Drug-Free Campus Guidelines: Health Risks

The following summarizes some of the health risks associated with the use of alcohol and other drugs. It is important to note that alcohol and drugs affect people in different ways based on a variety of physical and psychological factors, such as physical tolerance, body size and gender.                          


Alcohol consumption causes a number of changes in cognition and behavior, including impaired judgment and coordination, fine motor control and vision, speech and hearing. Higher doses cause disorientation, confusion, and exaggerated emotional states. Very high consumption of alcohol can cause respiratory depression, unconsciousness, and possibly death. Alcohol combined with other drugs, especially prescription medications can be harmful, even toxic to the body. These interactions can put one at risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, or difficulty breathing.  Prolonged heavy use of alcohol can lead to dependence, increase risk for certain cancers, liver disease and other health problems. It can also have consequences at home, work, and with friends.

Mothers who drink during pregnancy may give birth to infants with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Effects of this disorder can include physical and behavioral problems, such as irreversible physical abnormalities and intellectual disabilities, as well as significant impairments of cognitive functioning and cognitive deficits. In addition, research indicates that children of parents with alcohol dependence are at greater risk of developing alcohol related problems.

Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, including cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco contain the addictive drug nicotine. Nicotine is readily absorbed into the bloodstream, stimulating the central nervous system and increasing blood pressure, respiration and heart rate. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include irritability, attention difficulties, sleep disturbances, increased appetite, and powerful cravings. 

In addition to nicotine, tobacco smoke contains a mixture of chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, tar, formaldehyde, and cyanide. These chemicals increase the risk of developing various types of cancer, emphysema, and cardiovascular and heart diseases.

Gaining in popularity, e-cigarettes are battery operated devices that produce flavored nicotine vapor. Research shows that e-cigarette vapor contains known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, however, the long-term health consequences of e-cigarette use remain unknown.

Prescription Medications

Prescription drugs that are abused or used for non-medical reasons can alter brain activity and lead to dependence or addiction. Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants. When taken as prescribed, opioids are can safely and effectively manage pain. They can also produce drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, constipation, and overdose of the drug can depress respiration. If use is suddenly reduced or stopped, withdrawal symptoms can occur. These include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and involuntary leg movements.

CNS depressants include benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety), non-benzodiazepine sleep medications, and barbiturates (used less frequently to treat anxiety or to help with sleep problems). These medications inhibit brain activity and produce a drowsy or calming effect. Very large doses or doses taken in combination with other central nervous system depressants (e.g., alcohol) may cause respiratory depression, coma, and even death.

Stimulants are prescribed to treat conditions, such as ADHD, narcolepsy, and occasionally depression. These medications increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Repeated abuse can lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia and high doses may result in dangerously high body temperature and irregular heartbeat.


Marijuana use can lead to a number of physical and psychological effects, including increased heart rate, impaired short term memory and comprehension, and decreased motivation. With extended use, it can produce depression, anxiety, paranoia and psychosis. Smoking marijuana damages the lungs and pulmonary system and can cause coughing and breathing problems similar to those caused by cigarette smoking. Research has shown that daily marijuana users may function at a reduced intellectual level most or all of the time, even after the acute effects of the drug wear off. Marijuana use can impact fertility by suppressing ovulation and lowering male sex hormones.


The health effects associated with cocaine use include elevated body temperature and blood pressure, increased heart rate, nausea, tremors and muscle twitches, and restlessness. Snorting cocaine may severely damage nasal tissue and the septum and cause the loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, and a frequent runny nose. Long-term health effects of cocaine use include malnourishment due to decreased appetite, paranoia and hallucinations, and movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.


Amphetamines, methamphetamine, or other stimulants can cause increased heart and respiratory rates, elevated blood pressure, and dilated pupils. Larger doses cause rapid or irregular heartbeat, tremors, and physical collapse. An amphetamine injection creates a sudden increase in blood pressure that can result in stroke, high fever, heart failure, and death. An individual using amphetamines might begin to lose weight, sweat profusely, and appear restless, anxious, moody, and unable to focus. Extended use may produce psychosis, including hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.


Hallucinogenic drugs alter perception, thoughts, and feelings and can cause hallucinations. Commonly used hallucinogens include LSD,PCP, Peyote, and psilocybin (“shrooms”), salvia, and others. Short-term effects include increased heart rate, intensified feelings and sensory experiences, dry mouth, sleep problems, excessive sweating, panic, paranoia, and psychosis. Long-term effects of some hallucinogens include persistent psychosis and flashbacks.

Steroids (anabolic)

Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances related to male sex hormones. Some athletes abuse anabolic steroids to enhance performance. Abuse of anabolic steroids can lead to serious health problems, some of which are irreversible. Short term side effects include depression, hallucinations, paranoia, severe mood swings and aggressive behavior. Major side effects  can also include liver tumors and cancer, jaundice, high blood pressure, kidney tumors, severe acne, and trembling. In males, side effects may include shrinking of the testicles and breast development. In females, side effects may include growth of facial hair, menstrual changes, and deepened voice. In teenagers, growth may be halted prematurely and permanently.


Some signs of heroin use are euphoria, excessive  drowsiness, constricted pupils, lack of sex drive and appetite and nausea. Because heroin is generally injected, the use of contaminated needles may result in the contraction of many different diseases, including AIDS and hepatitis. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation and gastrointestinal cramping and liver or kidney disease. If chronic use is abruptly stopped, the user may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes and kicking movements. Users also experience severe craving for the drug during withdrawal, which often precipitates continued abuse and/or relapse.  Symptoms of overdose include shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions, and coma and may result in death.