How the Heart Reacts to Drug Use

Cardiac Effects of Using Drugs

heart and arteries

When you use drugs, whether you smoke, snort, swallow or inject them, they travel through your bloodstream on the way to your brain, where they have their intoxicating effects. The drugs in the blood veins and arteries will eventually pass through the heart, and once there they often have effects which can cause serious and potentially fatal consequences. This is an often overlooked aspect of the physiological effects of drug abuse, yet it is one of the most important to know about, particularly for addicts who are looking for motivation to finally quit.

A 2000 study which was released in the Western Journal of Medicine detailed the cardiac effects of using many different types of drugs, beginning with cocaine. When snorted or consumed in other ways, cocaine causes the release of dopamine and other chemicals known as catecholamines, in addition to inhibiting the reuptake of these substances. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is associated with feelings of well-being and euphoria, and it is by thus increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain that cocaine gets a person high.

Cocaine use can increase the levels of dopamine and other catecholamines by as much as five hundred percent, and as a result, it can impair the ability of the muscles of the heart to conduct electricity and to contract. The drug can also cause endocarditis, which is inflammation of the inner lining of the heart, as well as myocarditis, a condition of inflammation of the heart muscle. Acute symptoms can include tachycardia, which is an abnormally high and often dangerous heartbeat, as well as constriction of the blood vessels.

This can result in myocardial infarction, also known as a heart attack, or even heart failure. Amphetamine, which is commonly known as speed and is also one of the primary ingredients of Adderall, and its derivative ecstasy, produce similar results as cocaine since they also increase the levels of dopamine and other catecholamines in the bloodstream. They can also cause hypertension (high blood pressure) by suppressing the action of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. The toxic effects of the drugs can also cause ischemia, a condition in which the blood supply to the tissues of the heart is restricted.

Opioid Drug Abuse and Heart Health

Whereas cocaine and other stimulant drugs can cause heart problems which primarily have to do with high blood pressure and elevated heartbeat, opioid analgesics generally have the opposite effect. These drugs are all derivatives of opium, and they include morphine and heroin, as well as the opiate prescription painkillers hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin).

One of the most common consequences of opioid drug use is bradycardia, a condition of having a slow heartbeat, while such drugs also commonly cause hypotension, low blood pressure which can deprive the organs throughout the body of the blood supply that they need to operate. In some cases, opioid users will even suffer noncardiogenic pulmonary edema, which happens when the lungs fill with fluid, while others may contract bacterial infections of the heart as a result of injecting the drugs. Individuals who experience cardiac complications as a result of drug use will frequently end up in the emergency room. Unfortunately, they often will be unwilling or unable to explain to the doctors and nurses what drugs they were using, a fact which makes it far more difficult for the medical personnel to render the appropriate treatments. Given the potential health risks, drug use is simply far too dangerous to justify doing. If you are addicted and are concerned about the health hazards of using drugs, get help now.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.