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Other Commonly Used Addictive Substances

Alcohol

Alcohol consumption can damage the brain and most body organs, including the heart, liver, and pancreas. It also increases the risk of some cancers, weakens the immune system, puts fetal development at risk, and causes deadly vehicle crashes. Areas of the brain that are especially

vulnerable to alcohol-related damage include the following:

  • cerebral cortex – largely responsible for higher brain functions, including problem-solving and decision-making
  • hippocampus – important for memory and learning
  • cerebellum – important for movement coordination

For more information, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at www.niaaa.nih.gov.

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are synthetic variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. The proper term for these compounds is anabolic-androgenic steroids (abbreviated as AAS.) "Anabolic" refers to muscle building and "androgenic" refers to increased male sexual characteristics. Steroids can be prescribed for delayed puberty and diseases that cause muscle loss; however, some athletes and body builders misuse these drugs in attempts to improve athletic performance or physical appearance. Anabolic steroids work very differently from other addictive drugs, and they do not have the same short-term effects on the brain. However, long-term steroid use can affect some of the same brain pathways and chemicals—including dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems—that are affected by other drugs. This may result in a significant impact on mood and behavior.

Anabolic steroid misuse can lead to mental problems like paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, impaired judgment, and extreme mood swings. Other health effects include severe acne, body swelling, and changes in sex characteristics, such as shrinking of testicles in men and facial hair growth in women. Some serious consequences of steroid misuse can include heart disease, liver damage, and kidney problems or failure. For more information, visit www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/steroids-anabolic.

Cocaine

Cocaine is powerfully addictive stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant. Cocaine increases levels of dopamine in brain circuits controlling pleasure and movement, leading to health effects like extreme happiness and energy, mental alertness, hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch, irritability, and paranoia. Some people find that cocaine helps them perform simple physical and mental tasks more quickly, although others experience the opposite effect. Large amounts of cocaine can lead to bizarre, unpredictable, and violent behavior. People who use cocaine often take it in binges—taking the drug repeatedly within a short time, at increasingly higher doses—to maintain their high. Cocaine use can lead to severe medical consequences related to the heart and the respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems. For more information, visit  www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/cocaine.

Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. Like morphine, it is a prescription drug that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drug involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States. Some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. This is because it takes very little to produce a high with fentanyl, making it a cheaper option. This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive. They may be taking stronger opioids than their bodies are used to, and can be more likely to overdose. For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/fentanyl.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they are not. People have used hallucinogens for centuries, mostly for religious rituals. Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms or can be human-made. They are commonly divided into two broad categories: classic hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.

Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. The effects of hallucinogens are highly variable and unreliable, producing different effects in different people at different times. This is mainly due to differences in the amounts and chemistries of active compounds within the drugs. Because of their unpredictable nature, the use of hallucinogens can be particularly dangerous. Classic hallucinogens include the following:

  • Ayahuasca is a tea made from one of several Amazonian plants containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the primary mind-altering ingredient.
  • DMT is a powerful chemical found in some Amazonian plants. Manufacturers can also make DMT in a lab.
  • D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is one of the most powerful mood-changing chemicals. It is made from lysergic acid, which is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains.
  • Peyote (mescaline) is a small, spineless cactus with mescaline as its main ingredient. Peyote can also be synthetic.
  • 4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (psilocybin) comes from certain types of mushrooms found in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States.

Dissociative drugs cause people to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and environment. Common examples include the following:

  • Ketamine is used as a surgery anesthetic for humans and animals. Because ketamine is odorless and tasteless and has amnesia-inducing properties, it is sometimes added to drinks to facilitate sexual assault.
  • Phencyclidine (PCP) was developed in the 1950s as a general anesthetic for surgery. It’s no longer used for this purpose due to serious side effects, including out of control behaviors.
  • Salvia divinorum (salvia) is a plant common to southern Mexico and Central and South America.

For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/hallucinogens.

Heroin

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of various opium poppy plants. Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

It produces euphoria and feelings of relaxation. It can also slow breathing and can increase the risk of serious infectious diseases, especially when injected with a needle. Regular heroin use changes brain functioning, causing tolerance and dependence. Prescription opioid pain medicines have effects similar to heroin. Research suggests that misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin (including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids prior to using heroin.9, 10 However, while prescription opioid misuse is a risk factor for starting heroin use, only a small fraction of people who misuse opioid pain relievers switch to heroin. According to a national survey, fewer than 4 percent of people who had misused prescription pain medicines started using heroin within 5 years.10 For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/heroin.

