Snorting vs. Swallowing Drugs: What’s the Difference?

Substances can be misused in various ways. Illicit and prescription drugs can be swallowed, injected, inhaled, smoked, or snorted. All of these methods eventually deliver the substance into the bloodstream, where it is carried to the brain, but the speed at which this occurs, as well as the amount of the drug that is able to reach the brain, varies between methods of administration.

Swallowing and snorting drugs are both common methods of administering a drug, but they differ in important ways that can impact the onset of effects, as well as the risks associated with the drug use.

Snorting Drugs

Snorting is the practice of inhaling a powdered substance through the nose. Cocaine, amphetamines, crystal meth, and heroin are commonly used in this way. Some people may also crush and snort prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. By crushing and snorting the pills, they bypass a time-release mechanism and get a more rapid and intense high.1

Regardless of the method through which a drug is administered, the substance must be absorbed into the bloodstream before it can reach the brain and produce its effects. Snorting a drug involves the substance being absorbed through the nasal membrane and into the surrounding blood vessels.2

Those blood vessels then carry the drug to the heart, where it can be carried throughout the entire body, including all major organs as well as the brain. The drug must then pass through the blood-brain barrier—a highly selective and protective lining of endothelial cells that separates the blood from the brain—before it can interact with receptors in the brain and elicit its effects.3

Since snorting crushed pills or other drugs allows them to enter the bloodstream fairly quickly, they can affect the brain in a relatively short amount of time. This can increase the misuse potential of a drug, because the “high” produced by the substance occurs almost immediately after the drug is administered. The high also tends to be more intense when a drug, such as cocaine, is snorted.2

Physical Effects of Snorting Drugs

Substance misuse can have devastating effects on physical health. Some of these effects depend upon the method of administration and some depend on the drug being used. For example, the effects of cocaine differ from the effects of heroin.

Regardless of the drug of use, snorting drugs introduces the powdered substance into the nasal passages, which can negatively impact the respiratory system.

Long-term intranasal drug use can lead to:4

  • Chronic nosebleeds.
  • Runny nose.
  • Loss of sense of smell.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Irritation of nasal septum.

Some of these consequences may be reversible once the drug use is stopped, but over time, repeated intranasal drug use can lead to perforation of the nasal septum, which can result in breathing difficulties.5 Full recovery from the physical effects of snorting drugs may not always be possible.

Swallowing Drugs

Many different drugs can be swallowed. Most over-the-counter and prescription medications are administered this way, and many street drugs, such as MDMA capsules, can also be swallowed.

Drugs that are swallowed must overcome additional hurdles when reaching the brain. When a substance is swallowed, it is dissolved in the stomach and absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach lining, as well as the small intestine.6

Once it is in the blood stream, it travels to the liver, where it is metabolized before it goes to the brain. This metabolism by the liver causes a reduction in total drug that is ultimately delivered to the brain.6

Due to this process, swallowing a drug can have a less noticeable effect than other methods of administration, such as snorting, smoking, or injecting the drug.6 After the drug goes through this processing, it enters the bloodstream and is pumped through the body and to the brain.

Physical Effects of Swallowing Drugs

Swallowing illicit drugs, particularly street drugs that were not designed to be swallowed safely, can have serious negative impacts on the digestive tract and liver. Several different drug related health conditions can develop. As discussed, when illicit substances are swallowed, they pass through the digestive tract before being absorbed into the bloodstream.

Some potential physical effects of swallowing drugs include the following:

  • A localized lack of blood flow to the digestive tract (mesenteric ischemia): Many substances can cause this, including stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine.4,7
  • Tissue death and eventual gangrene: Caused by insufficient blood flow.8
  • Liver failure: Swallowing drugs also puts additional strain on the liver because the drug is metabolized by the liver before entering the bloodstream to be carried to the brain. Chronic drug users, particularly those who misuse opioids combined with acetaminophen (Tylenol), can sometimes experience liver failure after years of substance use.9
  • Tylenol esophagitis: Irritation or injury to the esophagus can occur if someone doesn’t completely swallow a substance that contains Tylenol (such as Vicodin, an opioid painkiller).10

Swallowing vs. Snorting Drugs: Which Is More Dangerous?

Both swallowing and snorting drugs are dangerous administration methods. Serious health risks are possible regardless of the way a person uses a drug. While certain risks can depend on the type of the drug being used such as a stimulant versus depressant, other risks apply to any type of drug use.

In addition to the physical effects listed for both methods of administration above, swallowing and snorting drugs increases a person’s risk of:

  • Dependence—When a person uses a substance regularly their body can adapt and become used to having the substance present in their system. If a person cuts back or tries to stop using the substance abruptly, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.11
  • Addiction—Diagnosed as a substance use disorder, addiction refers to the compulsive, uncontrollable use of a substance that continues despite the harmful effects it causes. Various conditions can be caused from addiction.11
  • Overdose—Consuming too much of any drug, no matter the route of administration, can result in a life-threatening or fatal overdose.2

Get Help for Drug Addiction at Sunrise House

If you or someone you care about are struggling with drug addiction, help is available. Sunrise House Treatment Center—a drug rehab in Lafayette, NJ —offers evidence-based addiction treatment to support your recovery.

Learn more about the rehab admissions process and rehab payment options by calling an admissions navigator at . Sunrise House is in-network with most major insurance providers. To find out if your insurance covers rehab, simply complete the secure now.

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