Dangers of Drug Use: HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C and Other Life-Threatening Conditions
There are all sorts of great reasons for people to enter top rehabilitation programs for drug abuse. In recovery, they’ll forge new relationships, heal old wounds, learn to replace malignant thoughts with helpful thoughts and become more self-sufficient. But the benefits of recovery go far beyond the mental. Drug use and abuse are associated with a variety of health problems, like HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C, and some of these issues can’t be adequately cured at this time.
Reading through a list of medical consequences can be frightening, and this article does contain sobering statistics about the link between drug use and long-term health problems. There is one point to remember: Drug addictions can be successfully treated through a combination of therapy and medications. People recover from their addictions each and every day, and they learn how to manage cravings and deal with the urge to relapse. It’s possible, and it happens. It can be helpful to keep that in mind while reading through these descriptions of a few of the health issues that have been linked to drug use.
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HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted from person to person through blood and blood products. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction has been closely related to HIV/AIDS since the epidemic first came to light in the 1980s. In the beginning, people assumed that infections were occurring due to needle sharing. People who injected drugs like heroin would pass a dirty needle between them, and if one person had an infection, that dirty needle would pass the infection to the next user in line. While this theory is certainly responsible for some of the HIV/AIDS infections that occur within the addiction community, there is another theory that has recently been gaining traction.
In later studies, the NIDA discovered that between the years of 2005 and 2009, 64 percent of those who had HIV/AIDS had used illicit drugs, but they had not used needles in their drug use. Researchers determined, instead, that these people were infected because they engaged in high-risk, unprotected sex while under the influence of drugs. Many illicit drugs lower inhibitions and cloud thinking, which makes understanding consequences and planning for the future particularly difficult. Caught up in the moment, these users may have had unprotected sex with strangers, and they may have been infected through body fluids. While they might never have engaged in this behavior while sober, while under the influence, they felt it was a safe and reasonable thing to do.
HIV/AIDS can be successfully controlled through medications, but people must take those medications at the same time every day and follow their doctors’ instructions carefully. They must also do their part to avoid dangerous, contaminated situations and locations, as they do not have a robust immune system that can protect them from infections headed their direction. And finally, they must engage in safe sex and personal hygiene practices, so they don’t infect other people. While all of these steps might seem rational and reasonable, they can be hard for people to accomplish while they are still under the influence of drugs. In fact, they may be incapable of handling these tasks while they are also using drugs. This could allow them to pass the infection to others, and it could allow the disease to move through the body unchecked and uncured for years, leading to the person’s death.
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This is another infection caused by the transmission of blood and bodily fluids, and it is also rampant in the drug-using community. In fact, a study published in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews found that 60 to 90 percent of people who injected drugs were also infected with hepatitis C. Here, too, it’s possible that some people were infected due to unprotected sex they had while under the influence, but the role of needles seems to be more prominent in hepatitis C than it is in HIV/AIDS infections.
The hepatitis C virus causes swelling in the liver, and while early cases might be mild and might not even need treatment, an ongoing infection can cause such severe liver damage that it could result in death. Some people require liver transplants due to the damage they’ve sustained, and without those transplants, those people die. People with hepatitis C also need to engage in safe sex and safe hygiene practices to avoid spreading the infection to others. Again, this can be hard for people to accomplish while they’re still using drugs and experiencing poor impulse control.
Hepatitis C is particularly insidious with drug use, as the symptoms can be misinterpreted. According to the Mayo Clinic, early stages of hepatitis C produce symptoms such as:
- Joint pain
- Lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
While healthy people might believe that they have the flu at first, they might certainly head to the doctor when those symptoms don’t seem to lift. By contrast, people who are accustomed to illicit drug abuse might interpret these signs as drug withdrawal. These are, in fact, the very same signs a person would feel in the early stages of a heroin withdrawal. As a consequence, people with hepatitis C might increase and increase the amount of drugs they are taking, as they’ve wrongly interpreted their infection. They could then face a higher-than-average risk of overdose.
