How drugs affect the body
When drugs get into the bloodstream they are carried to all parts of the body and some reach the brain. The quicker the drug reaches the brain, the more intense the effects. The quickest way to get a drug into the brain - and also the most dangerous way of using any drug - is to inject it intravenously, or into the vein. Almost as quick is smoking a drug. followed by sniffing or snorting and then by mouth. Eating or drinking a drug is the slowest route, because the drug has to pass through the stomach first.
Once in the brain drugs affect chemicals called neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that control the flow of information within the brain between the neurons or brain cells, forming a synapse. Neurotransmitters also alter people's moods and feelings. Different drugs can affect different neurotransmitters. For example, ecstasy appears to affect a neurotransmitter called serotonin by reducing the amount of the chemical in the brain. Those people with lower levels of serotonin in the brain tend to suffer from depression and also there are concerns that taking too much ecstasy for too long might make a person chronically depressed.
Experiments with animals have shown that certain drugs like ecstasy can damage brain cells but experts are not agreed on whether this happens with humans to the same extent. There have been concerns about damage to the brain from taking a wide range of drugs including ecstasy, LSD and solvents but the evidence is, so far, inconclusive. However, excessive and long-term use of alcohol has been shown to lead to possible brain damage.
Once drugs are taken and enter the bloodstream the heart pumps blood containing the drug to the brain where it will affect how people feel.
Drugs can also have an affect on the heart directly and exacerbate heart disease. Heavy drinking of alcohol, for example, can weaken the heart's ability to pump blood and lead to heart failure although some studies have suggested that moderate consumption may be better for the heart than not drinking alcohol at all.
Taking regular and high doses of stimulant drugs like amphetamine, cocaine/ crack, ecstasy, anabolic steroids and even possibly caffeine may increase the risk of heart attacks, especially for people who already have heart problems or high blood pressure.
Heavy tobacco use can also lead to greater risk of heart problems. Nicotine, as a kind of stimulant, increases the workload of the heart, while carbon monoxide deprives the heart of the oxygen it needs. Smoking also tends to thicken the blood hence making it less able to flow through narrowed arteries.
The liver breaks down or alters the chemical structure of drugs, gradually neutralising the affects of the drug.
Excessive, long term drinking of alcohol can result in damage to the liver, including cirrhosis, which can be fatal.
Suggestions that ecstasy use can damage the liver have been made but research is, so far, inconclusive.
Because the lungs provide the oxygen directly and very effectively to the body, anything that is inhaled similarly enters the blood and ultimately the brain very quickly. This is most promounced in drugs that are normally snorted but are chemically altered to make them more smokable, such as cocaine into crack and amphetamine into methamphetamine. The lungs' ability to absorb large amounts of these drugs in a short space off time, roughly 8 seconds, mean that the effects can be almost instant and very powerful.
Some drugs can also be inhaled, such as solvents and poppers/nitrites Again, the solvents are absorbed into the lungs almost instantly.
Another, relatively more dangerous, method is insuffelation. This is the method often used by asthma sufferers when using inhalers, where a fine spray is rapidly inhaled into the lungs. Done properly this method is as efficient as smoking, but safer, because it doesn't damage the lungs in the same way smoke does. Done wrongly and it can cause permanent damage to the lungs, due to the drug attacking the lungs' cells bronchils, or even suffocation or overdosing, due to the drugs clogging the bronchils.
These methods should not to be confused with snorting (as with cocaine or amphetamine powder) which is absorbed through the thin tissue (nasal membrane) in the nose into the blood stream - though some powder can enter the lungs.
The dangers of tobacco smoking, such as tar build up, asthma, swelling and damaging of the lung walls and bronchils (the cells that absorb oxgen and drugs into the blood stream) and ultimately cancer, are pertinent to most drugs that are smoked. Cannabis for example has its own carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals. If smoked with tobacco in a joint, these dangerous chemicals can double up, increasing the chance of developing lung cancer.
A common misconception is that smoking addictive drugs such as heroin is safer and less addictive than injecting. While smoking a drug allows the user to monitor and control the amounts entering the body more easily, the drug is no different. Whether smoked or injected, heroin still has the same addictive potential.
Drugs that can be smoked are cannabis, cocaine (usually sprinkled in a cigarette or joint), crack, ecstasy (in a joint), heroin, opium, ice/methamphetamine, DMT, and tobacco. Drugs that are inhaled are solvents, poppers and nitrus oxyde (laughing gas).
Heavy drug use can damage the health of a pregnant woman, cause complications during pregnancy and possibly damage the foetus. Drugs can affect an unborn baby through the mother's bloodstream. It is relatively rare that this actually causes malformations. Heavy use of certain drugs during pregnancy, particularly alcohol, tobacco, heroin and other opiates and tranquillisers, can lead to premature birth, low birth weight and increased risk of losing the baby around the time of birth.
Babies born to mothers who are dependent on the drugs mentioned above (other than tobacco) may experience withdrawal symptoms but this can usually easily be treated medically.
Moderate drug use during pregnancy does not often result in these problems. Whilst it is usually safe for a pregnant woman to stop using drugs during pregnancy this is not always the case for heroin, other opiate drugs or tranquillisers. Suddenly stopping use of these drugs during pregnancy can be dangerous to the foetus and medical opinion is sometimes that it is safer for the mother to continue using till the baby is born.
Drug use and pregnancy is a very emotive issue. The most publicised example has been of 'crack babies' in America. Panic stories have sometimes exaggerated the damage done to babies whilst ignoring the fact that most of the mothers were living in very poor and deprived circumstances, factors which themselves are implicated in having a difficult pregnancy and complications in childbirth and for newly born babies. However, cocaine use is reported to increase risks, for example of miscarriage and still birth, low weight babies and pre-term (premature delivery). Adverse effects have been largely reported in heavy crack/cocaine users rather than 'recreational or occasional users. Mothers-to-be are advised not to use cocaine or crack in pregnancy if they possibly can.
The danger of being judgmental about drug using pregnant women is that they will be reluctant to seek out the medical help they and their babies need.