How Do Drugs Impact the Heart and Cardiovascular System? 

1Substance use disorder (SUD) is a challenging experience for the person using drugs or alcohol and the family. There are many health conditions associated with drug use. The heart and cardiovascular system have to work harder to stay healthy and keep up with the things that are put into the body. Alcohol has a lot of sugar, so processing this becomes taxing for the entire body. Drugs can elevate heart rates or slow them down, making the heart change how it works every day to function and keep the body moving. Substance use can lead to deteriorating health and the need for treatment. Find out more about the impact of drugs on the heart and cardiovascular system. 

Cardiovascular System

Cardiovascular disease is damage to the heart and blood vessels surrounding it. Without the ability to get the blood moving freely throughout the body, the tissues would quickly become starved of oxygen. Blood vessels may also transport waste products to the kidneys and then to the liver. This can harm other body processes, too. Muscular systems get involved and this form of the disease may result in brain abnormalities and damage due to interruptions in the supply of oxygen. 

Heart Attack Risks

Myocardial infarction (MI) is commonly known as a heart attack. This impairs blood flow to some part of the heart, which may result in extensive damage to cardiac muscle and other tissues due to oxygen starvation. Myocardial infarction may manifest in the chest as pain, in the arms, shoulders, tightness, or discomfort in the extremities. The result can be significant cardiac damage and symptoms that pop up may result in long term chronic health issues. The risk of heart attack should be taken seriously as it can happen at any time and a person may need to find medical support to mitigate symptoms appropriately. With the right support, healing is possible. 


Atherosclerosis involves the formation of plaque and vessel hardening along the interior walls of the arteries. Mostly composed of cholesterol and blood proteins, these proteins facilitate the introduction of cholesterol into arteries but do not remove it. This condition may be related to the consumption of unhealthy foods including those rich in sugars and fats. Some of it may be genetics, but drinking and using drugs can facilitate further disruption of blood flow through the vessels. Atherosclerosis is associated with adverse effects including increased risk of heart failure. 


Oxygen starvation can happen when people use drugs or drink alcohol over a long period of time. Any vascularized tissues or organs can be impacted by an ‘ischemic event.’ This usually is relevant to the heart and vascular system. This may occur in the brain also as a result of interrupted blood supply. Over time this may result in long-lasting damage to different parts of the body. 

Illicit Drug Use and Effects

Illicit drug use may be associated with increased risk of health diseases, including the cardiovascular system and heart. Common illicit drugs associated with adverse effects on cardiovascular disease can occur, including infectious diseases that may impact the body. By sharing needles, the risk of disease goes up. Many people who are high functioning with addiction do not share needles but are still at risk for health complications, including hepatitis and other issues. 

Stroke Risk

Heroin and other drugs have been associated with higher risk of stroke. A combination of socially unacceptable abuse, concerns for safety, and other factors have driven heroin use down. Opioids are used more frequently than heroin but the problem still remains. The use of drugs may be related to the deterioration of the heart and its function. Vascular and heart function can be impacted over time, including changes to blood pressure, abnormalities in heart rhythms, increased blood clotting, and risk of heart attack or stroke. When substances are used for a long time, it can lead to increased risk to overall health and well-being. 

Assessing the Risk

Substance use is often difficult to notice and diagnose. The combination of substance use and underlying health conditions can be lethal for some people. Seeking treatment for substance abuse may lead to an ability to control symptoms. Substance abuse treatment can be inpatient or outpatient/ but should be considered the first place a person seeks help for addiction recovery. They will develop an individualized plan with medical treatment for people in recovery and can advise further on how to mitigate symptoms of health issues and seek support for underlying mental health conditions, as well. 

Finding Hope

In spite of the challenging conditions people face with their health, there is hope and healing in recovery. It may take some time to get there, but a person who wants to get well needs to find the right program for them. Even if they try different ones, and perhaps relapse, the goal is to identify appropriate treatment measures that will work to keep them focused on recovery and striving towards healing. Physical health complications can lead to mental health challenges, so it is important to work a holistic program and seek support that focuses on the whole person, not just the mind or body. 

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