How Drug Use May Affect the Circulatory System

Many different drugs of abuse can lead to damage to the circulatory system.

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco products
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Opioids
  • Hallucinogens
  • Ecstasy
  • Performance-enhancing drugs
  • Caffeine
  • Different combinations of drugs

The severity of drug use, the type of drug, and the length of time abusing the drug all contribute to the potential for any damage to the circulatory system to be reversed. In some cases, standard treatments for disorders like high blood pressure can help to reverse some of the potential damage associated with chronic substance abuse.

The Circulatory System

The circulatory system consists of the heart, veins, and arteries. The heart pumps blood throughout the body via arteries, and the blood returns back to the heart through veins.

The circulatory system is responsible for carrying nutrients, oxygen, hormones, and other important substances to the various parts of your body. It is also responsible for moving carbon dioxide out of your system.

Drugs That Affect the Circulatory System

Chronic use of many different types of drugs, including alcohol, can lead to significant problems with your circulatory system.

Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. The American Heart Association reports that the excessive use of alcohol is a known cause of cardiovascular disease. Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to heart failure (the heart not pumping enough blood to service the organs and other tissues) or lead to problems with your heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Chronic drinking can lead to conditions like anemia. It can also interfere with your ability to digest your food, making the circulatory system ineffective in delivering nutrients to your system.

Tobacco Use

Because tobacco is legal, like alcohol, it is a common drug of abuse. Tobacco products like cigarettes contain numerous different carcinogens that can increase your risk for many different types of diseases and disorders.

Tobacco use is associated with an increased risk to develop cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke. This increased risk applies to even younger people who smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products.

Cocaine Use

Cocaine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that is produced from the leaves of the coca plant. The drug can be smoked, snorted, injected, or taken orally.

Chronic use of cocaine can lead to dehydration, which can result in poor dentition and damage to various organ systems, including the liver, kidneys, and lungs.

Chronic cocaine use can also result in arteriosclerosis (stiff and inflexible walls of the veins and arteries). This can result in high blood pressure, which can lead to many cardiovascular problems, including arrhythmias and heart attacks. High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder, even when you are at rest.

Cocaine use interferes with the actions of many drugs used to treat high blood pressure like beta blockers.

Methamphetamine Abuse

Methamphetamine, like cocaine, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant. It is also a significant drug of abuse and even more dangerous than cocaine.

Methamphetamine abuse can lead to damage to the heart muscles and blood vessels through inflammation. This can result in long-term problems with arrhythmias or the development of congestive heart failure.

Chronic use of methamphetamine can lead to significantly decreased blood flow to many vital organs, including the heart. But chronic use of methamphetamine also speeds up heart rate, placing significant stress on the heart.

Methamphetamine produced in private laboratories can contain toxic substances like lithium, benzene, phosphorus, and others that can also put a significant strain on the heart and other organs.

Opioid Abuse

Opioids are derived from opium that comes from the Asian poppy plant. They are man-made substances that have a similar chemical structure to substances found in opium. They are primarily prescribed for pain control, and they are significant drugs of abuse.

Many opioids like heroin are commonly injected. People who abuse opioids in this manner often share needles, leaving themselves open to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV, which can affect the circulatory system.

Abusing opioids results in a significantly decreased breathing rate and heart rate, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

Chronic intravenous opioid abusers run the risk of contracting infections in the linings of their veins and arteries, or in the valves of the heart.

Hallucinogen Abuse

LSD is a powerful hallucinogenic drug that alters your sense of reality. Most hallucinogens can lead to increased blood pressure.

Chronic use of hallucinogens may be linked to high blood pressure in some people, but hallucinogens are not associated with other significant cardiovascular risks.

Ecstasy Use

Ecstasy, or MDMA, is known as a dissociative hallucinogenic that is typically taken orally, although some people smoke or snort it. People who use the drug experience euphoria in addition to becoming more empathetic, sociable, and extroverted. Long-term users may develop depression and paranoia.

Chronic use of ecstasy is often associated with developing an excessive body temperature when under its influence (hypothermia), inflammation of the heart walls, increased heart weight, and changes in blood pressure (high or extremely low blood pressure). These conditions can lead to heart failure, stroke, or other heart damage if the drug is chronically abused.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Performance-enhancing drugs are usually steroids — synthetic substances that mimic certain hormones in the body like testosterone. When a person uses performance-enhancing drugs, they may disrupt the balance of the natural substances in the body.

This can lead to an increased risk of some disorders, including cardiovascular issues. Issues include an increased risk for stroke, cardiomyopathy (chronic disease of the heart muscle), heartbeat irregularities like arrhythmias, and even heart failure.

Other Substances That Affect the Circulatory System



Caffeine is a drug that is contained in many substances, and it is regularly used to increase alertness or energy levels. High levels of caffeine that are found in many energy drinks may lead to an increased risk to develop strokes or other problems with the circulatory system, particularly if the high levels of caffeine are combined with other drugs like alcohol or other stimulants.

A significant concern is using combinations of drugs, like alcohol with prescription drugs, alcohol with tobacco, or other combinations of drugs. When drugs with similar mechanisms of action are combined, they enhance each other’s effects. Combining alcohol with prescription opioids could exacerbate any damage to the circulatory system that might occur from either drug alone.

When combining drugs that have opposing effects, like alcohol and stimulants, you are likely to engage in heavier use because the effects of these drugs tend to cancel out each other. This can lead to an even greater potential for damage to the circulatory system or other organ systems in the body.

Can the Damage Be Reversed?



Research investigating the cardiovascular health of chronic cocaine users determined that even after these individuals had stopped using the drug, they still had damage to their circulatory system. On the other hand, some of the research looking at the improved health of chronic methamphetamine users has indicated that damage to the circulatory system was reversed to some extent once people stopped using the drug. Whether the cardiovascular damage resolves after use stops depends on the type of drug and the severity and duration of abuse.

For instance, some individuals who contracted infectious diseases through needle sharing may develop irreversible damage to the heart muscle or walls of the veins and arteries, even if their drug use was not severe. Individuals who chronically abuse alcohol may experience a reversal of liver damage associated with their abuse, if the damage is not advanced. However, in cases of advanced harm from drug use, damage to organs like the heart and liver may not fully resolve.

Treatment for Damage to the Circulatory System

Treatment will depend on the condition being addressed. High blood pressure can be treated with medications and lifestyle changes. Cardiovascular damage may require a combination of medication, lifestyle changes (diet and exercise), and even surgery.

If you have damage to your circulatory system from drug abuse, you need to stop using all substances to get well. But you will need help to do this.

If you have been regularly abusing any substance, do not stop using it suddenly on your own. This is particularly pertinent if you abuse opioids, benzodiazepines, or alcohol. Your body may be physically dependent on the drugs, and you need medical care to safely stop using them.

Comprehensive addiction treatment programs can provide the support and care you need to safely detox as well as therapy to address the underlying reasons that led you to abuse drugs. Your body can begin to repair itself once you remove the damaging substances.

Due to your medical condition, it’s best if you choose a treatment program that works in conjunction with medical professionals, including physicians.

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