Many people are aware that a substance use disorder (SUD) causes numerous health problems, but they may be unaware of its unhealthy side effects on the largest organ in our bodies — the skin. The skin acts as a waterproof, defensive shield protecting our bodies from harsh elements, harmful chemicals and dangerous bacteria. However, prolonged substance use can change the appearance of your skin and create serious skin problems too. Keep reading to learn more. 

Poor Hygiene Habits Can Create Skin Problems 

Poor hygiene habits can be a sign of self-neglect, an inability or unwillingness to take care of your personal needs. Certain mental and emotional disorders, including substance use disorders, can cause people to worry less about their hygiene, like regular bathing, for example.

Poor hygiene from infrequent bathing can cause a buildup of dead skin cells, dirt and sweat on the skin. This buildup may trigger acne and possibly intensify conditions like hyperpigmentation, psoriasis, dermatitis and eczema. Furthermore, it can cause skin infections and may potentially lead to a rare skin condition called dermatitis neglecta, in which patches of plaque appear on the skin.

Intravenous Drug Use Can Cause Bacterial Skin Infections 

Intravenous (IV) drug use involves injecting illegal or prescription drugs into the body through a hypodermic needle into a vein. Drugs can also be injected under the skin (known as “skin popping”) or directly into the muscle (intramuscular injection). Heroin, amphetamines, methamphetamines and cocaine are common drugs that people inject.

Many dangerous and potentially lethal health issues can result from IV drug use, including severe skin damage and trauma. For example, skin and soft-tissue (SSTI) bacterial infections are a common complication resulting from IV drug use. Skin and soft-tissue bacterial infections can be the result of:

  • Skin popping
  • Drug leakage out of the veins during an injection
  • Tissue death from toxic materials in the drugs
  • An increased number of bacteria on the skin’s surface

Bacterial skin infections often happen in common injection sites like the arms and legs but can also affect the abdomen, back, groin and neck if injections occur in those areas. Keep in mind that skin infections may appear in the forms of scarring, dark pigmentation, swollen lymph glands or lymphedema. Fever may or may not occur. 

The types of bacterial skin infections caused by IV drug use can include: 

  • Cellulitis
  • Abscesses
  • Skin ulcers
  • Fungal infections
  • Necrotizing fasciitis (a deadly and rare bacterial infection that spreads through the body)
  • Septic thrombophlebitis (an infected blood clot in a vein; it can be life-threatening)

Alcohol Use Can Trigger Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes red, dry, itchy patches to form on the knees, elbows, scalp or trunk. While psoriasis has no cure, research has found that regular, heavy alcohol use can trigger psoriasis, among other skin conditions like acne and rosacea. Furthermore, alcohol dependence is sometimes related to depression, which is a common and co-occurring condition found with psoriasis. 

Alcohol can negatively impact psoriasis in the following ways

  • Dangerous interactions with some psoriasis drugs (like Methotrexate)
  • Increased risk of liver damage and disease
  • Increase in the severity of psoriasis symptoms (particularly in men)
  • Increase in psoriasis flares

Psychostimulant Drugs Can Cause Sensory Hallucinations 

Psychostimulant drugs can cause a frightening sensory hallucination called formication. Formication is the false sensation of bugs or worms crawling on the skin. Some people use the phrases “coke bugs” and “meth mites” to describe this condition since cocaine and methamphetamine are two drugs associated with this condition. 

Those suffering from formication typically have self-induced dermatosis caused by the intense scratching and picking of their skin. Dermatosis is a broad term used to describe any skin defect or skin lesion. Formication may also occur alongside another delusion called parasitosis. People with parasitosis falsely believe that bugs or worms are crawling under or out of their skin. They often have serious skin problems like scarring, scratch marks and/or cut marks.

Find Help At Seneca Health Services 

The best approach to healthy skin is to avoid substance use altogether. If you cannot stop thinking about alcohol or drugs, you should contact one of our trained behavioral health professionals. Reaching out is hard, but we want you to know that our team of psychiatrists, medical providers, social workers, therapists, nurses, case managers and other professional staff at Seneca Health Services are here to help. We will listen to you, support you and will not provide any more or less treatment than what is needed. 

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Seneca office nearest you

Greenbrier County, West Virginia: (304) 497-0500

Nicholas County, West Virginia: (304) 872-2659

Pocahontas County, West Virginia: (304) 799-6865

Webster County, West Virginia: (304) 847-5425