The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs

Drugs and Young People

The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs
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Drug use, or misuse, includes

  • Using illegal substances, such as
  • Misusing prescription medicines, including opioids. This means taking the medicines in a different way than the health care provider prescribed. This includes
    • Taking a medicine that was prescribed for someone else
    • Taking a larger dose than you are supposed to
    • Using the medicine in a different way than you are supposed to. For example, instead of swallowing your tablets, you might crush and then snort or inject them.
    • Using the medicine for another purpose, such as getting high
  • Misusing over-the-counter medicines, including using them for another purpose and using them in a different way than you are supposed to.

Why are drugs especially dangerous for young people?

Young people's brains are growing and developing until they are their mid-20's. This is especially true of the prefrontal cortex, which is used to make decisions. Taking drugs when young can interfere with developmental processes occurring in the brain. It can also affect their decision-making. They may be more ly to do risky things, such as unsafe sex and dangerous driving.

The earlier young people start using drugs, the greater their chances of continuing to use them and become addicted later in life.Taking drugs when you are young can contribute to the development of adult health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders.

Which drugs most commonly used by young people?

The drugs that are most commonly used by young people are alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Recently, more young people have started vaping tobacco and marijuana. There is still a lot we don't know about the dangers of vaping. Some people have unexpectedly gotten very ill or have even died after vaping. Because of this, young people should stay away from vaping.

Why do young people take drugs?

There are many different reasons why a young person may take drugs, including

  • To fit in. Young people may do drugs because they want to be accepted by friends or peers who are doing drugs.
  • To feel good. Abused drugs can produce feelings of pleasure.
  • To feel better. Some young people suffer from depression, anxiety, stress-related disorders, and physical pain. They may do drugs to try to get some relief.
  • To do better in academics or sports. Some young people may take stimulants for studying or anabolic steroids to improve their athletic performance.
  • To experiment. Young people often want to try new experiences, especially ones that they think are thrilling or daring.

Which young people are at risk for drug use?

Different factors may raise a young person's risk for drug use, including

  • Stressful early life experiences, such child abuse, child sexual abuse, and other forms of trauma
  • Genetics
  • Prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs
  • Lack of parental supervision or monitoring
  • Having peers and/or friends who use drugs

What are the signs that a young person has a drug problem?

  • Changing friends a lot
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Losing interest in favorite things
  • Not taking care of themselves — for example, not taking showers, changing clothes, or brushing their teeth
  • Being really tired and sad
  • Eating more or eating less than usual
  • Being very energetic, talking fast, or saying things that don't make sense
  • Being in a bad mood
  • Quickly changing between feeling bad and feeling good
  • Missing important appointments
  • Having problems at school — missing class, getting bad grades
  • Having problems in personal or family relationships
  • Lying and stealing
  • Memory lapses, poor concentration, lack of coordination, slurred speech, etc.

Can drug use in young people be prevented?

Drug use and addiction are preventable. Prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media may prevent or reduce drug use and addiction. These programs include education and outreach to help people understand the risks of drug use.

You can help prevent your children from using drugs through

  • Good communication with your children
  • Encouragement, so your children can build confidence and a strong sense of self. It also helps parents promote cooperation and reduce conflict.
  • Teaching your children problem-solving skills
  • Setting limits, to teach your children self-control and responsibility, provide safe boundaries, and show them that you care
  • Supervision, which helps parents recognize developing problems, promote safety, and stay involved
  • Knowing your children's friends

NIH: National Institute on Drug Abuse

  • Drug Testing (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Toxicology screen (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish

The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.


The risks of using drugs

The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs

Illicit or illegal drugs have a range of harmful effects – both short and long term. 

Medications or pharmaceuticals are also drugs and are regulated differently dependent on their level of health risk. You need a doctor’s prescription for some medications, but all medications have risks, even those sold over-the-counter at the pharmacist or supermarket, especially if not they are taken as prescribed or intended.

