How Do Drugs Affect the Heart?

How Do Drugs Affect the Heart?

As well as the risk of addiction, substance misuse can have a wide range of effects on both your physical and mental health. The precise risks will depend on the drug involved and other factors such as the heaviness and duration of use.

Some carry the risk of overdose, and chronic use may also be associated with different illnesses and health conditions. But how do drugs affect the heart, and which are the most dangerous in terms of drugs and heart health?

Drug Abuse and Cardiovascular Health

The cardiovascular system comprises your heart and blood vessels. It circulates oxygen and nutrients around your body so your organs can do their jobs. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and even stress can strain your cardiovascular health.

Substance misuse can also have a serious impact, and the cardiovascular effects of drug abuse can be very severe. This can include both legal and illegal drugs. Smoking, for example, is one of the worst things you can do for your heart and at least 15,000 heart and circulatory disease deaths are attributed to smoking every year in the UK. Alcohol abuse is also a significant cause of heart disease and related conditions, but illegal drugs and misused prescription drugs can also be just as dangerous.

There are established links between substance abuse, drug addiction and heart risks – but again, it very much depends on the substance involved.

The Impact of Drugs on the Heart

Here are some of the most commonly used drugs and drug types, along with information on their potential effects on the heart and cardiovascular system.


According to studies in the US, smoking causes around one in four of all deaths from cardiovascular diseases.

Chemicals in cigarette smoke cause the cells that line blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed, which can narrow the blood vessels and lead to a number of cardiovascular conditions. These can include stroke, coronary heart disease, peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and atherosclerosis – which prevents blood from flowing properly to different parts of the body. It’s worth noting that using cannabis with tobacco will also involve the same risks.


Although there is some evidence that light consumption of alcohol can protect against coronary artery disease, heavier drinking is known to damage the cardiovascular system – resulting in conditions heart muscle disorders, irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, and strokes. The British Heart Foundation says there is a clear link between alcohol and raised blood pressure, which, again, can cause cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.

Cocaine and other stimulants

Cocaine and other stimulants, including ecstasy and amphetamine, share similar adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, related predominantly to activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Cocaine has been described as the ‘perfect heart attack drug’ as it can cause raised blood pressure, stiffened arteries and thickened heart muscle walls – all of which can lead to a heart attack.


Opioids (or opiates) include illegal drugs like heroin and many strong painkillers like morphine and codeine that are frequently misused. Most opioid-related deaths involve depression of the ventilatory system (breathing), but opioids are also linked to a number of cardiovascular complications, including hypotension, bradycardia, peripheral vasodilatory flushing, and syncope. Opioid withdrawal can also sometimes trigger heart attacks.


Dangers of Drugs on Heart Health

While smoking and drinking statistically cause more cases of cardiovascular disease than other drugs, their legal status and easy accessibility mean that many more people use these substances compared to illegal drugs. Many different drugs can have a serious impact, though, and there are many links between drug addiction and cardiovascular diseases.

Drug-induced hypertension, for example, can see your blood pressure rise to potentially dangerous levels, leading to cardiovascular diseases of different kinds.

Drug-induced hypertension can be caused by legitimate medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs but can also be caused by misuse of these drugs and the use of ‘uppers’ like amphetamines. The impact of drugs on heart rate and links between drug abuse and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) can also be potentially dangerous.


The Unseen Impacts of Drugs on Heart Function

Some drugs have the potential to cause immediate problems, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Drug misuse can also increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and conditions, increasing the risk moving forward. As well as the substances themselves, the way of taking them can carry risks – such as smoking with tobacco or injecting – which could cause collapsed veins and bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves.


Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Options

If you are struggling with addiction – and especially if you are also experiencing heart problems – you should seek professional help immediately. This could include outpatient treatment programmes, but the most effective and safest approach is residential rehab. This allows you to undergo an intensive recovery programme under close supervision, which can be important if you are suffering from other health issues.

Substance abuse recovery and heart health tend to be linked because you will be quitting behaviours that can put you at risk. As well as directly treating your addiction, rehab programmes will also encourage you to adopt a healthier lifestyle overall. This could involve things like nutritional workshops and stress management techniques, which can have a beneficial knock-on effect on your heart and cardiovascular health.

If you are already suffering from cardiovascular issues, this will be taken into account during medical examinations and the delivery of your recovery programme. Great care will be taken to protect your cardiac health during recovery.

Rehabilitation for drug abuse and heart health can help you beat your addiction while also caring for your cardiovascular needs. If you are worried about your addiction or substance misuse problem and the effect it may be having on your heart, call us on 0800 001 4070 to find out how we can help.