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Drugs and Their Harmful Effects

Manisha Agaarwal

Any substance (except food and water) that affects our body’s physical or psychological functions is called a drug. There are legal drugs such as caffeine, tobacco, medicines prescribed by the doctors, and alcohol, and illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, cannabis, LSD and ecstasy.

It is the psychoactive drugs that are commonly abused. They affect our central nervous system and can lead us to risky actions by altering our normal mood, thinking and behaviour patterns. The four types of psychoactive drugs are:

*Depressants: Drugs like heroin, alcohol, and analgesics slow down the activity of our central nervous system and thus, cause us to become less alert. They are often used by addicts to relieve their stress and be able to relax.

*Stimulants: Caffeine, nicotine and amphetamines increase the activity of our brains and make us feel more energetic and aroused.

*Hallucinogens: Drugs like LSD and magic perceptions lead us to see reality in distorted forms. We may also start seeing or hearing things which are not there at all.

*Mixed-Category Drugs: The mixed-category drugs have one or more of the above properties. For example, cannabis has all depressive, stimulant, and hallucinogenic properties.

Effects of drugs on one’s mental and physical health depend on a number of factors. The amount of the drug one uses, its purity, and the way it is taken (whether it is swallowed, eaten, snorted, smoked, drunk or injected) can all impact the way in which the drug affects a person.

An individual’s personality, physical and mental health, size, gender, mood and previous drug experiences also determine how much a user gets affected by drugs. The drug risks may increase or get mitigated by the fact that a person is alone or with friends while using drugs. Whether you are at home, at work or in a social setting – all can have an effect on how you use drugs. Taking drugs before driving can be fatal to not only you but other people on or near road too – for obvious reasons.

Why do people take drugs even though they are so harmful and addictive?

People start abusing drugs for a variety of reasons. Some of them are coerced into drug abuse by peer pressure, while some take it voluntarily to fit in, and to be friends with those who seem cool and trendy. Drugs lessen our inhibitions, allowing us to socialize freely and have fun without thinking much about the responsibilities we owe to ourselves when we make any decision.

For some drugs are a way to relax and forget about life’s problems, and to gain confidence when one is feeling nervous about something. There are addicts who tried drugs just out of curiosity, or to relieve their boredom and loneliness.

Self-medication is another way of drug abuse that people don’t really think much about. Mostly, people turn to drugs to celebrate the happy moments, forget about their problems, and use them as an ‘escapist’s way’ to simply forget about the harsh realities of life.

The problem of drug abuse is not limited to adults. 12% of drug users in India are below 15 years of age. Parents, older siblings, friends and media also influence a person’s decision to use drugs.

Common Drugs and their Harmful Effects

Hallucinogens

Drugs that cause us to hallucinate and see or hear things that are not actually there are called hallucinogens. They can be natural or produced synthetically. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), Acid, Trips, Tabs and some Mushrooms are some of the most common synthetic hallucinogens people use.

LSD is available in the drug markets as absorbent tabs (square pieces of paper), capsules, tablets, small squares of gelatin, or liquid. Sometimes, it is also put on sugar cubes.

Natural hallucinogens include psilocybin (found in golden top mushrooms or magic mushrooms), and mescaline (found in peyote cactus). Mescaline is native to Mexico and Mexican Indian used it for their religious ceremonies. It is dried and refined to get white to brown powder. Magic mushrooms are commonly found in Australia, and get sold in international markets as dried brown mushrooms or as crude mushroom preparations.

Certain drugs like cannabis and ecstasy may also produce hallucinogenic effects, when taken in high doses.

Effects of Hallucinogens on Health:

Hallucinogens can cause increase in body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. They causes sweating, dilation of pupils, drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. You start seeing things in a distorted way or see things that do not exist. The sense of time, space and body gets distorted and minutes may seem like hours when you are hallucinating. In some cases, you may see brighter colours and you may hear sounds more sharply.

We may experience tremors and our coordination, power of concentration, and memory gets impaired. Sometimes, we may experience intense emotions, such as anxiety and tension that may lead to panic attacks.

The worst part is that days, weeks or years after taking the drug, one may feel the drug experience again. It may get triggered by stress, fatigue, physical exercise, use of other drugs, or for no apparent reasons. Such recurrences are often referred to as ‘tripping’ or ‘flashbacks’.

If one has a predisposition to mental disturbances like psychosis or paranoia, use of hallucinogens significantly increase the risk of falling to the ‘other’ side of mental balance. Psychological dependence is the worst side-effect of such drugs as it nudges the user to keep taking them again and again.

These drugs can affect your perception, and thus, make you more vulnerable to risky situations. In case of magic mushrooms, it is difficult to distinguish them from poisonous look-alikes. Thus, people who try to pick and eat wild mushrooms to get some ‘high’ might suffer from permanent liver damage, and death within hours of their consumption.

MDMA or Ecstasy

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or Ecstasy is a derivative of the amphetamine group. Also known as psychedelic amphetamine, it has both stimulant and hallucinogenic properties. It is also known as Pills, Eccies, Bickies or XTC.

Though, it was originally developed to suppress appetite, it was never used for that purpose. In the 70s, MDMA became the part of American therapy classes to improve one’s communication skills but soon, it was ousted and declared illegal.