Short-term health harms

Short-term health harms are those that can occur as a result of an episode of use, or, in the case of medications, inappropriate use. These vary markedly depending on the drug being used (type, amount etc) and may be from the drug itself or from the manner in which the drug is taken.

For information about the short-term health effects of a specific illicit drug, visit the page called Misused substances. For the short-term health harms of inappropriate use of medications, it’s best to talk to your health professional or pharmacist.


A person is described as having taken an overdose if they suffer a medical emergency as a result of accidentally or intentionally using a larger amount of a drug than normal. This type of overdose can result from both taking too much of a prescribed drug or too much of an illicit drug or a combination of drugs.

The amount of a drug needed to cause an overdose varies. It depends on how tolerant a person is to the drug, how pure the drug is and whether the person has been drinking alcohol or has also taken a combination of over-the-counter, prescription or other illicit drugs.

Ecstasy overdose is not caused by the drug in isolation, but in combination with other risk factors. Most often, an ecstasy-related medical emergency results from overheating and dehydration.

This is most ly to occur if ecstasy is taken with another drug, in a hot environment such as a club, in combination with physical activity such as dancing and when not enough water or too much water has been consumed.

The most serious consequences of overdose relate to loss of consciousness, breathing and cardiac problems. Death can result.

For all drug-related medical emergencies, dial 000 for an ambulance immediately. 
Police will not attend unless the ambulance officers call for help or a death occurs.

Long-term health harms

Long-term health harms are those that occur as a result of long-term drug use and vary depending on the drug being used. (type, amount etc) and may be from the drug itself or from the manner in which the drug is taken.

For example, a person may catch a blood-borne virus from using injecting equipment that has been used by someone else. Hepatitis C is the virus most frequently caught, but there is also a risk of catching hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS.

Even when clean injecting equipment is used, bacterial and fungal infections can occur. Bacterial infections may cause a local abscess at the injecting site or, more seriously, may cause infections in the heart (endocarditis) or other parts of the body.

Injecting can also cause vein damage.

Smoking illicit drugs can cause respiratory illness such as a chronic cough, wheeze, shortness of breath or chronic bronchitis.

A number of illicit drugs are associated with mental health disorders. Regular users may also experience a range of social, legal, financial and emotional problems.

For information about the long-term health effects of a specific drug, visit the page called Harmful drug use. For the long-term harms of inappropriate use of medications, it’s best to talk to your health professional or pharmacist.

Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal

Tolerance means a regular user will need more of the drug to achieve the same effects as previously.

Dependence is when the drug becomes central to a person’s life. A regular user will spend a lot of time thinking about the drug, obtaining it, using it and recovering from its effects. The person will find it difficult to stop use or control the amount used.

The following drug types can all result in tolerance and dependence:


Regular users of certain drug types, both illicit and prescribed drugs, may experience withdrawal when they reduce the amount of the drug they are using or stop using it altogether. The length of time before the onset of withdrawal and the time taken to withdraw is dependent on the type of drug the person has been using.

The person may experience some of the following symptoms, depending on the type of drug they have been using:

  • craving (a strong desire to use the drug)
  • tiredness or lack of energy
  • restlessness or irritability
  • feeling angry and upset
  • poor sleep
  • headaches, joint and muscle pains, muscle cramping
  • severe stomach upset, vomiting
  • depression
  • racing thoughts
  • seizures
  • confusion.

Withdrawal can occur when cutting down or stopping use of:

How to seek support

The first step is to phone the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1300 13 1340.

ADIS is a confidential helpline for anyone, of any age. It's there for you and you can remain anonymous.

The people on the other end of the phone are trained counsellors and will listen to what you have to say. They are used to hearing about problems to do with drug use. You can talk to them about whatever you want, whether it's to do with your own drug use or that of someone else.

They can give you information about drugs, how to stay safe and what to do to keep others safe.

