More than half of all Americans take vitamins on a regular basis.[1] More than 100 million people in the United States are on diets.[2] In 2013, more than 10 million women finished a marathon.[3] Put these statistics together, and they seem to suggest that Americans are focused on health. They want to live long lives and stave off illness, and they’re willing to work hard to make it happen.

Some choices Americans make could undo all of the health benefits they hope to achieve. Specifically, those Americans who take in drugs and alcohol, even one time, could harm their bodies in ways that are unexpected. Sometimes, those changes aren’t even reversible.

One-Time Use

It’s common for Americans to think of one-time drug use as an innocuous activity. Experimentation just can’t be all that harmful, people think, especially if the user doesn’t plan to repeat the performance.

For example, in the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey, researchers asked 12th graders about the risks involved in using these drugs just one time. This is the percentage of respondents who said the risk of one- or two-time use was high:

  • Marijuana: 12.5 percent
  • LSD: 35.5 percent
  • MDMA: 47.8 percent
  • Cocaine: 53.7 percent
  • Heroin: 62.8 percent[4]

Clearly, many teens think that trying a drug once or twice just isn’t risky. In reality, using some drugs just once can have catastrophic consequences. These are just a few examples of drugs that are harmful for even one-time use.


Heroin is a narcotic drug that has the ability to suppress vital body functions, including breathing rates and heart rates. If users take in too much, they can be overwhelmed by the change, and they can fall into a coma-like state that requires swift medical attention. Without it, they could lose their lives.According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people dying due to heroin overdoses is on the rise in the 28 states studied.[5] That rise can be attributed, researchers say, to an increase in the number of people experimenting with prescription painkillers. These users become accustomed to the changes pills can bring, so they amp up the feeling by switching to heroin.

Unfortunately, on the first use of heroin, these users might not realize that they’re dealing with a stronger drug. On that introduction, they can take too much. If they do, they can overdose.


Alcohol is also associated with overdose, as this drug also tends to slow vital bodily functions. But this drug can also change the way a person interacts with the world, and sometimes, those changes can put a drinking person at risk for a serious medical problem.

In a study of the issue, highlighted by the Institute of Alcohol Studies, researchers looked at the impact of alcohol in people who flew airplanes. Before they drank alcohol, 10 percent of the pilots couldn’t handle all of the tasks in a simulated flight. After drinking to the point where alcohol in the bloodstream reached 100 mg/dl, 89 percent couldn’t perform properly.[6]

That’s a staggering change, and it seems to suggest that people who drink could have all sorts of problems with tasks involving balance, judgment, and memory. That means people who drink might be more likely to get into accidents, even if they’ve never drank before. The substance is just that powerful.


Powdery cocaine doesn’t have a lasting impact like alcohol. In fact, it isn’t at all unusual for people who take cocaine to feel a high that’s measured in minutes, not hours. But during those fleeting moments of a high, even if it’s the very first one, real health problems can appear.

In a study of the issue, researchers found that 56 percent of those who came to emergency departments due to cocaine had cardiovascular complaints. Of them, 40 percent had chest pain.[7]

Researchers aren’t surprised by these results, as cocaine is known to speed up the rate at which the heart beats. People with underlying heart conditions, even if they’ve never used cocaine before, can experience crushing heart side effects with each hit they take.


Marijuana is also known to cause heart changes, and it’s also considered a dangerous drug for people with underlying cases of heart disease. When the heart speeds up due to drugs, little injuries that may have gone unnoticed can turn into huge problems that are impossible to ignore.

If someone with an underlying heart condition takes in marijuana, even once, it could trigger a heart attack, or it could make that underlying heart condition much worse.

Long-Term Use

While some drug-related dangers appear with the very first hit, others are much slower to appear. These dangers rely on accumulated damage that takes place when people keep using drugs, even when they should be stopping the abuse.

Of all of the risks available, addiction is the most common, and it might be the most dangerous side effect out there. Consider the way the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction:

“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”[8]

Those are very serious words, and they could apply to anyone who keeps using drugs. With each hit, the brain comes to rely on the presence of drugs. Soon, the brain just can’t function at an optimal level unless those drugs are present. Without proper treatment, a pattern of use like this can lead to serious difficulties with work, with relationships, and with life. Unfortunately, too, it’s not the only danger associated with the chronic use of drugs.


People who take in marijuana often do so by lighting the leaves of the plant on fire and inhaling the smoke. According to the American Lung Association, marijuana smoke deposits up to four times as much tar in the lungs as smoke from cigarettes does.[9] That means people who smoke marijuana on a regular basis could have difficulty with breathing, and they may even have a higher risk of lung cancer.

Putting filters on marijuana cigarettes might help to reduce some of the risk, but additional dangers come from the length of time during which a user holds marijuana smoke inside the lungs. Users light up and inhale deeply, and when they do, that smoke whirls and whirls around, doing damage. After years and years of smoking, the amount of damage could be catastrophic.


