Among the many health risks arising from illicit drug use, pulmonary (lung) complications represent some of the most dangerous.
Drug and “filler” particles can damage the lungs, resulting in a bacterial infection, which can turn septic. Other lung complications may also arise after long-term drug use.
Pulmonary Dangers Of Drug Abuse
There are many pulmonary dangers associated with drug abuse.
In general, this includes life-long conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes blockage of the airways, or life-threatening conditions such as respiratory failure.
Dangers Associated With Smoking Drugs
The dangers associated with smoking drugs are many and include the introduction of foreign bodies into the lungs.
Research suggests that regularly smoking drugs, including marijuana, can cause lung obstruction issues, increased risk of infection, and even community-acquired pneumonia.
Since drug traffickers often cut the drugs they sell with additives such as cornstarch, sugar, or talcum powder, smoking puts a person at risk of inhaling these cutting agents.
In particular, talc can cause a condition called talcosis and septic embolism, in which the powder creates small nodules that can become infected.
Dangers Associated With Injecting Drugs
There are also pulmonary dangers associated with injecting drugs, particularly damage to veins and blood vessels.
Complications can include rare issues such as granulomatosis (the inflammation of blood vessels, which can lead to lung damage) and relatively common issues such as pneumonia.
Other complications of intravenous (IV) drug use include noncardiogenic pulmonary edema (a condition where the lungs fill with fluid), respiratory depression, and aspiration pneumonia.
Lung Complications From Cocaine Use
Cocaine is commonly snorted, but some people who engage in cocaine use also smoke crack cocaine in a method called freebasing.
Pulmonary complications from cocaine abuse include:
- fluid build-up in the lungs, which may or may not result from heart damage
- hemorrhaging of air sacks in the lungs where the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen from the blood vessels takes place (diffuse alveolar hemorrhage)
- an acute lung disease that often causes acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or acute respiratory failure (interstitial pneumonia)
- constriction of blood vessels, which hampers blood flow, stressing the heart and slowing the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen
Lung Complications From Heroin Abuse
Several lung complications can occur as a result of injecting heroin. Some of them involve heroin directly, while others are a result of complications due to IV drug abuse.
Pulmonary complications from heroin use include:
- aspiration pneumonia as a result of vomiting (a potential effect of heroin use) in a drowsy or depressed state
- lung abscesses caused by aspiration pneumonia
- collapse of a lung (atelectasis), which often coincides with a drug overdose
Regarding lung collapse, this may occur when fluid gets into the lung because of a poor cough reflex.
Lung Complications From Methamphetamine Use
Methamphetamine is a stimulant similar to cocaine and is commonly smoked. As a result, meth can cause lung injuries and conditions similar to those that cocaine can cause.
Pulmonary complications from meth abuse include:
- fluid build-up in the lungs not related to heart damage (noncardiogenic pulmonary edema)
- hemorrhage of air sacs in the lungs (alveolar hemorrhage)
- a disease of the lungs that results from inhaling contaminants (pneumoconiosis)
How Drug Use Causes Pulmonary Complications
Lung complications due to drug abuse can be caused by the drug itself, cutting agents, the way in which the drug is ingested, and effects caused by the drug.
For example, people who are unresponsive from a potential heroin overdose could aspirate vomit, leading to pneumonia.
Or people who have used cocaine for a long period of time may experience cocaine-induced strain and damage to the heart. This could result in cardiogenic pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs as a result of heart damage).
People who use heroin may be exposed to health risks associated with cutting agents that heroin dealers use to increase their profits. For example, talc can cause nodules in the lungs, and cornstarch can create vascular hardening from IV drug use.
Are Pulmonary Complications Life-Threatening?
Yes, pulmonary complications can be life-threatening. Pulmonary infections can linger long enough to become septic, which involves full-body infection.
Regular substance abuse through smoking crack cocaine or other drugs can deteriorate pulmonary function so that it becomes harder for the body to fight off infection.
Fluid buildup in the lungs can also be life-threatening if not addressed, as can respiratory depression (from heroin use) or acute respiratory distress (from cocaine or methamphetamine use).
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Chemico-Biological Interactions - The large spectrum of pulmonary complications following illicit drug use: features and mechanisms
- European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine - Methamphetamine-Induced Lung Injury
- Johns Hopkins Medicine - Atelectasis
- Mayo Clinic - Pulmonary edema
- Seicat - Pulmonary Complications of Illicit Drug Use Differential Diagnosis Based on CT Findings
- UpToDate - Overview of pulmonary disease in people who inject drugs
- Western Journal of Medicine - Pulmonary Complications of Drug Abuse
- National Center for Biotechnology Information - Acute Interstitial Pneumonia