The Impact of Alcohol and Drugs on Your Health
Drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs have been listed as leading health indicators for teens. It might not be easy making healthy decisions about alcohol and drugs, especially if friends are pressuring you, if you are curious about trying them, or if you are concerned about fitting into the crowd. It’s important to note, however, that alcohol and drugs can give you health problems, and increase your risk for certain diseases and accidents, or even kill you. Let’s examine both the short-term and long-term risks of alcohol and drug use. Understanding these risks will help you to make better, more informed decisions for a healthy, and productive life. The chemicals found in alcohol and drugs have an effect on your body, particularly the central nervous system, or CNS, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Drugs can be divided into three classifications based on their effect on the CNS. Stimulants speed your body up and increase energy and alertness. Depressants slow your body down and can cause sedation and drowsiness. Hallucinogens produce hallucinations and distort the perception of reality. Alcohol is an example of a depressant, or “downer.” Depressants slow down the nervous system and cause a loss of coordination, slowed reflexes, and distorted vision. As a result, alcohol is a major contributor to adolescent accidents and injuries. In a single year, more than 190,000 people under the age of 21 end up in the emergency room for alcohol-related injuries. Five thousand individuals under 21 years of age die each year into alcohol-related car accidents, homicides, suicides, and other accidents. In addition to physical impairments, alcohol also lowers your inhibitions and causes poor judgment. This can lead to risky behaviors including having unprotected sex, which can expose you to HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases, or cause unwanted pregnancy. Alcohol can cause memory lapses, or even blackouts, which can leave you filled with regret, and wondering what happened the night before. It is also possible to overdose on alcohol. Binge drinking typically means consuming four or more drinks within a span of two hours or less. Depending on the size and tolerance level of the individual, this can bring the blood-alcohol concentration high enough to induce vomiting, slow or irregular breathing, seizures, unconsciousness, and even death. Alcohol can be addictive, and can produce physical and mental dependence in those who abuse it. Alcoholism is a broad term used to describe any drinking that results in problems socially, professionally, or health-wise. Alcoholism can lead to failure to fulfill responsibilities, risky behaviors such as drinking and driving, and physical or emotional abuse of friends and family. Long-term alcohol abuse can damage nearly every organ and system in the body. Common health issues related to prolonged alcohol abuse include cirrhosis, or hardening of the liver, chronic pancreatitis, neurological and psychiatric disorders, and even cancer, just to name a few. All things considered, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to some pretty serious health issues, especially to underage drinkers. Another risk teens face is illegal drugs. After alcohol, marijuana has the highest rates of use and abuse among all drugs. Marijuana produces effects that classify it as a mixture of stimulant, depressant, and hallucinogen. Marijuana speeds up heart rate and increases blood pressure, so in that sense it acts as a stimulant. For many, using marijuana causes a state of relaxation and drowsiness, characteristic of a depressant. Marijuana can also act as a hallucinogen, causing the user to experience a distorted sense of reality, and even paranoia. The chemicals in marijuana directly affect the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, and
emotions. This means that heavy users can have trouble learning and functioning in school, or at work. Marijuana also affects brain development, so individuals who begin using it at a younger age may experience permanent deficiencies in their cognitive abilities, and even suffer brain damage. Marijuana also reduces coordination and reaction time, which can lead to poor performance in sports, and dangerous accidents if a person is driving or operating the other machinery under the influence. Smoking marijuana greatly increases heart rate and blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. In fact, within the first hour after smoking marijuana, an individual is five times more likely to suffer a heart attack. Toxins, carcinogens, and particulate matter are released when marijuana is burned. Smoking marijuana is therefore harmful to lung health, and can cause irritation, and persistent coughing as tar and phlegm accumulate in lung tissue. Many people believe that marijuana is not an addictive drug, but research shows that 10% of marijuana users show signs of addiction including choosing marijuana use over important activities; continuing to use despite negative effects at home, school, or work; and unsuccessfully trying to quit using marijuana. Federal law deems that marijuana is illegal; however, many states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and some have even legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older. It is important to note that it is NOT legal to smoke marijuana in public, even in states where recreational use is legal. Driving while stoned is also illegal and dangerous, just like drunk driving, because like alcohol, marijuana reduces coordination and reaction time, which can lead to accidents. Knowing the marijuana laws in your own state can help to keep you out of trouble. Regardless of the legality of marijuana, there are significant health risks associated with using it. Remember that just because a substance is legal, does not mean it is good for you. While marijuana is legal in some states, the next drugs on our list are not legal anywhere. Methylene -dioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is an illegal drug that is commonly used in nightclubs. This drug is commonly known by a number of different names, for example Ecstasy, “E,” Molly, Adam, Clarity, and Lover’s Speed. Unlike alcohol, ecstasy