Counseling, Testing, and Health Services

Health Risks of Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol. Health hazards associated with the excessive use of alcohol or with alcohol dependency include dramatic be­havioral changes, retardation of motor skills, and impairment of reasoning and rational thinking. These factors result in a higher incidence of accidents and accidental death for such persons compared to nonusers of alcohol. Nutrition also suffers and vitamin and mineral deficiencies are frequent. Prolonged alcohol abuse can cause any or all of the following: bleeding from the intestinal tract, damage to nerves and the brain, impotence, psychotic behavior, loss of memory and coordination, damage to the liver often resulting in cirrhosis, severe inflammation of the pancreas, and damage to the bone marrow, heart, testes, ovaries and muscles. Damage to the nerves and organs is usually irreversible. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in alcoholics and is 10 times more frequent than in nonalcoholics. Sudden withdrawal of alcohol from persons dependent on it will cause serious physical withdrawal symptoms. Drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Overdoses of alcohol can result in respiratory arrest and death.

Drugs. The use of illicit drugs usually causes the same general types of physiological and mental changes as alcohol, though frequently those changes are more severe and more sudden. Death or coma resulting from overdose of drugs is more frequent than from alcohol.

Cocaine. Cocaine is a stimulant that is most commonly inhaled as a powder. It can be dissolved in water and used intravenously. The cocaine extract (crack) is smoked. Users can progress from infrequent use to dependence within a few weeks or months. Psychological and behavioral changes which can result from use include over-stimulation, halluci­nations, irritability, sexual dysfunction, psychotic behavior, social isolation, and memory problems. An overdose pro­duces convulsions and delirium and may result in death from cardiac arrest. Cocaine dependency requires considerable assistance, close supervision and treatment.

Amphetamines. Patterns of use and associated effects are similar to cocaine. Severe intoxication may produce con­fusion, rambling or incoherent speech, anxiety, psychotic behavior, ringing in the ears, and hallucinations. Intense fatigue and depression resulting from use can lead to severe depression. Large doses may result in convulsions and death from cardiac or respiratory arrest.

MDA and MDMA (XTC, ecstasy). These amphetamine-based hallucinogens are sold in powder, tablet, or capsule form and can be inhaled, injected, or swallowed. They cause similar, but usually milder, hallucinogenic effects than those of LSD. Because they are amphetamines, tolerance can develop quickly and overdose can happen. Exhaustion and possible liver damage can occur with heavy use. In high doses, these drugs can cause anxiety, paranoia and delusions. While rare, these drugs have been associated with deaths in users with known or previously undiagnosed heart conditions.

Rhohypnol (rophies, roofies, rope). This drug is in the same category of drugs as Valium, a benzodiazepine, but is more potent than Valium. Initially, it causes a sense of relaxation and a reduction of anxiety. At higher doses, light-headedness, dizziness, lack of coordination and slurred speech occur. The drug affects memory and, in higher doses or if mixed with other drugs or alcohol, can result in amnesia for the time period the user is under the influence. Because of this amnesia effect, Rhohypnol has been given intentionally to others to facilitate sexual assault and other crimes. Combin­ing this drug with other sedating drugs, including alcohol, will increase the intensity of all effects of the drug and, in sufficient doses, can cause respiratory arrest and death. Dependency can occur.

Heroin and other opiates. Addiction and dependence can develop rapidly. Use is characterized by impaired judgment, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Overdose is manifested by coma, shock, and depressed respiration, with the possibil­ity of death from respiratory arrest. Withdrawal problems include sweating, diarrhea, fever, insomnia, irritability, nausea, vomiting, and muscle and joint pains.

Hallucinogens or psychedelics. These include LSD, mescaline, peyote, and phencyclidine or PCP. Use impairs and distorts one’s perception of surroundings, causes mood changes, and results in visual hallucinations that involve geometric forms, colors, persons, or objects.

Solvent inhalants (e.g., glue, lacquers, plastic cement). Fumes from these substances cause problems similar to alcohol. Incidents of hallucinations and permanent brain damage are more frequent with chronic use.

Marijuana (Cannabis). Marijuana is usually ingested by smoking. Smoking marijuana causes disconnected ideas, alteration of depth perception and sense of time, impaired judgment and impaired coordination. Prolonged use can lead to psychological dependence.

Damage from intravenous drug use. In addition to the adverse effects associated with the use of a specific drug, intravenous drug users who use unsterilized needles or who share needles with other drug users can develop HIV, hepatitis, tetanus (lock jaw), and infections in the heart. Permanent damage or death can result.

Synthetic cannabis (K2 and Spice). This is a psychoactive designer drug derived of natural herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that, when consumed, allegedly mimic the effects of cannabis.  Synthetic cannabis can precipitate psychosis and in some cases it is prolonged. These studies suggest that synthetic cannabinoid intoxication is associated with acute psychosis, worsening of previously stable psychotic disorders, and also may have the ability to trigger a chronic (long-term) psychotic disorder among vulnerable individuals such as those with a family history of mental illness.

Bath Salts (Brand names include Blizzard, Blue Silk, Charge+, Ivory Snow, Ivory Wave, Ocean Burst, Pure Ivory, Purple Wave, Snow Leopard, Stardust, Vanilla Sky, White Dove, White Knight and White Lightning).  Bath salts are a dangerous drug whose full risks and effects are still unknown.  Doctors have reported that bath salts can cause rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, chest pains, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions.  Long-term effects are believed to be similar to methamphetamine (meth). Taking a lot of it for a long time can lead to emotional and physical "crash-like" feelings of depression, anxiety and intense cravings for more of the drug.  Since it contains amphetamine-like chemicals, bath salts will always carry the risk of stroke, heart attack and sudden death.