Heart Health: The Effect of Drugs and Addiction

Addiction can have a profound and detrimental effect on every aspect of an individual’s life, and one of the most noticeable areas of impact is their physical health.

Drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, opioids and methamphetamine can all have serious and potentially life-threatening effects on the heart, and these effects are not merely restricted to long-term users.

In many cases, individuals who ingest certain substances for the first time have experienced heart failure or blood clots directly related to the devastating effects of these drugs.

However, the most commonly affected people are those that are struggling with addiction and therefore are more at risk of developing drug-induced cardiovascular disease.

What is cardiovascular disease?

Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘cardiovascular disease’ does not refer to one particular condition. Instead, it is an umbrella term covering a range of illnesses and diseases relating to the heart and blood vessels. [1]

Although there are a number of conditions that are associated with cardiovascular disease, many of them have two things in common: a build-up of fatty deposits within the arteries as well as a high risk of developing a blood clot.

As a result, cardiovascular disease can be extremely dangerous and may even be life-threatening in certain cases.

Common types of cardiovascular disease:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Strokes
  • Heart failure
  • Aortic disease
  • Peripheral arterial disease
  • Transient ischaemic disease
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Heart attack
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Vascular disease
  • Pericardial disease
  • Rheumatic heart disease

As one of the most common causes of death in the UK, it is important to take the necessary precautions and make lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and ensure that your heart remains healthy throughout your lifetime.

Substance abuse and addiction can increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease due to the various detrimental effects that illicit drugs can have on your heart and overall physical health.

Certain drugs can reduce the effects of life-saving heart medications and increase the risk of sudden death even in new users, making conditions such as blood clots and strokes more likely to occur.

What are the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease?

As there are a number of different types of cardiovascular disease, symptoms can vary depending on the cause.

Addiction and substance use can result in a number of conditions including arrhythmia and heart failure which present as a wide range of symptoms that may differ from other forms of cardiovascular disease.

Common symptoms of cardiovascular disease:

  • Breathlessness, difficulty catching your breath
  • Feelings of extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • Chest pains
  • Swollen arms and/or legs
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • The tightness and/or pressure in the chest
  • Noticeable increased or slowed heart rate
  • Feeling dizzy and/or lightheaded, as though you are about to faint
  • Pain and/or numbness in arms
  • Sharp back pain

It can be more difficult to spot the above symptoms in women and elderly people, as they often display more subtle symptoms of cardiovascular disease.

If you are concerned that you or someone else is showing signs of cardiovascular disease, particularly sharp chest or back pain coupled with shortness of breath, call 999 immediately and seek medical assistance.

This condition is often treated more effectively when caught early and it is possible to live a long and fulfilling life with cardiovascular disease.

How does cocaine affect the heart?

Most people are aware that cocaine can have a noticeable effect on the heart, even on people who use cocaine occasionally and recreationally. As a stimulant, it can increase the heart rate and speed up other body functions which can contribute to feelings of energy and euphoria.

However, cocaine also puts a large amount of strain on the heart by making it contract with more force and work harder to pump blood around the body.

There have been a number of cases in which cocaine users have suffered a heart attack within one hour after ingesting this substance, including individuals who are using cocaine for the first time.

It can also lead to myocarditis which is the inflammation of the heart – a potentially fatal condition that can cause heart failure.

It can be more difficult to treat users of cocaine who are suffering from cardiovascular disease due to the often unpredictable effects of this substance, as it often limits which treatments can be used due to potential complications such as an increased risk of stent clotting and artery constriction.

How do opioids affect the heart?

While opioids can be highly effective painkillers when prescribed by a medical professional, they are also extremely addictive and have the potential to be abused by individuals without a prescription.

When used on a short-term basis under the care and guidance of a doctor, opioid-based medication is unlikely to affect the heart.

However, when abused they can potentially cause fatal heart arrhythmia and irregular heartbeat as the heart takes longer to recover between each beat.

It is also possible for the heart to completely stop during an opioid overdose, as this medication slows down bodily functions including all vital organs such as the heart.

Another common side effect of opioid addiction is the inflammation of the heart lining caused by a bacterial infection, which is known as endocarditis.

This is usually caused by injecting drugs with a dirty needle or by sharing needles with an infected person. [2]

In rare cases, heart problems can be caused by opioid withdrawal. During the detoxification and withdrawal process, the heart can become weakened and begin to exhibit signs similar to a heart attack which is known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

How does methamphetamine affect the heart?

Methamphetamine is a stimulant, meaning that this substance has the ability to speed up the body’s processes and cause it to work faster and harder for a short period of time. As a result, it can have a number of detrimental effects on the heart including increased blood pressure, high cholesterol and coronary artery spasms.

Cardiovascular disease is second only to overdose as the most common cause of death in individuals who use methamphetamine. Unlike other substances, even new users of methamphetamine can experience the effects of this substance on the heart.

Studies have shown that methamphetamine users have a 27.5% increased risk of sudden death when compared with the general population and this can occur even when using this substance for the first time. [3]

How does cannabis affect the heart?

Studies have shown that the risk of experiencing a heart attack is seven times more likely during the hour after smoking cannabis, making it highly dangerous for people with heart disease to ingest this substance.

This is due to the effect that cannabis has on this vital organ, potentially increasing the heart rate and forcing it to pump harder while simultaneously dilating the blood vessels.

People who have previously experienced a heart problem should be particularly cautious around cannabis use, as some studies show a potential link between heart attack survivors and an increased death rate.

Worryingly, medications that are usually prescribed to treat heart spasms seem to be ineffective in people who are using methamphetamine.

How does alcohol affect the heart?

As alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and is pumped around the body, the ingestion of this substance can have serious and lasting effects on the heart both in the short and long term.

While you are drinking alcohol you can experience a temporarily increased heart rate and blood pressure, and if you continue to ingest large quantities of alcohol over time this can lead to a weakened heart and a permanently increased heart rate.

A weak heart often has difficulty contracting, and this means that it takes more effort to pump blood around the body. As a result, the brain and other vital organs may not receive sufficient oxygen and nutrients required to work effectively.

Alcohol can also increase the amount of time between each heartbeat, potentially leading to blood clots and an irregular heart rhythm both of which have the potential to cause a stroke or heart attack.

How does nicotine affect the heart?

Studies have shown that nicotine itself has a relatively small effect on the heart, although it is still not recommended for patients at higher risk of heart disease, it is the method that this substance is ingested that can have dangerous consequences for your heart health.

A cigarette can contain up to 5000 chemicals that may include formaldehyde and even arsenic. They are also highly addictive due to the nicotine levels that they contain, causing many people to smoke multiple cigarettes every day for years or even decades.

Smoking cigarettes can increase your blood pressure as it narrows and thickens the blood vessels, putting you at a much greater risk of suffering from a heart attack.

It can also increase your heart rate and potentially narrow your artery walls while depositing more fat in the blood and increasing your chances of experiencing a blood clot.


[1] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cardiovascular-disease/

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/health-consequences-drug-misuse/cardiovascular-effects

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684255/