ADIS can also refer you to treatment services, send you resources, or direct you to where to find other information, resources and support.

Available services for treatment of drug problems

SA Health offers a range of public health services for people with drug-related problems and their family and friends.

Community-based residential inpatient and non residential treatment services are available. Community-based non residential treatment services are also available in country areas.

There are also a number of non-government drug-related health services available. Telephone ADIS on 1300 13 1340 for details.

For all drug-related medical emergencies, dial 000 for an ambulance immediately. 
Police will not attend unless the ambulance officers call for help or a death occurs.


How do drugs and alcohol affect mental health?

The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs

In this section we have listed some of the different types of substances that could have an impact on your mental health. Please be aware that this list is not a list of all substances.

Taking any substances can be dangerous. They can also have bad interactions with any medications or other substances you might use.

For more information on different substances you can visit the website of ‘Talk to Frank’. They are a specialist charity that provides information on drugs. You can find their website here:


(Also known as: bud, bhang, dope, draw, ganja, grass, hash, herb, marijuana, pot, skunk, weed)

Cannabis is one of the most commonly used drugs in England. According to one study, 1 in 13 people aged 16-59 had used it in the last year. Young people aged 16-24 are more ly to use cannabis. The same study shows that just under 1 in 5 young people had used cannabis between 2018 and 2019.

Some people take cannabis because it makes them feel relaxed or happy, but It can also make you feel anxious or feel paranoid. Some people may experience things that aren't real. This is a sign of drug-induced psychosis. Some studies have shown that the risk of psychosis may be higher if you:

  • use cannabis for a long time,
  • use it frequently, and
  • use ‘high-strength’ cannabis, skunk.

If you have been using cannabis and you feel that it is affecting your health, make an appointment to see your GP as soon as you can. Your doctor should not judge you and should not tell other people you use drugs.


(Also known as: bevvies, booze)

Some people with a mental illness have problems using alcohol. Alcohol is legal, which means it is easier to get. It can make the feelings of some mental health issues feel worse.

The long-term effects of alcohol also depend on how much you drink, and how regularly you drink it. If you drink too much on a regular basis then you could cause yourself serious physical and mental harm.

Drinking can make you do something you would not normally do. This can include self-harm and suicide. Very high levels of alcohol can cause psychosis.

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

(Also known as: PlantFood, NPS, Mdat, Eric 3, Dimethocaine and Bath salts).

These are drugs that contain one or more chemical substance. They produce effects that are similar to cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy.

Some of the drugs classed as NPS used to be known as ‘legal highs’. This is a common term that people use. It is used because some NPS were legal before 2016. However, the name is now wrong, because since 2016 they have been made illegal.

The short-term effects of an NPS depend on what you take.

Some new psychoactive drugs can cause confusion and a feeling of panic. You can also have hallucinations. This is when you see, smell, hear or feel things that other people don’t. Hallucinations can affect the way you behave. Your behaviour can become erratic and can put your own safety at serious risk.

These drugs can also affect your judgement, which could put you at risk.

Some NPS can be very dangerous. They can kill you or hurt you very badly. There is a higher risk of this if taken with alcohol or other psychoactive drugs.

Amphetamine and methamphetamine

(Also known as: Crystal Meth, Ice, Meth, Glass, Whizz, Speed, Billy, Base, Yaba, Tina and Christine)

In the short-term, these drugs can make you feel wide awake and alert. This can make it difficult for you to relax or get to sleep. They might cause you to have a drug-induced psychosis. In the long-term, amphetamines might make you anxious and depressed. They can also be addictive.

When you stop taking the drug, you may feel depressed and you might find it hard to sleep.


(Also known as: Benzos, Blues, Downers, Roofies, Vallies, Diazepam, Rohypnol, Valium, Xanax)

Benzodiazepines are a type of tranquilisers. They are used to treat anxiety. They are also used as a muscle relaxant. Sometimes a doctor will tell you to take benzodiazepines to help you with anxiety. But people also buy them illegally because of their relaxing effects. They can be addictive, and so doctors only give them for a short time.

