Breadcrumbs

The risks of using drugs

Illicit or illegal drugs have a range of harmful effects – both short and long term. 

Medications or pharmaceuticals are also drugs and are regulated differently dependent on their level of health risk. You need a doctor’s prescription for some medications, but all medications have risks, even those sold over-the-counter at the pharmacist or supermarket, especially if not they are taken as prescribed or intended.

Short-term health harms

Short-term health harms are those that can occur as a result of an episode of use, or, in the case of medications, inappropriate use. These vary markedly depending on the drug being used (type, amount etc) and may be from the drug itself or from the manner in which the drug is taken.

For information about the short-term health effects of a specific illicit drug, visit the page called Misused substances. For the short-term health harms of inappropriate use of medications, it’s best to talk to your health professional or pharmacist.

Overdose

A person is described as having taken an overdose if they suffer a medical emergency as a result of accidentally or intentionally using a larger amount of a drug than normal. This type of overdose can result from both taking too much of a prescribed drug or too much of an illicit drug or a combination of drugs.

The amount of a drug needed to cause an overdose varies. It depends on how tolerant a person is to the drug, how pure the drug is and whether the person has been drinking alcohol or has also taken a combination of over-the-counter, prescription or other illicit drugs.

Ecstasy overdose is not caused by the drug in isolation, but in combination with other risk factors. Most often, an ecstasy-related medical emergency results from overheating and dehydration. This is most likely to occur if ecstasy is taken with another drug, in a hot environment such as a club, in combination with physical activity such as dancing and when not enough water or too much water has been consumed.

The most serious consequences of overdose relate to loss of consciousness, breathing and cardiac problems. Death can result.

 

For all drug-related medical emergencies, dial 000 for an ambulance immediately. 
Police will not attend unless the ambulance officers call for help or a death occurs.

Long-term health harms

Long-term health harms are those that occur as a result of long-term drug use and vary depending on the drug being used. (type, amount etc) and may be from the drug itself or from the manner in which the drug is taken.

For example, a person may catch a blood-borne virus from using injecting equipment that has been used by someone else. Hepatitis C is the virus most frequently caught, but there is also a risk of catching hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS. Even when clean injecting equipment is used, bacterial and fungal infections can occur. Bacterial infections may cause a local abscess at the injecting site or, more seriously, may cause infections in the heart (endocarditis) or other parts of the body. Injecting can also cause vein damage.

Smoking illicit drugs can cause respiratory illness such as a chronic cough, wheeze, shortness of breath or chronic bronchitis.

A number of illicit drugs are associated with mental health disorders. Regular users may also experience a range of social, legal, financial and emotional problems.

For information about the long-term health effects of a specific drug, visit the paged called Misused substances. For the long-term harms of inappropriate use of medications, it’s best to talk to your health professional or pharmacist.

Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal

Tolerance means a regular user will need more of the drug to achieve the same effects as previously.

Dependence is when the drug becomes central to a person’s life. A regular user will spend a lot of time thinking about the drug, obtaining it, using it and recovering from its effects. The person will find it difficult to stop use or control the amount used.

The following drug types can all result in tolerance and dependence:

 

 

Withdrawal

Regular users of certain drug types, both illicit and prescribed drugs, may experience withdrawal when they reduce the amount of the drug they are using or stop using it altogether. The length of time before the onset of withdrawal and the time taken to withdraw is dependent on the type of drug the person has been using.

The person may experience some of the following symptoms, depending on the type of drug they have been using:

  • craving (a strong desire to use the drug)
  • tiredness or lack of energy
  • restlessness or irritability
  • feeling angry and upset
  • poor sleep
  • headaches, joint and muscle pains, muscle cramping
  • severe stomach upset, vomiting
  • depression
  • racing thoughts
  • seizures
  • confusion.

Withdrawal can occur when cutting down or stopping use of:

 

How to seek support

The first step is to phone the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1300 13 1340.

ADIS is a confidential helpline for anyone, of any age. It's there for you and you can remain anonymous.

The people on the other end of the phone are trained counsellors and will listen to what you have to say. They are used to hearing about problems to do with drug use. You can talk to them about whatever you want, whether it's to do with your own drug use or that of someone else.

They can give you information about drugs, how to stay safe and what to do to keep others safe.

ADIS can also refer you to treatment services, send you resources, or direct you to where to find other information, resources and support.

Available services for treatment of drug problems

SA Health offers a range of public health services for people with drug-related problems and their family and friends.

Community-based residential inpatient and non residential treatment services are available. Community-based non residential treatment services are also available in country areas.

There are also a number of non-government drug-related health services available. Telephone ADIS on 1300 13 1340 for details.

 

For all drug-related medical emergencies, dial 000 for an ambulance immediately. 
Police will not attend unless the ambulance officers call for help or a death occurs.

^ Back to top