Understanding the Effects of Drugs on the Lungs

Substance abuse affects the lungs more often than any other organ in the body.


The negative effects of drugs on the lungs are due to how people consume them and the chemical impact of the drugs. Both reasons can impact lung tissue and overall lung function.

How do drugs affect the respiratory system? How does alcohol affect the lungs? Can alcohol cause breathing problems? It is important to understand the health consequences that occur with substance misuse. The more you know about how drug addiction negatively impacts your body, the more equipped you will be to get help and take charge of your life, leaving addiction in the past.

How Do Drugs Affect the Respiratory System? The Physical Impact of Drug Abuse on the Lungs

Lung complications from drug abuse are common because the lungs are exposed to circulation and the environment. For this reason, people who inhale or inject any drug are potentially damaging their lungs. 

For instance, smoking drugs like crack or heroin leaves drug deposits on a person’s lung tissue. This causes issues with the lungs’ distribution of oxygen. In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states smoking any drug increases the risk of bacterial pneumonia and other lung infections. 

Injecting drugs such as heroin can introduce bacteria into the body. Since drug abuse damages the lungs, they cannot fight the bacteria. Intravenous drug abuse is linked to tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. 

The Chemical Impact of Drug Abuse on the Lungs

Illicit drugs are chemicals, and when people smoke, inject, or otherwise consume these chemicals, it negatively affects their health. Drugs interact with gas exchange in the lungs and lead to aspiration pneumonitis, pulmonary edema, and pneumonia. 

What is the Respiratory System?

The respiratory system’s primary function is to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. The primary organ in this system is the lungs. However, this system is complex and includes:

  • Mouth, nose, and nasal cavity
  • Throat or pharynx – connects the mouth and nasal passages to the esophagus and larynx
  • Voice box or larynx – contains the vocal cords and allows air to pass in and out of the lungs
  • Windpipe or trachea – extends into two brachial tubes
  • Bronchi – the major air passages of the lungs
  • Alveoli – tiny sacs in the lungs responsible for gas exchange

People who abuse drugs are more prone to lung infections. This is due to the harmful effects of drugs on the lungs and immune system. 

Signs the Effects of Drugs on the Lungs is Causing Issues

A variety of signs are present when a person struggles with a respiratory issue. These signs include:

  • An increase or labored breathing
  • Pale, bluish, or greyish skin around the mount or lips
  • Sweating without being hot along with breathing issues
  • Crackling or whistling sounds when breathing

Treatments for these issues can vary but may include medications, respiratory therapy, or a form of ventilator support. If the effects of drugs on the lungs are severe, a person may require oxygen. 

Different drugs affect the lungs differently. While a person may not feel like they have lung issues, the damage may have started depending on the drug they are abusing. Seeking addiction treatment can stop or minimize future damage to the lungs.

How Cocaine Affects the Lungs

Cocaine is a harmful central nervous system (CNS) stimulant. It increases the activity in the brain and spinal cord. The effects of cocaine can cause the veins, arteries, and capillaries to constrict. It can also cause the hardening of the cellular walls and cell death in the lungs.

When a person smokes cocaine, it can cause:

  • Pulmonary edema or swelling of the lungs
  • Pulmonary barotrauma or ruptures of the lungs air sacs
  • Hemorrhages or ruptures of the veins and arteries in the lungs
  • Development of or worsening of asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema 

While smoking cocaine is the most harmful to the lungs, the effects of snorting cocaine on the lungs can cause various issues such as:

  • Nasal infections
  • Damage or tissue death in the nasal passages
  • Ischemic damage or death due to lack of oxygen in the trachea and nasal passages

Although not all lung damage can be reversed, seeking treatment for cocaine abuse may stop further damage and improve the symptoms of some respiratory illnesses. 

How Meth Affects the Lungs

Meth is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant drug. It is typically a white, odorless, bitter powder that can be dissolved in water or alcohol. Meth is highly addictive and has severe effects on the lungs, even with occasional use. 

People typically use meth by smoking it. Smoking meth causes the alveoli to bleed. The alveoli are responsible for gas exchange with the blood. When the alveoli bleed, the person will cough up blood. 