In the short-term, these drugs can make you feel calmer. Depending on the type you take, they could make you feel confused or overly sleepy.

Taking benzodiazepines with other drugs or alcohol can be dangerous. It can affect your breathing. It can also increase the risk of overdose and death.

In the long-term, some people become addicted. This can have a big effect on their day-to-day life.

You can find more information on ‘Benzodiazepines’ by clicking here.


(Also known as: Blow, Crack, Coke, Charlie, Chang, Freebase, Sniff, Snow)

In the short-term, cocaine can make you feel awake, talkative and confident. After this wears off, you can feel tired and depressed after taking it.

In the long-term, cocaine use can affect how you feel. It can affect your relationships with friends and family. Cocaine is also addictive and over time you are more ly to have ongoing problems with depression, paranoia or anxiety.

Cocaine can cause fits, heart attacks and strokes. If you mix it with some other drugs you are more ly to overdose or die.


(Also known as: E, MDMA, MD, Molly, Pills, XTC)

In the short-term, ecstasy may make you feel energetic, very happy, chatty and confident. It can also sometimes make you feel anxious, confused or trigger drug-induced psychosis.

In the long-term, ecstasy use can lead to memory problems. You may also develop depression and anxiety.


(Also known as: Brown, Gear, H, Smack, Skag)

In the short-term, heroin can make you feel relaxed and happy. It takes away pain and can make you feel sleepy. But there is a higher risk that you could take too much or overdose with heroin than some other drugs.

Heroin can be taken in lots of different ways, including by injection. However, there is a high risk of getting an infection if you inject heroin, particularly if you share needles with someone else.

Heroin is very addictive. It can have serious long-term effects. You may feel that heroin becomes more important than other things in your life. This might make it harder to keep a job and affect your relationships.


(Also known as: Acid, Blotter, Trips, Micro-dot)

In the short-term, LSD may make you experience things that aren't real. Sometimes the experience will be enjoyable, and sometimes it will be frightening. This is known as a bad trip.

If you have a history of mental health problems taking LSD can make it worse. If you panic during a trip on LSD it can be scary. LSD may also trigger mental health problems which you haven’t experienced before.


Prescription Drug Abuse

The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs

Taking prescription drugs in a way that hasn't been recommended by a doctor can be more dangerous than people think. In fact, it's drug abuse. And it's illegal, just taking street drugs.

Why Do People Abuse Prescription Drugs?

Some people abuse prescription drugs because they think they will help them have more fun, lose weight, fit in, and even study more effectively.

Prescription drugs can be easier to get than street drugs: Family members or friends may have them. But prescription drugs are also sometimes sold on the street other illegal drugs.

In 2017, 1 in 7 teens surveyed said they have taken a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription.

But prescription drugs are only safe for the people who have prescriptions for them.

That's because a doctor has examined these people and prescribed the right dose of medicine for their medical condition.

The doctor has also told them exactly how they should take the medicine, including things to avoid while taking the drug. They also are aware of side effects and can watch patients closely for these.

Which Drugs Are Abused?

The most commonly used prescription drugs fall into three classes:

1. Opioids

  • Examples: oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol)
  • Medical uses: Opioids are used to treat pain or relieve coughs or diarrhea.
  • How they work: Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), preventing the brain from receiving pain messages.

2. Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

  • Examples: phenobarbital (Luminal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Medical uses: CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.
  • How they work: CNS depressants slow down brain activity by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA. The result is a drowsy or calming effect.

3. Stimulants

  • Examples: methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Medical uses: Stimulants can be used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD.
  • How they work: Stimulants increase brain activity, resulting in greater alertness, attention, and energy.

What Are the Dangers of Abusing Medicines?

