Hesperian Health Guides
Problems from Alcohol and Other Drugs
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Common Health Problems
|Using drugs and alcohol can permanently damage your health.|
People who use alcohol and drugs a lot get sick more often and more severely than others. They are more likely to have:
- poor nutrition, which causes more sickness.
- cancer, and problems of the heart, liver, stomach, skin, lungs and urine system, and sometimes permanent damage.
- brain damage or seizures (“fits”).
- illnesses develop more quickly from HIV infection.
- memory loss—waking up not knowing what happened.
- mental health problems, such as severe depression or anxiety, or seeing strange things or hearing voices (hallucinations), being suspicious of others, or having flashbacks.
- death from using too much at one time (overdose).
In addition, injuries or death from accidents happen more often to these people (and often to their families). This is because they make bad decisions or take unnecessary risks, or because they can lose control of their bodies while using alcohol or drugs. If they have unprotected sex, share needles used to inject drugs, or trade sex for drugs, they are at risk for hepatitis, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
People who chew tobacco are at risk for most of the same health problems as those who smoke tobacco.
Drugs that are chewed. Chewing tobacco and betel nut often ruin a person’s teeth and gums, and cause sores in the mouth, cancer of the mouth and throat, and other harm throughout the body. Khat can cause stomach problems and constipation. Many chewed drugs can cause dependence.
Sniffing glues and solvents. Many poor people, and particularly children who live on the streets, sniff glue and solvents to forget their hunger. This is very addictive and causes serious health problems, such as problems with seeing, trouble thinking and remembering, violent behavior, loss of judgement and body control, severe weight loss, and even heart failure and sudden death.
Drugs and alcohol can be worse for women
In addition to the problems that anyone who misuses drugs or alcohol may suffer, women face some special health problems:
- Women who drink large amounts of alcohol or use a lot of drugs are more likely to get liver disease than men.
- Many women and girls are pushed into sex they do not want when they drink alcohol or use drugs. This may result in unwanted pregnancy, infection with HIV, or other STIs.
- If used during pregnancy, drugs and alcohol can cause children to be born with birth defects and mental disabilities, such as:
- problems of the heart, bones, genitals, and head and face.
- low birth weight.
- slow growth.
- learning difficulties and mental slowness.
- behavior problems.
A baby can also be born dependent on drugs and suffer the same signs of withdrawal as an adult.
Women feel more shame
In most communities, women’s behavior in public is more strictly controlled than men’s behavior. Often it is considered normal for men to use alcohol or drugs, but not for women to do so. If a woman loses control of her behavior because of using too much alcohol or drugs, she is thought to be a ‘loose woman’, even if she is not having sex with others.
To avoid the shame that comes from making her drug or alcohol misuse public, a woman is more likely to drink steadily over a long period of time, rather than drinking a lot at one time. This kind of drinking makes it easier for her to control her behavior. She is also more likely to keep her misuse a secret and to put off getting treatment. All these behaviors increase the harm that comes from alcohol or drug misuse.