is a stimulant, or “upper,” and a hallucinogen that initially causes increased energy, distorted perception, hallucinations, and a sense of euphoria, or emotional pleasure. Ecstasy can also cause nausea, muscle cramping, teeth clenching, blurred vision, chills, and sweating. Like all club drugs, Ecstasy is a combination of other illicit drugs. Because many different recipes are used to make Ecstasy, the outcome of taking the drug can be very unpredictable. Even Ecstasy that is labeled “pure” can contain other drugs in addition to, or instead of MDMA, including cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, cough medicine, and cathinones, or bath salts. The various combinations of drugs can lead to permanent brain damage and even death. Since illegal drugs are not regulated in any way for safety, it is impossible to determine which combinations could produce this lethal effect. The fact that club drugs like Ecstasy are combinations of a number of different drugs creates an added risk when taking them. There are a number of other drugs used by teens, and for each drug is a list of negative effects that go along with their use. Cocaine comes in a powder form that is usually snorted, as well as a rock form called “crack” that is typically smoked. Both forms of cocaine are stimulants that speed everything up. Cocaine causes a short-lived, intense high. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the user experiences an adrenaline rush, as well as euphoria. The high is followed by a crash that includes irritability, depression, and a craving for more of the drug. Cocaine causes rapid tolerance, so the user must consume larger and larger amounts of the drug in order to experience the same effects. The risk of overdose is therefore extremely high and can lead to heart attack, stroke, seizure, respiratory failure, convulsions, coma, and death. Long-term effects of both forms of cocaine include sleep deprivation, loss of appetite, severe tooth decay, moodiness, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. Certainly such a short-lived high cannot be worth all this. Another drug that is classified as a stimulant is methamphetamine, often called “meth” for short. Methamphetamine is usually a white powder or pill, while crystal meth looks like glass fragments. This drug can be snorted, smoked, injected, or swallowed and produces a high that starts almost immediately, but fades quickly. Methamphetamine disrupts brain chemistry, creating a sense of euphoria, and increases body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Because the high is so short-lived, addicts often take repeated doses in a form of bingeing called a “run.” Methamphetamine is highly addictive and results in physical dependence amongst users. Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, severe depression, psychosis, and intense drug cravings. It is possible to overdose on meth. Since the drug raises heart rate and blood pressure, too much can cause a heart attack or stroke. Overheating is another side effect of meth that can cause organ problems such as kidney failure. Obviously any of these conditions could result in death for the user. Long-term health effects from using methamphetamine include severe dental problems known as “meth mouth,” intense itching that leads to sores on the skin from chronic scratching, violent behavior, paranoia, and hallucinations. Extreme weight loss can also occur since the drug suppresses the appetite, and permanent damage to the brain can reduce coordination, impair the ability to learn, cause emotional problems, and even make the user more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Certainly the negative effects of methamphetamine abuse should make using it completely unappealing. One of the most harmful drugs on the streets is heroin, which is classified as a narcotic. Heroine abusers typically describe a surge of pleasurable sensations called a “rush.” The rush may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itchiness. Heroin is a depressant, so it slows down the central nervous system, particularly those centers of the brain that control vital functions. After the initial rush, heroin users become drowsy for long periods of time. Heart function and breathing slows, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Coma and permanent brain damage may also occur. The body quickly develops tolerance to heroin, so larger amounts of the drug are needed to experience the same effects. The body quickly develops tolerance to heroin, so larger amounts of the drug are needed to experience the same effects. Strong withdrawal symptoms occur only a few hours after the last dose is taken. Users therefore become intensely physically dependent on heroin in order to avoid withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, insomnia, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and legs spasms. The worst symptoms occur 24 to 48 hours after the last dose of heroin, but withdrawal signs can last for months. The severity of withdrawal can drive a person to uncontrollable drug-seeking, during which time they will do anything to get more, including theft, prostitution, and even murder. The highly addictive nature of heroin often leads to chronic use. The prolonged use of heroin literally changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain. Deterioration of the brain’s white matter affects decision-making skills, and behavior regulation, particularly in stressful situations. Chemical and hormonal imbalances also result from long-term heroin use, as well as mental disorders like depression, and antisocial personality disorder. In addition to the brain, many other systems of the body are also affected. Liver diseases, most commonly hepatitis B and C, kidney disease, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart, collapsed veins, abscesses, arthritis, sexual dysfunction, and menstrual irregularity are just some of the many long-term effects of heroin use. Heroin is indeed one of the most destructive drugs out there, both to the user and the community in which he or she lives. Not only can heroin cause severe medical issues, the drug also leads to higher rates of crime and infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV. Without a doubt, heroin is