The lihood that someone will commit a crime, be a victim of a crime, or have an accident is higher when that person is abusing drugs — no matter whether those drugs are medicines or street drugs.

all drug abuse, using prescription drugs for the wrong reasons has serious risks for a person's health.

Opioid abuse can lead to vomiting, mood changes, decrease in ability to think (cognitive function), and even decreased respiratory function, coma, or death. This risk is higher when prescription drugs opioids are taken with other substances alcohol, antihistamines, and CNS depressants.

CNS depressant abuse is risky too. Abruptly stopping or reducing them too quickly can lead to seizures. Taking CNS depressants with other medicines, such as prescription painkillers, some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, or alcohol can slow a person's heartbeat and breathing — and even kill.

Stimulant abuse ( with some ADHD drugs) may cause heart failure or seizures. These risks are increased when stimulants are mixed with other medicines — even OTC ones cold medicines.

Taking too much of a stimulant can lead to a dangerously high body temperature or an irregular heartbeat. High doses over a short period may make someone aggressive or paranoid.

Stimulant abuse might not lead to physical dependence and withdrawal, but users might take the drugs so often that they become a hard habit to break.

The dangers of prescription drug abuse can be made even worse if people take drugs in a way they weren't intended to be used. Ritalin may seem harmless because it's prescribed even for little kids with ADHD. But when a person takes it either unnecessarily or in a way it wasn’t intended (such as snorting or injection), Ritalin toxicity can be serious.

Probably the most common risk of prescription drug abuse is addiction. People who abuse medicines can become addicted as easily as if they were taking street drugs. That's one reason most doctors won't renew a prescription unless they see the patient — they want to examine the patient to make sure he or she isn't getting addicted.

Tips for Taking Prescription Medicine

If a doctor prescribes a pain medicine, stimulant, or CNS depressant, follow the directions exactly. Also be sure to:

  • Keep all doctor's appointments. Your doctor will want you to visit often so he or she can see how well the medicine is working for you and adjust the dose or change the medication as needed.
  • Make a note of the effects the drug has on your body and emotions, especially in the first few days as your body gets used to it. Tell your doctor about these.
  • Keep any information your pharmacist gives you about any drugs or activities you should steer clear of while taking your prescription.
  • Never increase or decrease the dose of your medicine without checking with your doctor's office first.

Finally, never use someone else's prescription. And don't allow anyone to use yours.

Not only are you putting others at risk, but you could suffer too: Pharmacists may be stopped from refilling a prescription if a medicine has been used up before it should be.

And if you're found giving medicine to someone else, it's considered a crime and you could find yourself in court.


Top 10 Health Consequences of Drug Abuse

The Health Effects of Commonly Used Drugs

There were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017. Short-term and long-term health effects occur from repetitive drug abuse over the years. Specific effects depend on the person, how much is being used, medical history and, of course, which substance(s) are being used. 

Continue reading to find out the top 10 health conditions associated with drug abuse and how our staff can help you. 


The National Cancer Institute defines drug abuse as the use of illegal or prescription or over-the-counter drugs for purposes other than those for which they are meant to be used, or in large amounts. 

General Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

  • Changes in physical appearance.
  • Changes in behavior with family or friends.
  • Being chronically late or not showing up for obligations or work responsibilities.
  • Limit time spent on social or recreational activities due to substance use.
  • Acting character.
  • Lacks energy when participating in daily activities.
  • Becomes defensive when confronted about their drug or substance use.
  • Urges beyond their control to use the drug or substance regularly.
  • Fails in attempts to stop using the drug or substance.
  • Increases usage of the drug or substance to get the same effect of smaller dosages.
  • Maintains a supply of the drug or substance.
  • Spends money on the drug or substance, even if they can’t afford it.
  • Continues use of the drug or substance, even after physical or psychological harm is apparent.
  • Experiences withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop using the drug or substance.