Cocaine has the ability to slow down blood flow, when it comes into contact with body tissue. Chronic users of cocaine can, in essence, starve their tissues of the blood and nutrients they need in order to survive. When that happens, those tissues can die.

As a plastic surgeon points out on his blog, some of this damage is invisible to the naked eye.[10] People who abuse cocaine can damage the tissues inside the sinuses, for example, and while they might feel a little congested from time to time, they might not see the damage when they look in the mirror. But in time, with repeated drug use, the damage can be so extensive that tissues can collapse. Chronic users can see their noses melt away.

Those same changes can happen in other parts of the body, too, including the bowel and stomach. As tissues in these sensitive organs die, blockages can crop up. Those can be life-threatening.


Some of the chronic health problems associated with heroin are easy to see. For example, people who abuse heroin with needles can develop infections in the spots where they inject drugs, particularly if they’ve been using for long periods of time. Each poke and puncture provides another opportunity for infection, so chronic use tends to lead to chronic infection.

Research suggests that some heroin-related damage can’t be seen with the naked eye. In some studies, researchers have found that chronic heroin users develop difficulties with immune system function, so they fall ill much more quickly than other people, and they stay ill for longer, too.[11] That damage isn’t visible, but it’s certainly there.


Long-term drinkers of alcohol can also experience serious difficulties, as the substance they ingest has been linked to difficulties with the:

  • Throat
  • Stomach
  • Intestines
  • Liver
  • Kidneys

Those risks are most prominent in people who drink to excess on a regular basis. Researchers suggest, however, that even moderate drinkers could fall ill. In fact, just one drink per day in women has been linked to gastrointestinal distress, according to research.[12]

Why Quit?

Since some of these health problems are so dire, and since they can take hold in people who don’t abuse a great deal of intoxicating substances, some might wonder if quitting is worth it. Haven’t they already ruined their health with their habits? The answer to this question is a resounding “no.”

It’s never to late to quit using. Many of the health problems associated with the use of drugs can fade away when people choose to get sober.

For example, many drugs are associated with serious lung damage. Drugs that are smoked or inhaled ravage the cells they come into contact with, and drug users might keep the smoke in contact with the lungs for long periods in order to ensure a high.

But the lungs can also be remarkably efficient healers. Research suggests that lungs secrete substances that help to repair damage, and they use inflammation and immune system function to isolate the parts that are beyond repair.[13] In time, lungs with serious damage can heal. Sometimes, they can emerge even healthier than they were before the person started using.

When the organs can’t be salvaged, there are other options available. For example, some 188,700 pacemaker implantations took place in the United States in 2009, and it’s possible that some of these people needed these devices due to their drug habits.[14] A pacemaker could help a heart damaged by drugs to beat at a normal pace, and that could make the drug damage easier to live with or even ignore.

Addiction can be beaten back, as brain cells learn to amend and adjust when drugs are no longer in the picture. It takes time, but recovery is very possible.

That’s why it’s simply vital for everyone who uses to keep hoping, to keep working, and to keep trying. Things really can get better, and help is out there. People just need to reach for it and work for it. In time, everything can change.


[1] Park, M. (April 13, 2011). “Half of Americans Use Supplements.” CNN. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[2]100 Million Dieters, $20 Billion: The We[…]ustry by the Numbers.” (May 8, 2012). ABC News. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[3] “Statistics.” (n.d.). Running USA. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[4] Johnston, L.; O’Malley, P.; Miech, R.; Bachman, J.; Schulenberg, J. (Feb. 2015). “2014 Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use.” Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[5]Heroin Overdose Deaths Increased in Many States Through 2012.” (Oct. 2, 2014). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[6] “Alcohol, Accidents and Injuries.” (n.d.) Institute of Alcohol Studies. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[7] Schwartz, B.; Rezkalla, S.; Kloner, R. (2010). “Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine.” Circulation. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[8]Definition of Addiction.” (n.d.). American Society of Addiction Medicine. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[9]Marijuana.” (n.d.). American Lung Association. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[10] Hamilton, J. (n.d.). “What Effect Does Cocaine Have on the Nose?” Osborne Head & Neck Institute. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[11] Zaki, N.G.; Osman, A.; Moustafa, H.; Saad, A.H. (2006). “Alterations of Immune Functions in Heroin Addicts.” Egyptian Journal of Immunology. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[12]Moderate Alcohol Consumption is Associat[…]rgrowth, Study Finds.” (Nov. 28, 2011). ScienceDaily. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[13] Crosby, L.; Waters, C. (April 2, 2010). “Epithelial Repair Mechanisms in the Lung.” American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
[14] Norton, A. (Sept. 26, 2012). “More Americans Getting Pacemakers.” Reuters. Accessed Feb, 24, 2015.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.