Furthermore, smoking meth can destroy the small pulmonary blood vessels. This can cause excessive buildup of fluids in the lungs. This fluid build-up can cause pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disease. 

The effects of meth on the lungs also include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Alveoli damage
  • Collapsed lungs
  • Constricting blood vessels
  • Acute respiratory failure
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Pulmonary hypertension

Snorting meth can also have negative effects on the lungs. A person who snorts meth can experience powerful coughs and severe respiratory damage such as collapsed lungs and interstitial lung disease even with short-term use. 

How Opioids Affect the Lungs

The United State’s opioid epidemic is causing a record number of overdoses and deaths. One reason is that opioids can cause respiratory depression. Respiratory depression is a reduced urge to breathe. Opioids are CNS depressants. The CNS controls breathing and manages the heartbeat. When a person consumes opioids, it affects the lungs by slowing down their breathing. 

On top of this, opioids are sedating. Taking high doses of opioids or mixing them with other drugs, respiratory depression can be fatal. When a person loses consciousness or stops breathing, it is called respiratory failure. In many cases, this is the cause of fatal overdoses. 

Most people do not smoke opioids. The drug is typically taken in pill form, ground up and snorted, or mixed with a liquid and injected. Although opioids aren’t often smoked, they still affect the lungs and lead to respiratory issues.

The effects of opioids on the lungs include:

  • The immune system function decreases, leaving people open to various infections, including pneumonia and other diseases. 
  • Existing lung issues such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma can worsen.
  • Increases the risk of developing pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs, which is fatal without treatment. 

The slowed breathing of opioid abuse also affects other organs. Organs such as the brain, liver, and heart cannot get enough oxygen, resulting in damage. When the organ can no longer receive oxygen, then it will die.

How Inhalants Affect the Lungs

Inhalants are aerosol products, cleansers, paint thinners, and solvents. People inhale the gasses or fumes of these products to induce euphoria. However, using inhalants can lead to severe lung infections and diseases. 

The effects of inhalants on the lungs include:

  • Increasing the risk of tuberculosis
  • Developing asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis
  • Increasing the risk of lung infections and developing pneumonia
  • Damage to the lungs from the chemicals in inhalants

A survey of people who abuse inhalants reports the following effects on their lungs.

  • Over 45% report nasal irritation, congestion, and other cold-like symptoms.
  • Almost 40% report excessive mucus.
  • More than 32% report trouble breathing during exercise.
  • About 22% have an uncomfortable or painful cough.
  • Close to 16% experience chest pain.
  • Almost 10% have shortness of breath and can’t take full breaths.

How Alcohol Affects the Lungs

Alcohol is a CNS depressant and reduces a person’s breathing. Chronic abuse of alcohol can lead to various lung infections and diseases and different forms of cancer. 

Heavy alcohol abuse damages the lungs in a few ways. First, it interferes with the body’s immune system, fighting infection and keeping the lungs healthy. Secondly, alcohol damages the cells on the inner lining of the lungs. 

The damage alcohol causes to the immune system, and lung cells is commonly called alcoholic lungs. Unfortunately, lung damage can begin after only six weeks of chronic alcohol abuse. When a person drinks alcohol, the alcohol enters the bloodstream. However, some of it diffuses out and into the lungs. This is how alcohol ends up in the breath and causes damage to the airways. 

Damage to the airways from alcohol abuse is not only in the lungs. The vapors also damage the nasal passages and sinuses, leading to inflammation and decreasing their ability to fight infection. 

Treating the Effects of Drugs on the Lungs

Depending on the drug, some of the effects on the lungs may be reversed. However, it is crucial to stop abusing drugs to stop any more damage. But, it is crucial to seek professional treatment through addiction treatment centers such as Kingsway Recovery Center. 

Drugs such as meth and heroin are extremely addictive. And even with short-term abuse, they can cause severe damage to the lungs. Therefore treatment should include medical care and addiction therapy. 

Get Help Today at Kingsway Recovery Center

Are you or someone you love struggling with drug abuse? Are you already experiencing the effects of drugs on the lungs? We incorporate holistic therapies and medical treatments into individualized treatment plans. Contact us and find out how we can help you achieve recovery and be the best you possible.