Drugs & Alcohol's DangersExperimenting with drugs and alcohol is a rite of passage for many, but the health effects are no party.

Trying to find an Australian adult who has never used drugs to relax, stay awake or enhance the fun of a party would be no easy task. Whether it’s alcohol, tobacco or a recreational drug, what may have started out as a harmless lark can easily create problems ranging from psychological dependence to sudden death.

Here, we look at some of the health effects of drug and alcohol use and how to prevent them.

Alcohol

There’s no doubt about it, we’re a nation of drinkers and while most of us wouldn’t see alcohol as a drug, it is definitely an addictive substance that can lead to trouble in both the short and long term.

The latest government guidelines tell us we should all be consuming no more than two standard drinks on any day, and never more than four if we want to avoid alcohol-related injury or disease. “Drinking within these guidelines reduces the risk of long-term damage including cancer, liver disease and brain damage,” says Caroline Salom from Drug ARM Australasia.

What it does: Alcohol is a depressant. It makes you feel relaxed, lowers your inhibitions and slows reflexes and the ability to concentrate. There is some evidence that moderate drinking – one drink a day – may reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes and gallstones.

What’s the harm? Excessive drinking increases your risk of alcohol-related accidents or injury, as well as liver cirrhosis and brain damage.

Other health effects:

  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Overweight and obesity.
  • Diabetes.
  • Depression and anxiety.

What you can do: If two drinks a day is never enough, or if you think you may have a problem with alcohol, see your GP or visit www.drinkingnightmare.gov.au for contact details of support services in your area.

Ecstasy

This is a stimulant and hallucinogen often used to increase energy and stamina at dance parties and nightclubs.

What it does: Salom says many people use ecstasy on weekends, and after a sleepless weekend they take other drugs to calm down and ready themselves for work on Monday. Ecstasy works by triggering the release of natural brain chemicals such as adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.

“These chemicals are important to the brain’s pleasure mechanism and, if they’re triggered from an external source like ecstasy, your brain stops producing them,” says Salom. “This can cause depression and interfere with your body clock.”

What’s the harm? In the short term, it can result in exercising poor judgement and lead to dangerous activities like practising unsafe sex. Being exhausted from lack of sleep can affect your immune system. Most people take ecstasy for short periods and then give it up, so not much is known about the long-term effects of using it.

Other health effects:

  • Jaw clenching.
  • Overheating and dehydration.
  • Brain swelling.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Heart attack.
  • Blood clots.
  • Brain haemorrhage.
  • Severe liver damage.

What you can do: It’s not a great idea to drink loads of water in one go if you’re overheating on ecstasy. Drinking copious amounts can lead to water intoxication – a potentially deadly condition leading to brain swelling. Instead, take small sips and regular breaks from dancing. The best way to prevent damaging your health is to stop using ecstasy. When you do stop taking it, your body should resume its natural hormone production and even most cases of liver damage are reversed over time.

Speed

Speed usually comes in the form of a powder and can be smoked, swallowed, injected, snorted or taken rectally. Pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient of some cold and flu tablets, can also be used to make speed, which is why pharmacies across Australia have restricted the sale of over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine.

What it does: This is an amphetamine, a kind of stimulant that sends your central nervous system into overdrive. It triggers euphoria, increases energy and reduces appetite.

What’s the harm? In the short term, it can lead to accidents, injuries, poor judgement and psychological disturbances, says Salom. “What tends to happen is that speed makes you anxious, and in large doses or if taken over a long term it can lead to agitation, violence and paranoia,” she explains. “In some people, these can persist even when the drug has long gone.”

Other health effects:

  • Malnutrition from loss of appetite.
  • Irregular heart rate and rapid breathing.
  • Increased susceptibility to infection.
  • Increased hostility or aggression.
  • Psychosis – hearing voices, visual hallucinations and paranoia.
  • Overdose can cause brain haemorrhage, heart attack, fever or coma.

What you can do: “Be honest with yourself about your drug use and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” advises Salom. “There are resources, including counselling and pharmacotherapy, to help you.” Visit www.drugarm.com.au for more information.