This section gives you an overview of what drugs and alcohol MAY do to the body. It does not happen in every case so it is important not to panic when you read this section. The effects of drugs and alcohol on the body can be determined by how long, how often and how much the person is taking/drinking.

OK here’s a quick quiz.

How many organs does your body have?

If you said less than 5, your wrong; if you said less than 10, your wrong again. If you said over 40 give yourself a pat on the back.

The definition of an organ is a structure that contains at least two different types of tissue functioning together to do one thing. There are many different organs in the body: the liver, kidneys, heart, even your skin is an organ and drug use affects most of them

Now if we were to look at the damage drug use can do to all of these, we’d run out of paper and rain forests. So let’s look at the major organs – brain, lungs, kidneys, liver and heart. If we’ve got time and space we might throw in a few other things for good measure. So let’s start from the top and look at the brain.

The Brain:
Stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs, which include speed, coke, crack, ecstasy, cannabis and LSD, cause most problems here. At best you may feel unmotivated, depressed and paranoid. These are warning signs that your body needs a break. If you don’t listen to these then you could go on to develop more serious mental health problems such as psychosis and schizophrenia.

Strokes: Strokes are the leading cause of disability in the UK and the third most common cause of death after cancer and coronary heart disease. Stimulants cause two kinds of stroke: haemorrhagic and ischemic. The first is caused by bleeding in the brain when a blood vessel bursts. Ischemic strokes, the most common kind, are the result of blocked arteries supplying blood to the brain.

You are twice as much at risk of a stroke if you use cocaine which is increased to fives times if you use amphetamines, even if it is just a few cheeky lines at weekends.

The first signs that someone has had a stroke are very sudden. Symptoms include

  • numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body (signs of this may be a drooping arm, leg or lower eyelid, or a dribbling mouth)
  • slurred speech or difficulty finding words or understanding speech
  • sudden blurred vision or loss of sight
  • confusion or unsteadiness, a severe headache.


The Lungs:
Smoking tobacco and drugs like heroin, crack and cannabis put you at risk of lung cancer, as a result of the tar content which is contained in nicotine and drugs.

COPD: COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is a term used for a number of conditions; including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

  • Chronic bronchitis: bronchitis means ‘inflammation of the bronchi’. These are the tubes or airways which carry oxygen from the air through the lungs. This inflammation increases mucus production in the airways, producing phlegm which makes you cough
  • Emphysema: this is where the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs lose their elasticity. This reduces the support of the airways, causing them to narrow. It also means the lungs are not as good at getting oxygen into the body, so you may have to breathe harder. This can result in shortness of breath.


COPD leads to damaged airways in the lungs, causing them to become narrower and making it harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. The word ‘chronic’ means that the problem is long-term.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking. Drug users have been shown to smoke in significantly high quantities.  Once you give up smoking, you gradually reduce the chances of getting COPD – and you slow down its progress if you already have it.

Tuberculosis: Using drugs generally lowers your immune system because you don’t look after your body properly or eat a healthy diet. As a result Tuberculosis, an air born virus is on the increase. If you are homeless or have been in prison, your risks of having TP could be quite high. If you fall into either of these categories and/or have experienced three of the following you should get checked out by a doctor

  • A cough that lasts for more than three weeks
  • Loss of weight for no obvious reason
  • Fever
  • Heavy night sweats
  • Fatigue/a general and unusual sense of tiredness and being unwell
  • Loss of appetite


If you haven’t had a TB immunisation jab, make sure you get one

The Heart:
High levels of smoking and alcohol use have been noted among drug users, all of which are significant contributory factors to heart disease. Evidence shows that seventeen people a week are now being admitted to accident and emergency departments after taking cocaine. Research in the medical journal Circulation suggests that up to 25% of heart attacks in people under 30 can be blamed on regular cocaine use.

The Liver:
If you inject drugs and have shared or share used equipment then you are at risk of Hepatitis C. Even if you have only shared once, that’s as little as it takes for you to be at risk of Hep C. Most drug users aren’t aware that they may have this condition, until they found out from a blood test or once they have developed liver problems. The risk of liver problems including liver cancer is increased if you drink alcohol.

If you drink and use cocaine, then your body will produce a chemical called coca-ethylene. Researchers have discovered that when cocaine and alcohol are consumed together, the body forms a unique cocaine metabolite named cocaethylene. It is unique because it is formed only during the combined ingestion of cocaine and alcohol. (The name “cocaethylene” is derived from the words “cocaine” and “ethyl alcohol.”) It is unique also because it is the first known example of the body forming a third drug following ingestion of two other drugs. The cocaine-alcohol combination is, therefore, more dangerous than it appears, and yet remains subtle.

Both alcohol and cocaine cause damage to the cells of the liver. Studies have shown that even a line or two of cocaine can screw your liver up when mixed with alcohol

If you are diabetic, then doing drugs and alcohol is not recommended. Just on it’s own, alcohol is the most common drug that can put you at risk of hypoglycemia because it blocks the liver’s ability to produce glycogen. Glycogen is a storage form of carbohydrate found in the liver and muscles, which can be needed to quickly raise blood glucose levels. In addition, if you are using drugs and alcohol together it’s unlikely that you will remember or be bothered to manage diabetes care and recognize hypoglycemia.

Evidence shows that if you drink regularly (more than 7 drinks a day) you are 60% more at risk of bowel cancer than those who don’t. If you smoke every day, you are 20% more at risk. It doesn’t take a professor to realise how much risk you are at if you do both.

To know more about specific drugs please go to our section “Drugs, Alcohol and their Effects”

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