Physical and mental conditions can also develop for a loved one who suffers from a substance use disorder (SUD)


Cardiovascular Diseases

Effects can range from an abnormal heart rate to a heart attack. Injection drug use can lead to cardiovascular problems such as collapsed veins and bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves. Drugs that contribute to cardiovascular disease include, but are not limited to:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin 
  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana 
  • Methamphetamine 
  • Steroids 


Smoking cigarettes has been linked to cancer of the mouth, neck, stomach and lungs. Secondhand cigarette smoke increases non-smoking individuals’ chances of developing lung cancer along with other health problems. Young adult males using marijuana who began their use during adolescence are at-risk for testicular cancer. Drugs that contribute to cancer include:

  • Marijuana 
  • Steroids
  • Tobacco 

Gastrointestinal Effects 

Many drugs cause nausea and vomiting after use. Cocaine use causes abdominal pain and bowel tissue decay. Opioid use causes abdominal pain, acid reflux and severe constipation. Drugs that contribute to gastrointestinal effects include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Heroin 
  • Khat
  • Kratom 
  • Nicotine

Neurological Effects 

Addictive drugs act in the brain to produce their euphoric effects. Some create damage due to seizures, stroke, and direct toxic effects on brain cells. Drug use often leads to addiction. Drugs that contribute to the neurological impacts, but aren’t limited to include: 

  • Ayahuasca 
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Ketamine
  • Salvia

Mental Health Effects 

Chronic use of drugs leads to both short- and long-term changes in the brain, which results in mental health issues, paranoia, depression, anxiety, aggression, hallucinations, etc. Many who suffer from addiction are also diagnosed with a mental disorder. Drugs that contribute to mental health effects include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Cocaine 
  • Inhalants 
  • Ketamine 
  • Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)
  • Marijuana
  • Methamphetamine

Hepatitis and HIV 

Drug use is associated with risky behaviors such as sharing needles and unprotected sex. This can also weaken the immune system, which dramatically increases the lihood of contracting HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Drugs that contribute to contagious diseases include:

  • Cocaine 
  • Heroin 
  • Methamphetamine 
  • Prescription Opioids 
  • Steroids 

Musculoskeletal Disorders 

Steroid use during adolescence results in artificially high sex hormone levels. This can signal the bones to stop growing earlier than they usually would, which leads to short stature, severe muscle cramping and overall muscle weakness. Other drugs that contribute to musculoskeletal effects, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Inhalants 
  • Psilocybin 
  • Phencyclidine (PCP) 
  • Synthetic Cathinones

Respiratory Deficits 

Respiratory problems smoking cigarettes are proven to cause bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. Marijuana can also cause chronic bronchitis.

Cocaine causes lung damage and severe respiratory problems. The use of drugs opioids may cause slow breathing, block air from entering the lungs, or make asthma symptoms worse.

Other drugs that contribute to respiratory effects, but aren’t limited to:

  • Ketamine
  • Heroin 
  • Inhalants 
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) 
  • Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate (GHB)

Kidney Damage 

Drugs may cause kidney damage or failure from dehydration, dangerous increases in body temperature and muscle breakdown. Drugs that contribute to kidney damage include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Heroin
  • Ketamine 
  • Inhalants 
  • Steroids
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids 


Drug-related deaths have more than doubled since 2000. There are more deaths, illnesses, and disabilities from substance use than from any other preventable health condition. Today, one in four deaths is attributable to alcohol, tobacco and illicit or prescription drug use. 


Providence Recovery offers many services, all to help your loved one through their addiction recovery journey. 

From intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs, medication-assisted treatment to sober living homes, Providence Recovery consists of a group of healthcare and medical professionals who are passionate about addiction recovery. 

We are positioned to provide patient-centered addiction treatment through multiple treatment therapies that cater best to your loved one’s recovery process. 

We understand that it will not be easy, but our support is unwavering, as we will be with your loved one every step of the way. Help your loved one avoid the top 10 health conditions mentioned above by talking about their addiction treatment program today. 


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