Surprisingly, Ecstasy does not always have MDMA. Its pills are often mixed with aspirin, caffeine and ketamine (which are an anesthetic for animals used by veterinarians). Some drugs sold in the name of Ecstasy have no MDMA at all. Thus, drug users never know what they are taking.

How is it used?

Generally, Ecstasy comes in the form of tablets or capsules that can be swallowed. Its effects start within 30 minutes and can last up to 6 hours. Its hangover may last up to 24 hours.

People also take Ecstasy by snorting, smoking, suppository or injecting its crushed tablets. However, since Ecstasy is not designed to be injected, the chalky substance around the tablet can block veins, create abscesses, and cause gangrene or blood poisoning (septicaemia).

Effects of Ecstasy on Health:

Ecstasy may give one a feeling of well-being and induce over-confidence but it has severe side-effects. It can increase one’s pulse rate and blood pressure, and cause excessive sweating, hot and cold flushes, insomnia and anxiety. It impairs our concentration levels.

People who use it may also feel nauseous, clench their jaws and grind their teeth. At worst, it may cause dehydration and overheating of body which can lead to muscle meltdown. This may cause death due to failure of major organs such as kidneys or liver. Overdose may also lead to excessive water consumption and retention to the point where cell structure breaks – causing cells to swell, burst and die. This can again cause brain damage and death.

Scientific research shows that using Ecstasy over the weekend can make one feel depressed around mid-week. Drowsiness, muscle aches, insomnia, loss of appetite and concentration, and irritability and other side-effects of Ecstasy that can be long-lasting.

 

Snorting Ecstasy can damage the fragile mucous membrane in the nasal passages, burn it and produce sores. Injecting it may block the blood vessels, and cause bacterial infections that may damage heart valves or cause collapse of vein in which it is injected.

Cocaine

Also known as Coke, Crack, Rock, C, Charlie or Freebase, cocaine is a stimulant. It speeds up the activity of certain chemicals in brain and makes us feel less tired and more alert.

Cocaine is manufactured from the coca plant, which grows naturally in Bolivia and Peru. Traditionally, Peruvian Indians used to chew its leaves to lessen their fatigue caused by living at high altitudes. In mid-19th century, a technique was discovered to extract cocaine hydrochloride from its leaves which was used as an effective local anaesthetic.

Did you know that this cocaine hydrochloride was one of the ingredients used by Coca Cola until 1930, even though most western countries had banned its non-medical use in the 1920s?

How is it used?

Most people snort or swallow cocaine but it can also be injected or smoked in the form of freebase or crack.

Effects of Cocaine on Health:

Use of cocaine increases our breathing and pulse rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. Our pupils get dilated, and we may temporarily feel better and more alert, energetic and confident. It also makes us more suspicious, irritable and anxious. It may suppress our appetite and make it difficult for us to sleep. Thus, cocaine users often lose weight and suffer from malnutrition.

Effects of Amphetamines

Amphetamines may cause hyperactivity and make one feel more energetic, alert, confident and talkative. It also increases one’s breathing and pulse rates, and blood pressure, and reduces one’s appetite and ability to sleep. It enlarges one’s pupils and makes one more anxious, suspicious, irritable and violent. It can also induce panic attacks in drug users.

 Use of amphetamines can lead to malnutrition, lowering of immunity levels, develop tolerance for the drug and cause emotional disturbances such as psychosis. Methamphetamine is more potent than dexamphetamine, and increases the risk of developing mental health problems considerably.

Overdose of these drugs may lead to seizures, strokes, heart failures and death.

Other Detrimental Effects of Drug Abuse

When two or more drugs are taken at the same time or within short duration of time, the risks associated with them can increase considerably. Poly drug use may happen unintentionally, when people mix over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs and/or illegal drugs without any knowledge of their content and purity levels. Sometimes, drug manufacturers may also combine different drugs to achieve a specific effect or use cheaper chemicals to save money – which might be hazardous to drug users.

In cases of poly drug use, people may experience serious increase in heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. At times, it may also lead to unintentional drug overdose. One may also experience mental and emotional disturbances like paranoia and panic attacks, which may be long lasting too (depending on one’s susceptibility to such problems).

Pregnant women or mothers who are breastfeeding their children are strictly warned against using over-the-counter medicines as drugs may affect the growth and development of their babies. Drug abuse during pregnancy may lead to miscarriages, premature births, and even birth defects in newborns.

Drug abuse may make you angry, aggressive, paranoid, anxious, and/or talkative, or may just leave you feeling unmotivated, sleepy and depressed. Hence, it is a sure shot way to severe your relationships with your friends and family members (or at least dent them seriously), and to get entangled in different kinds of social and emotional problems.

How to handle a drug addict?

Illegal drugs and safety are antonyms of each other. It is better to keep away from them. One should only use medications prescribed by a doctor.

For those who have someone close who is a drug addict, it is important to keep an eye on him and call an ambulance immediately if they seem to be in danger. Telling the ambulance officers about the drug can play a significant role in saving their lives too.

It might also be helpful for them to learn first-aid to use in case of emergencies. If the drug user is unconscious, place him in the recovery position and make sure that his airway is clear. If he or she has stopped breathing, you may give them Expired Air Resuscitation (EAR) until the ambulance arrives. Injecting drugs is much more harmful than other ways of taking drugs. Never let anyone drive or operate any machinery under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Try to enroll the addicts into a drug treatment and rehabilitation centre, and help them start a new life, through de addiction.

 

(The author is a columnist)