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A drug is a chemical substance that can alter how your mind and body work. Students may experiment with drugs to fit in with others or because they are curious or bored or need an escape from reality. No matter the reason, drugs may temporarily make someone feel better or forget about their problems. However, drugs don’t solve problems - they often cause other problems. Many misused drugs can alter a person’s thinking and judgment, which can lead to health risks, including addiction, drugged driving and infectious disease. 

Health Risks of Drugs

Drugs can make a person feel like they are losing control and can cause problems at work or school, problems with money, problems with domestic violence or child abuse, arrests and prison time, and/or serious health problems such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS (from needle sharing), hepatitis or lung disease or even death (from overdosing). Drug use can also cause lung and breathing issues, stomach issues, and kidney issues. 

In addition to physical, social and relationship problems, drugs can have a lasting impact on the brain. Drugs affect the brain in many ways such as:

  • Causing hallucinations
  • Altering moods (feeling angry, sad or scared for no reason)
  • Initiating overreactions to minor problems 
  • Provoking violent streaks 
  • Thinking that someone is trying to harm you 
  • Altering thinking and ability to remember things and loss of focus
  • Displeasure in things or activities that were once enjoyable 

Sometimes  people that misuse or abuse drugs are coping with a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and/or antisocial personality disorder. Using drugs can exacerbate a mental health problem because both of these issues affect the same parts of the brain. A person loses their ability to control their impulses to use drugs when changes occur in the brain and this loss of control leads to continued drug use even though a person knows that drug use is harmful.

Commonly Abused Drugs

Some health risks of commonly abused drugs among college students include, but are not limited to:

  • Cannabis (Marijuana): Marijuana contains a mind-altering drug called THC, which leads people to become addicted to marijuana. Marijuana use enhances perception (“feeling high”) and euphoria (intense pleasure and happiness); causes drowsiness/relaxation; slowed reaction time; problems with balance and coordination; changes in mood;increased heart rate and appetite; problems with learning and memory; anxiety; mental health problems (hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, possible depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts); chronic coughing; persistently red eyes; periodontal (gum) disease; frequent respiratory infections; possible loss of IQ points; increased blood pressure; and/or intense nausea or vomiting. 
  • Synthetic Cannabinoids (also known as synthetic marijuana): Synthetic cannabinoids are a wide variety of herbal mixtures that contain man-made chemicals that resemble THC that is found in marijuana but are often much stronger and more dangerous. Use of synthetic cannabinoids can cause increased heart rate; vomiting; agitation; confusion; hallucinations; paranoia; anxiety; increased blood pressure; and/or increased visits to the emergency room.
  • Tobacco (Includes smoke-less, hookah, cigarettes, e-cigarettes): Tobacco contains a highly addictive stimulant called nicotine, which changes your brain and causes temporary calmness and relaxation. Nicotine use can lead to increased blood pressure, breathing and heart rate; increase risk of certain cancers; bronchitis; emphysema; heart disease; leukemia; cataracts; pneumonia; miscarriage or low birth weight or stillbirth in pregnant women; decrease in ability to see at night; oral health problems (mouth sores, ulcers, gum disease); loss of teeth and cavities; fertility issues; increase risk of type 2 diabetes; and/or risk of mood disorders and permanent problems with impulse control. 
  • Prescription Opioids and Stimulants (includes Codeine, Fentanyl, Vicodin, OxyContin, Adderall, Ritalin, etc.): Opioids are pain relievers that cause euphoria and are often used nonmedically. Stimulants are medications that increase alertness, attention, energy, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate and they are also often used nonmedically. Using opioids nonmedically causes pain relief; drowsiness; nausea; constipation; slowed breathing; death (if someone overdoses); increased risk of overdose or addiction; miscarriage or low birth weight or neonatal abstinence syndrome (withdraws from drugs they were exposed to in the womb) in pregnancy; increased risk of drug interfering with other prescribed medications; risk of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases (from sharing needles); and/or slowing of heart rate. Using stimulants nonmedically causes narrowed blood vessels; increased blood sugar; opened-up breathing passages; dangerously high body temperature and irregular heartbeat; heart disease; seizures; heart problems; psychosis; anger; paranoia; and/or increased risk of alcohol overdose. 
  • Steroids: Steroids are substances that are prescribed by healthcare providers to treat hormonal issues and certain diseases. But some people (like athletes and bodybuilders for example) misuse these drugs to enhance their athletic or sexual performance or to improve their physical appearance. Steroid use can cause acne; fluid retention; oily skin; yellowing of the skin; infections; kidney damage or failure; liver damage; high blood pressure; enlarged heart or changes in cholesterol which increases risk of stroke or heart attack; aggression; extreme mood swings; anger/rage; extreme irritability; delusions; impaired judgment; shrunken testicles, lowered sperm count, infertility, baldness or development of breasts in males; facial hair, baldness, enlargement of the clitoris and deepened voice in females; stunted growth; risk of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases (from sharing needles); and/or increased risk of violent behavior. 
  • Depressants (includes GHB, sleep medicines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, etc.): Depressants are medications that slow brain activity. Use of depressants can cause drowsiness; slurred speech; poor concentration; confusion; dizziness; problems with movement and memory; lowered blood pressure; slowed breathing; risk of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases (from needle sharing); and/or further slowed heart rate and breathing when mixed with alcohol - which could lead to death. 
  • Inhalants: Inhalants are solvents (liquids that become gas at room temperature), aerosol sprays, gases and nitrites (prescription medicines for chest pain) found in workplace or household products such as spray paints, markers, glue, cleaning fluids, etc. These inhalants contain a dangerous substance that alter the mind when inhaled. Inhalants use can cause confusion; nausea; slurred speech; lack of coordination; euphoria; liver and kidney damage; dizziness; drowsiness; disinhibition (trouble controlling impulses); lightheadedness; hallucinations/delusions; headaches; bone marrow damage; limb spasms due to nerve damage; sudden sniffing death due to heart failure; death from asphyxiation (deprived of oxygen); convulsions or seizures; coma; brain damage from lack of oxygen; and/ or choking. Use of nitrites can cause enlarged blood vessels; increased risk of pneumonia; enhanced sexual pleasure; increased heart rate; brief sensation for heat and excitement; dizziness and headache. 

For more information on commonly abused drugs, visit https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts.