Drugs and Health

Health hazards associated with the recreational use of drugs

A drug is any chemical that alters the function of an organ or a process in the body. Drugs include prescribed medicines, over-the-counter remedies, and various other substances used for nonmedical purposes. Drugs that have been developed to improve body functions or to treat disorders are known as medicines (see Drug treatment). Some drugs, such as temazepam (see Sleeping drugs), may be both used as medicines and abused for recreation. Other drugs, such as ecstasy, have no medicinal value and are used only for recreational purposes.

Recreational drug use can cause serious health problems, particularly if the user takes an overdose or becomes dependent on a drug (see Drug dependence). Since the sale or use of most recreational drugs is illegal, a user may be arrested and even face imprisonment. Alcohol and nicotine are also drugs that can be addictive and harmful (see Alcohol and health, and Tobacco and health), as is caffeine, but they are viewed differently by society because they have been used for centuries and are sold legally.

Effects of drug use

Recreational drugs are usually used to alter mood. They can be classified according to the predominant change that they cause but often have a mixture of effects. Stimulants, such as cocaine, cause increased physical and mental activity; relaxants, such as marijuana and heroin, produce a feeling of calm; intoxicants, such as solvents, make users feel giggly and dreamy; and the main effect of hallucinogens, such as LSD, is to alter perception and cause the user to see or hear things that do not exist.

In addition, recreational drugs can affect functions such as breathing and temperature control. These effects can be damaging in both the short and the long term and some are potentially fatal. Some of the potential health risks, such as those of dependence or of an extreme reaction, apply to many or all drugs. Drugs that are injected carry additional risks associated with the use of needles. Each drug also carries a range of specific risks to the health of users (see Risks of specific drugs). The health hazards associated with certain recently developed recreational drugs are not yet fully understood, although ecstasy use has been reported to lead to brain damage in the long term.

Although problems arising from drug abuse are often due to the adverse effects of some drugs and drug dependence, there is also a risk of accidents that may occur during intoxication.

Extreme reactions

Any recreational drug can be dangerous, even if not used regularly. One risk is an extreme reaction to a drug. The effects of any drug can vary among users, and a drug that has only mild effects on one person may severely affect another. In addition, a drug may be mixed with other substances, and the amount of active drug may vary considerably from dose to dose. Since the drugs are illegal, there is no control over the standards of drug purity. Many drugs, such as cocaine and LSD, can cause delusions, leading to abnormal or hazardous behaviour.

Uncertainty and recklessness about the strength of a drug may lead to overdose, which can be fatal. Alcohol and certain medicinal drugs, such as aspirin, interact with recreational drugs to produce intensified or unexpected effects.

Drug dependence

Regular users of recreational drugs may face the problem of physical or psychological dependence, or more commonly both.

In physical dependence, the body has adapted to the drug and begins to crave it; the user feels ill if he or she does not take the drug regularly, and may come to need that substance simply in order to function normally. If the drug is stopped, the user will develop the signs and symptoms of withdrawal, which are relieved if the drug is taken again. Physical dependence develops more rapidly if the drug is injected.

Even if a particular drug is not physically addictive, drug users may become psychologically dependent, coming to rely on the enjoyable effects of a drug or the rituals that surround its use. They may also risk psychological disturbance and malnutrition due to self-neglect or loss of appetite. Some users may also spend a lot of time taking or obtaining drugs and withdraw from ordinary life. Since illegal drugs are expensive, many users support their habit by crime.

Risks associated with injection

Some users take drugs by injection. Drugs that are injected take effect more rapidly than those that are taken by mouth because they enter the bloodstream directly, without passing first through the digestive system. There are different routes for injection, the fastest of which is intravenous. Users who inject drugs risk causing infection and damage to blood vessels. These problems can lead to tissue death (see Gangrene), which is a potentially life-threatening condition, or septicaemia, another dangerous condition, in which bacteria multiply rapidly in the bloodstream. If syringes and needles are shared, users also risk infection with HIV (see HIV infection and AIDS) and hepatitis B or C (see Acute hepatitis).

What you can do

If you or someone close to you abuses drugs, ask your doctor about the health risks and treatment options. Controlled withdrawal programmes are available that offer gradual, supervised reductions in doses. Alternative, less harmful drugs may be given as well as treatment for any withdrawal symptoms. Social service agencies and support groups may provide follow-up care. The success of treatment depends on the motivation of the affected person. Problems often recur if people return to the circumstances that originally gave rise to the drug abuse. If you have children, you should tell them about the hazards of drug use. If their school has a drug awareness programme, you should try to reinforce its messages.

Health Effects : Risks of Specific Drugs

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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