Drugs Can Kill in Many Ways

Emergency service, car crash

Drug overdoses grab headlines and, as a result, the public mind. A great deal of focus is directed at overdoses, mostly because they have skyrocketed in the last two decades. However, there are many other ways that drugs can kill.

Drug use increases the risk for mortality no matter what type of drug a person uses or how they’re using it.

Addicts can Die from an Overdose

Perhaps the most well-known cause of death from drug use is an overdose. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2019, the highest death rate ever recorded. And the numbers are rising rapidly. The 2019 death rate is almost double the 38,000 people who died from overdoses in 2010, and it is more than triple the 20,000 people who died from overdoses in the year 2000.

Alcohol also causes deaths by overdose, though these are often called poisonings instead of overdoses. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes each year, many of these deaths being caused by alcohol poisonings. So many people die from alcohol that it is now the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., after tobacco, poor diet, and a lack of physical activity.

More than 160,000 Americans lose their lives every year because of drugs and alcohol, the majority of these deaths caused by overdoses. Overdoses are entirely preventable, suggesting that lives could be saved if more effort and resources were invested in public health responses, treatment, community action, and family intervention.

Car Accidents from Drug and Alcohol Use

Foggy road

An all too common cause of death in the United States, car accidents are sometimes brought on because one or more drivers are operating a vehicle while impaired. This is especially tragic because the victims of car accidents are often the people in other cars (or pedestrians) who are not using substances.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Americans die from motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver every day. Just in 2016 alone, 10,497 people died from alcohol-impaired driving crashes, a number that accounts for 28% of all traffic-related fatalities that year.

That many deaths comes out to one preventable death occurring every 50 minutes. It’s a costly problem, too, an expense of $44 billion every year in medical expenses, funeral costs, and collateral damage.

Drug-impaired traffic fatalities are also on the rise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 43% of all fatally injured drivers in 2016 tested positive for drugs, suggesting that this problem is just as prominent as drunk driving.

According to another organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, about 4,000 people are killed on the road each year who have drugs in their system. However, the actual number is undoubtedly much higher than that, as not all traffic fatality victims are tested for drugs during postmortem toxicology.

Drug Users can Suffer and Die from Communicable Diseases

Another cause of death among drug users is communicable diseases and infections. These infections can transmit from one user to another via needle sharing or through sexual intercourse.

Not only can these infections be fatal, even if they are not fatal, they often last for life, have no cure, and cause immense detriment to the addict’s life. According to NIDA, drug use makes it easier for HIV to enter the brain and cause serious nerve cell injury and problems with cognitive functions such as thinking, learning, and memory.

While deaths associated with drug use and viral infections like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are not as common as they once were, about 15,000 Americans with HIV still die every year. According to a government resource on HIV statistics, about 7% of those with HIV are people who inject drugs.

Drugs, Alcohol, and Cancer

Cancer patient in a hospital

Cancer, in terms of annual diagnosis statistics, is a growing problem in the United States. And while the death rate from cancer has receded somewhat in recent years, cancer is undoubtedly a serious public health problem. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 600,000 Americans still die from cancer each year.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has reported extensively on the link between cancer and alcohol consumption. According to one of their press releases, “Considerable evidence suggests a connection between heavy alcohol consumption and increased risk for cancer, with an estimated 2 to 4 percent of all cancer cases thought to be caused either directly or indirectly by alcohol. A strong association exists between alcohol use and cancers of the esophagus, pharynx, and mouth, whereas a more controversial association links alcohol with liver, breast, and colorectal cancers. Together, these cancers kill more than 125,000 people annually in the United States.”

“These cancers kill more than 125,000 people annually
in the United States.”

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health sought to corroborate the NIAAA data. This study examined alcohol-related deaths from 2000 to 2009 and found that alcohol consumption resulted in an estimated 18,200 to 21,300 cancer deaths during that period. The study authors concluded their findings with the simple recommendation, “Alcohol remains a major contributor to cancer mortality. Higher consumption increases risk but there is no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk. Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy.”

Drug use has also been implicated as a high-risk factor for cancer development. NIDA reports that people who use steroids, cannabis, tobacco, and vaping mechanisms are at increased risk of developing cancer.

Make it a Priority for Addicts to Get Help

If you know someone who is using drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two, make sure they get help as soon as possible. There is no doubt that drugs and alcohol kill, and that they kill in several different ways, often unexpectedly.

The only safe path for someone who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction is to get help through treatment. If you know someone who is using drugs and who cannot stop, make sure they get into a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Don’t wait until it is too late.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.