seriously bad news. Something that might surprise you, is that about half of all heroin users start off using prescription drugs like OxyContin, and Vicodin. These prescription drugs are opioids, or pain relievers, that are derived from the poppy plant, just like heroin. Oftentimes opioid abusers turned to heroin because it is surprisingly easier to obtain and cheaper than the prescription drugs themselves. Of course, prescription drugs should only ever be taken as directed by a doctor, and medical professionals should use extreme caution when prescribing painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin since they are so addictive and so commonly abused. Common symptoms of opioid misuse include lack of pain sensation, euphoria, drowsiness, shallow or slow breathing, constipation, nausea, vomiting, itchiness, slurred speech, confusion, and poor judgment. Just like heroin, prescription painkillers produce an intense physical dependence. Users end up taking more of the drugs to avoid painful heroin-like withdrawal symptoms and just to feel normal again. Long-term abuse of these drugs can result in liver damage and brain damage. To avoid dependence on prescription pain medicines, use them only when medically necessary and return unused pills to prescription drug drop boxes so they can be properly disposed. Other commonly abused prescription drugs include Xanax and Valium, which are both central nervous system depressants typically used to treat anxiety. Both drugs are classified as benzodiazepines, often called “benzos” for short. When taken, Valium and Xanax produce feelings of relaxation, and sometimes even happiness. The body can quickly develop a tolerance for these drugs, so someone abusing them require higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. Signs and symptoms of abuse include long periods of sedation, drowsiness, mood swings, concentration and memory problems, nausea, headaches, and slow respiratory rates that could result in coma or death if combined with alcohol. Abusers also often experience a lack of motivation and reduced productivity at school or work, and strained relationships with family or friends. Long-term use results in lack of coordination, slurred speech, confusion, and disorientation. Both Xanax and Valium can produce physical dependence and addiction in the abuser, which means if a person isn’t able to get more of the drug, they experience difficult withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms for someone addicted to benzodiazepines may include sleep disruption, nausea, headaches, anxiety, irritability, trembling, muscle pain or stiffness, and panic attacks. The worst withdrawal cases could include seizures, psychosis, or hallucinations. The last group of commonly-abused prescription drugs are those stimulants typically used to treat ADHD, Adderall and Concerta. These drugs can produce a high similar to cocaine in those individuals who abuse them, and the side effects can be very dangerous. Adderall abuse can cause irritability, sleep disruption, stunted growth, depression, paranoia, and dangerous cardiac issues like arrhythmia, and hypertension. Abuse of Concerta can result in grinding of the teeth, sleep disruption, irritability, sweats, psychotic behaviors like delusions or hallucinations, seizures, and even death. Both drugs are highly addictive and can produce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when quitting. When it comes to prescription drug abuse, there are numerous options for treatment, including detox and rehab programs, support groups, and therapy sessions. The best option is not to become addicted in the first place. Only take prescription drugs when medically necessary and as directed by your doctor. Do NOT take other people’s prescriptions, even if they say it’s OK. Make sure you and your family and friends return any unused pills to prescription drug drop boxes so they can be properly disposed of, and don’t end up in the wrong hands. Certainly prescription drugs have valid medical uses. When they’re used improperly, however; they become dangerous. they become dangerous. Similarly, many common household items become dangerous when they are used outside of their intended purpose. Inhalants refer to various products, which produce vapors that have mind-altering properties when inhaled. Some examples of inhalants include gasoline, paint thinner, aerosols, and even office supplies like glue and whiteout. These products are not typically considered drugs, because they are not intended for getting high. Unfortunately, some people do use them for that purpose, most commonly young kids and teens. Usually the high that inhalants produce lasts only a few minutes. Therefore users often try to prolong the high by inhaling repeatedly over extended periods of time. Most inhalants act as depressants and can result in a feeling of euphoria, slurred speech, dizziness, and lack of coordination. Some inhalants may also produce hallucinations. As with any drug, there are many negative health effects that can result from abusing inhalants. Some people start vomiting, while others experience headaches that just won’t go away. Prolonged use of inhalants can cause permanent nerve damage that results in hearing loss, muscle spasms, tremors, and even brain damage. Long-term effects also include damage to the liver, kidneys, and bone marrow. Many solvents and aerosol sprays are highly concentrated, so overdosing is a possible risk of inhalant abuse. Toxic reactions can include seizures, coma, and even “sudden sniffing death,” which occurs when a person’s heart suddenly stops beating. These overdose symptoms can happen to an otherwise healthy young person, even on their first time using an inhalant. Inhalants can also be addictive and withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, sweating, sleep disruption, and mood swings. As you can see from our list, there are quite a few drugs out there, each with their own negative impacts to your health. Because these drugs can be so detrimental, not only to your health, but also to the surrounding community, they are illegal. That means that if you are caught with drugs in your possession, or found to have been using them, you could face serious consequences. Since selling drugs or using them is