associated with the substances below.
- Alcohol: Drinking heavily, binge drinking, and alcohol use disorders can cause erectile dysfunction, especially while intoxicated. They can also cause infertility. Damage to sperm can cause damage to the genes, which can lead to problems with fetal development or the child’s later development. Reduced inhibitions from feeling relaxed leads to risky sexual behavior, which can increase the risk of contracting an STI.
- Cocaine: This potent stimulant can cause infertility, problems with sexual function, and problems with sperm function.
- Marijuana: Hormonal problems in young people struggling with marijuana abuse can delay the onset of puberty. Lower sperm count is caused by lower testosterone. Chronic marijuana abuse can lead to problems with shape or size of testes, problems with sperm shape, and sperm movement. Smoking increases the risk of cancer, including testicular cancer. Lowered inhibitions can lead to risky sexual behaviors and an increased risk of contracting STIs.
- Methamphetamines: Feeling more sexual is common with use of methamphetamines, which can lead to making riskier decisions with sex and potentially contracting an STI.
- Opioids: Opioids abuse may contribute to low sperm count due to hormone disruptions and problems in the testes called hypogonadism. One study found that 83 percent of men who abused narcotics or prescription painkillers experienced hypogonadism.
- Tobacco: There has been some correlation between smoking cigarettes and lower sperm counts. Smoking also increases the risk of cancers like testicular cancer.