Drugs and diseases

Risks with Drugs


3- Drugs and Diseases


Drug users are at higher risk of dying from infections and diseases such as HIV and other blood-borne viruses. This page describes some of these disease and infections to raise your awareness on how you may be endangering your health by taking drugs.


  • HIV & AIDS
  • Hepatitis
  • Cardiovascular effects
  • Respiratory system
  • Liver & kidney damage
  • Neurological problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Cancer
  • Prenatal effects
  • Other health effects



  • Drug abuse and addiction have been inextricably linked with HIV/AIDS since the beginning of its epidemic in the 1980’s. The link has to do with the consequences of taking drugs especially if injecting. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus severely damages the immune system and causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, a condition that defeats the body’s ability to protect itself against disease. HIV is transmitted by contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person. This can occur during through sharing injecting drug-use equipment or unprotected sex. In addition, untreated infected women can pass HIV to their infants during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding.
  • No vaccine yet exists to protect a person from getting HIV, and there is no cure. However, HIV can be prevented and its transmission curtailed. Drug abuse treatment fosters both of these goals. HIV medications also help prevent HIV transmission and the progression of HIV to AIDS, greatly prolonging lives.
  • Most people know that intravenous drug use and needle sharing can transmit HIV: less known is the role that drug abuse plays in general. A person under the influence of certain drugs is more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as having unsafe sex with an infected partner. Indeed, the most common (but not only) way of contracting HIV is through unsafe sex. This includes “transactional” sex—trading sex for drugs or money.
  • Anyone is vulnerable to contracting HIV. Although injecting and other drug users are at elevated risk, anyone who has unprotected sex could be exposed to the infection.  Drug abuse and addiction can also worsen HIV symptoms, causing greater neuronal injury and cognitive impairment. From the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s until the mid-1990s, HIV infection was almost guaranteed to result in death from AIDS. The number of deaths declined after 1996, when effective treatments were introduced. HAART—highly active antiretroviral therapy—is a customized combination of different classes of medications that a physician prescribes to treat HIV. Although it cannot rid the body of the virus, HAART can control the amount of virus in the bloodstream (viral load), helping to delay the onset of symptoms and progression to AIDS, prolonging survival in people with HIV.
  • The main symptoms for any blood-borne infections will usually appear a few days after infection has occurred and usually consists of a blocked and/or runny nose, loss of taste, smell, other senses and an unpleasant sense of thickness in and around the central cravioun in the brain. A general feeling of malaise, aching and weakness will usually accompany these symptoms. If the onset of symptoms happens around 4–8 days after infection then it is more than likely hepatitis but could also be any strain of HIV. Sufferers tend to get these same symptoms regardless of what disease or virus they may have contracted.
  • The most common symptoms of HIV or AIDS that has been contracted intravenously are again a runny and/or blocked nose, acute loss of taste and/or smell, a blocked or thick sensation within the head, general aching, malaise and weakness, hot and cold sweats and occasionally acute insomnia. These symptoms will most likely subside after 2–3 days and the individual will then regain their previous posture and well being. Any one individual could possibly live completely unaware of the presence of the HIV virus for many years as the initial symptoms subside and may not appear again for a long time. Of all the ways to take drugs, injection, by far, carries the most risks as it bypasses the body’s natural filtering mechanisms against viruses, bacteria and foreign objects. There will always be much less risk of overdose, disease, infections and health problems with alternatives to injecting, such as smoking, insufflation (snorting or nasal ingestion), or swallowing.
  • If you think you might have been exposed to the HIV virus, the only way to know if you are infected is to have an HIV test. Getting tested is not complicated. Some tests can even provide results in 20 minutes, although testing is not accurate until about 6–8 weeks after exposure to HIV.



  • Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Injection drug users are particularly vulnerable to hepatitis and an estimates 67 precent of injection drug users are infected with hepatitis C, a strain most often transmitted through infected blood through dirty needles. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted through sex with an infected person or sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, but these are less common.
  • The incubation period for hepatitis C is 2 weeks to 6 months. Following initial infection, approximately 80% of people do not exhibit any symptoms. Those who are acutely symptomatic may exhibit fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-coloured faeces, joint pain and jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes). About 75–85 % of newly infected persons develop chronic infection and 60–70% of chronically infected people develop chronic liver disease; 5–20% develop cirrhosis and 1–5% die from cirrhosis or liver cancer.
  • There is no vaccine that can protect against hepatitis C, but the risk of infection can be reduced by avoiding:
    • Use of illicit drugs and sharing of injection equipment
    • Unprotected sex
    • Sharing of sharp personal items that may be contaminated with infected blood


Cardiovascular effects

  • Researchers have found a connection between the abuse of most drugs and adverse cardiovascular effects, ranging from abnormal heart rate to heart attacks. Injection drug use can also lead to cardiovascular problems such as collapsed veins and bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves.


Respiratory system

  • Drug abuse can lead to a variety of respiratory problems. Smoking cigarettes, for example, has been shown to cause bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. Marijuana smoke may also cause respiratory problems. The use of some drugs may also cause breathing to slow, block air from entering the lungs or exacerbate asthma symptoms.


Liver & kidney damage

  • Chronic use of some drugs, such as heroin, inhalants and steroids, may lead to significant damage to the liver. Some drugs may cause kidney damage or failure, either directly or indirectly from dangerous increases in body temperature and muscle breakdown.


Neurological problems

  • All drugs of abuse act in the brain to produce their euphoric effects; however some of them also have severe negative consequences in the brain such as seizures, stroke, and widespread brain damage that can impact all aspects of daily life. Drug use can also cause brain changes that lead to problems with memory, attention and decision-making.


Mental health problems

  • Chronic use of some drugs of abuse can cause long-lasting changes in the brain, which may lead to paranoia, depression, aggression, and hallucinations.



  • Cigarette smoking is the most preventable cause of cancer. Smoking cigarettes has been linked to cancer of the mouth, neck, stomach, and lung, among others.


Prenatal effects

  • The full extent of the effects of prenatal drug exposure on a child is not known, however studies show that various drugs of abuse may result in premature birth, miscarriage, low birth weight, and a variety of behavioral and cognitive problems.


Other health effects

  • In addition to the effects various drugs of abuse may have on specific organs of the body, many drugs produce global body changes such as dramatic changes in appetite and increases in body temperature, which may impact a variety of health conditions.
  • Drug-related deaths have more than doubled since the early 1980s. There are more deaths, illness, and disabilities from addiction than from any other preventable health condition. Today, one in four deaths is attributable to alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug abuse.

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