a crime, you could find yourself arrested or imprisoned. Having a criminal record can affect you for the rest of your life. Many employers conduct background checks before hiring an employee. A drug conviction on your record could make it extremely difficult to find a job. Possession of an illegal substance can also result in large fines, which can create significant financial difficulties. Driving under the influence, or DUI charges, qualify as a misdemeanor and can result in up to six months in jail, even for a first offense. A DUI charge can be classified as a felony if someone is killed or injured, and can result in a jail sentence of several years. In addition to jail sentences, courts can also impose fines up to $2,000 for a DUI conviction. DUI offenders also lose their driver’s license for a minimum of 90 days for a first offense, and for multiple years for additional DUI offenses. The state can also confiscate the vehicle of a repeat DUI offender, or cancel its registration. In addition to the legal consequences of drug and alcohol use, there may also be negative financial implications. As we already mentioned, drug use can result in heavy fines, but additionally addictions can drive a person to drain their bank accounts, and spend their entire paycheck on drugs or alcohol. In fact, addiction can consume all of a person’s resources, leaving bills unpaid, damaging credit, and leaving them without a car, a job, or even a home. Poor health, legal trouble, and financial hardship do not complete the list of detrimental effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Oftentimes there are social and emotional consequences, not only for the user, but also for his or her family and friends as well. Indeed everyone connected to the person can get hurt. Drug and alcohol abuse can cause irrational, and even abusive behavior. This can lead to fighting and violence in and outside of the home, child abuse and neglect, and many other relationship issues. Addiction can cause a person to be unreliable, to lie, and even to steal from the people they love. Family and friends of an addict experience stress and heartache as they watched the user self-destruct. Sometimes relationships are completely destroyed, leaving people emotionally isolated, and facing their addiction alone. Truly the social and emotional impacts of drug and alcohol abuse are profound, and far-reaching. There are many organizations that aim to help those individuals affected by drug and alcohol abuse, both the addicts and those around them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a hotline at 1-800 662 HELP The NIDA has operators standing by 24 hours a day to answer questions about drug abuse The NIDA has operators standing by 24 hours a day to answer questions about drug abuse and to make referrals to drug rehabilitation centers and support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are organizations that provide support for individuals struggling with addiction. Al-Anon, Ala-teen, and Nar-Anon can help family members of addicts and their friends cope with the hardships associated with living and dealing with a person who abuses drugs or alcohol. These organizations can be very helpful in identifying the underlying issues that contribute to addiction, and can provide therapy and counseling to those affected. They can also help users to come up with coping strategies and alternative activities when they feel the urge to use. When making important decisions for your life, it is necessary to gather all the information you can before coming to a resolution. Now that you know a thing or two about the negative impacts that drugs and alcohol can have, you are better equipped to make educated decisions for a healthy life. In addition to having information, it can be easier to make a rational and responsible decision if you use a decision-making tool or graphic organizer like “SODAS.” SODAS is an acronym that stands for the five steps of decision-making. (You may remember this decision-making tool from a previous lesson in this unit.) The first “S” in SODAS stands for “situation.” This is the step in which you describe the decision you have to make. When it comes to alcohol and drug use, the situation might be deciding what to do if a friend asks you to try a drug or drink alcohol at a party you plan to attend. The “O” in SODAS stands for “options.” When completing the graphic organizer, try to come up with three different choices you could make in this particular situation. For the situation in this example, when asked by a friend to try a drug or drink alcohol, you could potentially choose one of the following options: You could just say, “yes,” and try it; you could politely say, “no thanks,” and quickly change the subject to your plans for next weekend; or you could scream, “No way! I’m not throwing my life away! What kind of friend are you?” and leave the party immediately. Obviously, there are a million other ways to handle this situation, but for simplicity’s sake, try to narrow your choices to the three most reasonable options. The next two steps in the SODAS decision-making tool is to list the pros and cons for each option you listed. “D” stands for “disadvantages” and “A” stands for “advantages.” Try to think, not just in the short-term, but how each option might affect you in the long run. Sometimes it might be helpful to solicit the advice of a trusted adult if you have trouble envisioning the long-term effects of each choice. Once you’ve had a chance to weigh the pros and cons of each path, it’s time to make your choice. That brings us to the final letter of the SODAS acronym, “S,” which stands for “solution.” It’s not always easy to discern which choice is the best option, but listing the advantages and disadvantages should make the process a bit easier. Using the SODAS technique allows you to make rational, well-thought-out decisions when you are faced with tough situations. Thinking things through in advance can help keep you from making rushed decisions in the heat of the moment, when your judgment might be clouded by emotion or peer pressure. Especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol, it’s worth it to spend some time making careful decisions, because the impacts could follow you the rest of your life.