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The term “endocarditis” is used to describe an infection in the lining, chambers and/or valves of the heart. While people who have congenital heart problems can develop endocarditis, as can people who have faulty man-made valves inserted in their hearts in a surgery, most people who develop the condition use needles to shoot drugs. These needles may have tiny germs or fungi on them, and when those elements enter the bloodstream, they attach to the heart and begin to cause severe and significant problems for the user. Some people who crush up pills and inject them can develop endocarditis as the insoluble pieces of the pills collect in pockets in the heart, causing irritation and infection. An infected heart simply cannot pump blood properly, and the blood may begin to pool and collect in the extremities. Some people may even have heart attacks or heart failure due to endocarditis.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports that the infection can be treated with antibiotics in some cases, but sometimes people must have surgery in order to remove infected tissue or replace damaged valves that are no longer working. Some people even develop types of endocarditis that don’t respond to antibiotics, and those types are often considered fatal.
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While people who inject drugs run the risk of developing serious medical complications, people who smoke their drugs also run the risk of a great deal of physical distress. Many of these people develop cancer as a result of their habits. Drugs such as marijuana and crack cocaine can be contaminated with all sorts of carcinogens. The NIDA reports that marijuana smoke, for example, contains 70 percent more irritants and carcinogens than tobacco smoke. It’s a serious problem. In order to get the most benefit from the drugs, users inhale that toxic smoke and keep it in contact with the tissues of their mouth, throat and lungs for an extended period of time. This can lead to cancer of these tissues.
Many people who use drugs do so while they are also drinking alcohol. This, too, can lead to cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol ingestion has been linked to a variety of cancers, including cancer of the:
- Voice box
In some cases, the alcohol leads to inflammation, and as the body attempts to repair that inflammation, small mistakes are made in the genetic coding, and this leads to cancer. In other cases, alcohol seems to act as a solvent, allowing harmful chemicals to more readily enter the delicate tissues in the body and begin to cause damage.
Some forms of cancer can be successfully cured with a combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and other medications. But, in general, cancer is best treated when it’s in the early stages. As cancer progresses, it begins to enter the lymphatic system in the body, which means those cancer cells can move far, far away from the sites where the cancer originated and make trouble in entirely new parts of the body. Regular screenings, along with prompt notification when something strange is found, is the best way to find and catch cancer in the early stages. Again, this can be difficult for a habitual drug addict to do, as that person is probably spending the vast majority of time looking for and taking drugs.
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Other Life-Threatening Conditions
Drug use has been linked to infections in the heart, but people who abuse cocaine, methamphetamine and other stimulants can also do a significant amount of damage to the heart muscle itself. These drugs flood the heart with information, and as a result, the heart begins to beat faster and faster, harder and harder, and sometimes it simply stops under the strain. The heart may also begin to beat erratically, and this can also lead to blood clots and death.
Abusing drugs for a long period of time also can do significant damage to the kidneys. These organs clean the blood and produce urine, and they can quickly become damaged due to high body temperatures and/or high blood pressure. Many illicit drugs cause both of these symptoms, which can cause a great deal of damage to the kidneys in a very short period of time. This damage can be fatal.
Drugs can also cause severe and long-lasting mental illnesses, and some of these conditions can either shorten life or make it much more difficult to live. For example, a study published in The Lancet found that people who had used marijuana on more than 50 occasions were much more likely to develop schizophrenia than people who did not use marijuana. While it might be true that schizophrenia can be controlled with medications and therapy, it is also true that this chronic condition can cause a significant amount of disruption to a person’s life, and that disruption could include erratic behavior that could lead to death.
Finally, the most life-threatening condition associated with long-term drug abuse is overdose. As addicts take in higher and higher doses of their drugs of choice, they walk closer to the line between enjoying the drugs and overdosing on those drugs. Some addicts may receive treatment for those overdoses, while many more may lose their lives on a trip gone wrong. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 100 people in the United States die every day from overdoses to prescription drugs. Many more overdose on illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Every time a person takes illicit drugs, that person is flirting with the real possibility of an overdose.
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This information isn’t provided to scare anyone but it isn’t exaggerated either. Using drugs can do a significant amount of damage to all sorts of systems in the body, and the drug use makes it hard for people to spot and treat that damage when it’s in the small and early stages. That’s why getting help is so very important. As part of a comprehensive top treatment program for addiction, the person will access therapies to help curb the drug abuse, as well as therapies that can help to heal the other damage that has already taken place. It’s an ideal way to help the person heal and return to a life that is free from the dangers of drug abuse.
At Alta Mira, we provide a comprehensive screening at the beginning of our addiction therapy program, so we can determine all of the physical and mental issues that will need to be addressed in treatment. We work closely with medical providers to ensure that physical health is taken care of as well as mental. Recovery from addiction is possible, and we’d like to help. Please contact us to find out more.
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