5 Surprising Ways Drugs Can Affect Your Health
Illegal drugs can cause a variety of health problems. So can prescription drugs when they’re misused. Many of these problems are widely known, such as loss of short-term memory associated with marijuana, tooth damage from methamphetamine, and anxiety linked to cocaine. But these drugs can also have serious — even fatal — consequences that might be surprising:
- Suicide. Canadian researchers gave questionnaires to more than 1,200 people who used injection drugs. At the start of the study, nearly 6% said they had recently attempted suicide. This is substantially higher than the general rate of suicide attempts in the general population.
When the researchers looked at specific types of drugs that the participants were using, they found that those who regularly used cocaine or amphetamines were nearly twice as likely to try to end their lives. This research, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in November 2014, supports earlier work that found a strong link between alcohol and drug misuse and suicide.
- Parkinson’s disease. That same month, researchers in Utah reported a worrisome link between meth and other amphetamines and Parkinson’s disease. The researchers examined medical records from Utah residents, which included information on their past drug use. Those who had used meth or other amphetamine-type stimulants were nearly three times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.
Although Parkinson’s disease often strikes people in their early 60s, younger people can develop it, too. The most noticeable symptoms of Parkinson’s disease affect the body’s movements, such as stiffness and shakiness. It also often causes memory problems, depression and anxiety. Earlier research has found that giving meth to laboratory animals can damage the same type of brain cells that are affected in people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Blood vessel damage. Cocaine fuels a lot of trips to the emergency room. In one recent year, it was involved in nearly one-quarter of all ER visits related to drug misuse or abuse. People who’ve been using cocaine often seek emergency treatment because of chest pain or other possible heart-related symptoms.
But cocaine can also play a role in blood vessel-related problems. One of these is aortic dissection. Each time your heart beats, it pumps blood out through your aorta, which is a large artery. An aortic dissection occurs when this artery becomes damaged and allows blood to flow between the layers of tissue inside the artery wall. This condition is often fatal, especially without prompt medical care. Two studies, which were conducted in areas where cocaine use was relatively common, found that cocaine appeared related to aortic dissections in 28% and 37% of patients.
Cocaine may also double your risk of having a stroke. More often, these are the kind of strokes that involves a ruptured blood vessel rather than a blocked vessel. High blood pressure related to cocaine use may play a role in both aortic dissection and this type of stroke.
Cocaine may also lead to another health problem related to blood-vessel damage, although it affects the quality of life rather than the length of it: Some research has found erectile dysfunction in more than half of men who abuse cocaine.
- Complications from contaminants. A medication called levamisole is now mostly used as a veterinary drug to help rid animals of worms. But in recent years, it’s become an increasingly common additive in cocaine. Drug suppliers may add it to cocaine in hopes of making the high last longer.
However, levamisole can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including large blood blisters that often affect the ears and cheeks as well as patches of blackened, dead skin. It can also cause fatigue, joint pain and lung and kidney problems.
- Rhabdomyolysis. This condition can develop when muscle tissue breaks down, releasing substances into the bloodstream that can damage the kidneys. Situations that can trigger it include certain types of injuries, exercising too hard and overheating. Drug use can also cause it.
Rhabdomyolysis has been linked to a number of drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy (also known as MDMA). In one report, a young man who’d taken ecstasy at a party arrived at an ER unconscious. He developed rhabdomyolysis over the course of his seven-day stay in the hospital.
Stories like this can have serious outcomes. In a 2013 report, doctors described 12 partiers who ended up in the hospital after taking ecstasy at a rave. Most arrived with a high fever, and most had rhabdomyolysis. Two of them died of their overdose and four survived with damage that appeared permanent.
The doctors who wrote the first report noted that ecstasy-related rhabdomyolysis may be related to high body temperature (which ecstasy can cause), dancing, or lying unconscious for an extended period of time, which can damage muscles by putting pressure on them. They concluded that “MDMA is not a harmless recreational drug. Even one-time ingestion…can have severe consequences.”
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricMetcalfMPH