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The Effects of Substance Abuse on Your Heart

Table of Contents

It probably comes as no surprise that substance abuse is bad for your heart. But what may surprise you is the vast range of heart damage caused by abusing both legal and illicit drugs.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine abuse is associated with a large number of severe cardiovascular problems like arrhythmia and heart attack, while injecting heroin may lead to conditions like scarred and collapsed veins and bacterial infections of the heart valves and blood vessels.

Risks of Heart Disease
It’s not just the “hard” drugs that can cause heart damage. The effects of cigarette smoking on the heart are well known, and an individual’s risk of suffering a heart attack within an hour of smoking marijuana is five times higher than his or her normal risk.

An article published in the Western Journal of Medicine cites drug abuse as a major contributor to dangerous changes in cardiovascular function and irreversible damage to the heart, so much so that the authors recommend that physicians always consider substance abuse when a patient exhibits unexplained or unusual cardiovascular problems.

Just a few of the wide range of common heart problems associated with substance abuse include arrhythmia, endocarditis, myocarditis, pulmonary edema, arterial thrombosis, cardiac arrest and fatal heart attack.


Arrhythmia is the medical term for an abnormal heartbeat. Most substance abuse can lead to the heart beating too fast, too slowly or erratically, and this causes ineffective blood pumping. When blood isn’t properly pumped throughout the body, it can damage the brain, lungs and other organs and even cause them to shut down.

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Endocarditis occurs when the inner lining of the heart becomes infected by bacteria, and it’s commonly associated with intravenous drug use. Untreated, endocarditis can destroy the heart valves and cause life-threatening complications.


Myocarditis occurs when the middle layer of the heart wall becomes inflamed, and it leads to irregular rhythms of the heart and a reduction in blood flow. Cocaine abuse and intravenous drug use can cause myocarditis, which may cause blood clots to form in the heart and lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema, or excess fluid in the lungs, may be caused by a number of heart problems, and it’s commonly associated with cocaine, heroin and other drug use. Pulmonary edema that’s not immediately treated can lead to increased pressure in the pulmonary artery, causing the failure of the heart’s right ventricle.

Arterial Thrombosis

When a blood clot develops in an artery, it’s known as arterial thrombosis, and it causes the obstruction of blood flow to major organs. Chronic alcohol abuse is a common cause of arterial thrombosis, which can cause heart attack, stroke and peripheral arterial disease.

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest is an unexpected loss of heart function that typically causes sudden death. It results from the malfunction of the heart’s electrical system and is sometimes caused by arrhythmias. Cocaine and other stimulant abuse can lead to cardiac arrest.

Heart Attack

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, isn’t the same thing as cardiac arrest. Rather, it refers to heart muscle tissue that has died due to a loss of blood supply. A heart attack may be caused by any type of substance abuse, although it’s most commonly associated with cocaine or amphetamines, which raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries and thicken the walls of the heart muscle.
How to Protect Your Heart
Cardiovascular problems are but one example of the large number of health problems caused by illegal and prescription drug and alcohol abuse. If you have a substance abuse problem and are concerned for your health, getting professional help through a high-quality treatment center is essential for addressing the complex issues behind the addiction or abuse to help ensure successful long-term recovery. Willpower alone is rarely enough to overcome an addiction, and taking the first step in getting help will lead you to better physical and mental health.

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