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Article Summary

Drug Abuse on the Respiratory System

The primary function of the respiratory system is to supply the blood with oxygen in order for the blood to deliver oxygen to all parts of the body. The respiratory system does this through breathing. When we breathe, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. This exchange of gases is the respiratory system's means of getting oxygen to the blood.

Drug abuse on the respiratory system can lead to a variety of problems. Smoking cigarettes, for example, has been shown to cause bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. Marijuana smoke may also cause respiratory problems. The use of some drugs may also cause breathing to slow, block air from entering the lungs, or exacerbate asthma symptoms.

  • Cocaine's Effects on the Respiratory System
    • chest pain
    • respiratory failure

    Heroin's Effects on the Respiratory System

    • Lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis) which may result from the poor health condition of the abuser as well as from heroin's depressing effects on respiration.
    • Many of the additives in street heroin may include substances that do not readily dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs.

    Inhalants Effects on the Respiratory System

    • Asphyxiation - from repeated inhalations, which lead to high concentrations of inhaled fumes displacing the available oxygen in the lungs.
    • Suffocation - from blocking air from entering the lungs when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag placed over the head.
    • Choking - from inhalation of vomit after inhalant use.

    Marijuana's Effects on the Respiratory System

    • Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory problems that tobacco smokers do, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illnesses, a heightened risk of lung infections, and a greater tendency toward obstructed airways.
    • Marijuana has the potential to promote cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because it contains irritants and carcinogens. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. It also produces high levels of an enzyme that converts certain hydrocarbons into their carcinogenic form, levels that may accelerate the changes that ultimately produce malignant cells.
    • ?Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which increases the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. These facts suggest that, puff for puff, smoking marijuana may increase the risk of cancer more than smoking tobacco does.
  • PCP's Effects on the Respiratory System
    • At low PCP doses (5 mg or less), physical effects include shallow, rapid breathing, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and elevated temperature.
    • Doses of 10 mg or more of PCP cause dangerous changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration, often accompanied by nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, and decreased awareness of pain. Muscle contractions may cause uncoordinated movements and bizarre postures. When severe, the muscle contractions can result in bone fracture or in kidney damage or failure as a consequence of muscle cells breaking down. Very high doses of PCP can cause convulsions, coma, hyperthermia, and death.
  • Prescription Opiates Effects on the Respiratory System
    • When these drugs attach to certain opioid receptors, they can block the perception of pain. Opioids can produce drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, depress respiration.
    • Taking a large single dose of an opioid could cause severe respiratory depression that can lead to death.

Drug abuse on the respiratory system may present itself in several different ways. Persons who are having a difficult time breathing often show signs that they are not getting enough oxygen, indicating respiratory distress. Below is a list of some of the signs that may indicate that a person is not getting enough oxygen. It is important to learn the symptoms of respiratory distress to know how to respond appropriately.

  • Breathing rate
    An increase in the number of breaths per minute may indicate that a person is having trouble breathing or not getting enough oxygen.
  • Color changes
    A bluish color seen around the mouth, on the inside of the lips, or on the fingernails may occur when a person is not getting as much oxygen as needed. The color of the skin may also appear pale or gray.
  • Grunting
    A grunting sound can be heard each time the person exhales. This grunting is the body's way of trying to keep air in the lungs so they will stay open.
  • Nose flaring
    The openings of the nose spreading open while breathing may indicate that a person is having to work harder to breathe.
  • Retractions
    The chest appears to sink in just below the neck and/or under the breastbone with each breath - one way of trying to bring more air into the lungs.
  • Sweating
    There may be increased sweat on the head, but the skin does not feel warm to the touch. More often, the skin may feel cool or clammy. This may happen when the breathing rate is very fast.
  • Wheezing
    A tight, whistling or musical sound heard with each breath may indicate that the air passages may be smaller, making it more difficult to breathe.

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