Inhalants

Inhalants are various products easily bought and found in the home and workplace—such as spray paints, markers, glues, and cleaning fluids—and include solvents, aerosol sprays, gases, and nitrites. Inhalants contain dangerous substances that have mind-altering properties when inhaled. People don’t typically think of these products as drugs because they’re not intended for getting high, but some people use them for that purpose. Although other substances that are misused can be inhaled, inhalants are substances that people typically take only by inhaling. Inhalants are extremely toxic and can damage the heart, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Even in a healthy person, sniffing these products can cause the heart to stop within minutes and lead to death.

People tend to abuse different inhalant products at different ages. New younger users (ages 12–15) most commonly abuse glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. First-time older users (ages 16–17) most commonly abuse nitrous oxide, or whippets. Adults most commonly abuse a class of inhalants known as nitrites (such as amyl nitrites, or poppers). For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/inhalants.

MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly)

3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. It is chemically similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens, producing feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception. High doses of MDMA can affect the body's ability to regulate temperature. This can lead to a spike in body temperature that can occasionally result in liver, kidney, or heart failure or even death. In addition, because MDMA can promote trust and closeness, its use may encourage unsafe sexual behavior. This increases people's risk of contracting or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. MDMA was initially popular in the nightclub scene and at all-night dance parties, with the elevated heat in the club environment contributing to reported deaths. The drug is now also used by a broader range of people who more commonly call the drug Ecstasy or Molly.

Molly—slang for "molecular"—refers to the "pure" crystalline powder form of Ecstasy. However, people who purchase powder or capsules sold as Molly often actually get other drugs instead of or in addition to MDMA. These drugs may include cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, over-the-counter cough medicine, or synthetic cathinones ("bath salts"). For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/mdma-ecstasy-molly.

Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine is a stimulant that can produce feelings of euphoria and alertness. Methamphetamine's effects are particularly long-lasting and harmful to the brain. It can cause high body temperature and can lead to serious heart problems and seizures. Regular methamphetamine use significantly changes how the brain functions. Human brain imaging studies have shown alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor skills and impaired verbal learning. It can also affect areas of the brain involved with emotion and memory. These changes may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems seen in people who use methamphetamine regularly. For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/methamphetamine.

Nicotine

Nicotine is an addictive stimulant found in cigarettes, other forms of tobacco, and e-cigarettes or e-vaporizers. Nicotine causes an increase in blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. Studies suggest that other chemicals in tobacco smoke may enhance nicotine's effects on the brain. Although nicotine itself does not cause cancer, many of the chemicals in tobacco are carcinogenic. Cigarette smoking accounts for at least 30 percent of all cancer deaths, especially lung cancer. Additionally, tobacco smoking can lead to other lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, and pneumonia. All of these risks apply to use of any smoked product, including hookah tobacco. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of cancer, especially mouth cancers. Scientists are still studying potential harm caused by the use of e-cigarettes, with some research suggesting that teens who start with vaporizers will soon switch to regular tobacco cigarettes. For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/tobacco-nicotine and read NIDA’s Electronic Cigarettes DrugFacts.

Rohypnol® and GHB

Like ketamine, Rohypnol® and GHB have come to be known as "date rape" drugs because they can cause someone to lose their memory of an assault. Rohypnol® and GHB can easily be added to beverages and ingested unknowingly. These drugs can also cause someone to lose consciousness. GHB is predominantly a CNS depressant, whereas Rohypnol® is a benzodiazepine. For more information about these drugs, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/commonly-abused-drugs-charts.

Synthetic Cathinones ("Bath Salts")

Synthetic cathinones, more commonly known as "bath salts," are human-made stimulants chemically related to cathinone, a substance found in the khat plant. These chemicals can be much stronger than the natural product and, in some cases, very dangerous. Health effects include paranoia, hallucinations, increased sociability, increased sex drive, panic attacks, and excited delirium—extreme agitation and violent behavior. Some deaths have been reported.

These synthetic cathinone products—marketed as "bath salts" to evade detection by authorities—should not be confused with products such as Epsom salts for bathing. "Bath salts" typically take the form of a white or brown crystalline powder and are sold in small plastic or foil packages labeled "not for human consumption." For more information, visit drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/synthetic-cathinones-bath-salts.

This page was last updated July 2018

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NIDA. (2018, July 2). Media Guide. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide

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