One of the most dangerous health risks of substance use is the likelihood of infections. Infections caused by substance use can be challenging to treat, and in some cases, require hospitalization. Some of these infections can also be life-threatening. For instance, skin and soft-tissue infections (SSTIs), bacterial skin infections, infective endocarditis (IE) and blood-borne infections can result from substance use. Read on to learn more about why substance use can increase your risk of infections.

What is a Substance Use Disorder?

A substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex health condition that can mentally, physically and emotionally affect someone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that a substance use disorder occurs when the repeated usage of alcohol and or drugs causes clinically significant impairment. Impairments include health problems, disability and failure to meet obligations at work, school or home, for example. A substance use disorder is severe, but there is hope. This illness is treatable, and you can recover from it. If you would like to learn more about treatment options, check out our blog, The Best Substance Use Disorder Services for Me.

Why Can Substance Use Increase the Risk of Infections?

According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), there are many reasons substance use can increase the risk of infections; these reasons include: 

  • Injecting drugs without a prescription or not as prescribed 
  • Pathogens on the injection site or soiled hands 
  • Contaminated drugs 
  • Contaminated equipment 
  • Improper care of central lines, including after discharge from health care 
  • Poor personal hygiene 
  • Skin wounds 
  • Homelessness and lack of access to hygiene facilities

Sterile equipment can also become contaminated by skin or other environmental microorganisms during injections. Consequently, this may result in an infection.

What Type of Infections Can Substance Use Cause? 

Below, are some of the most common types of infections caused by substance use.

Skin and Soft Tissue Infections (SSTIs)

Skin and soft-tissue infections (SSTIs) are a common complication resulting from intravenous (IV) drug use. 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, for instance.

Skin and soft-tissue 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 

Bacterial skin infections often happen in common injection sites like the arms and legs. They can also affect the abdomen, back, groin and neck if injections occur in those areas. Bacterial skin infections may appear in the forms of scarring, dark pigmentation, swollen lymph glands or lymphedema, for example.

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 type of bacterial infection that spreads through the body)
  • Septic thrombophlebitis (an infected blood clot in a vein; it can be life-threatening)

If you would like to learn more about the unhealthy side effects substance use can have on your skin, check out our blog, Effects Substance Use Has on Your Skin

Infective Endocarditis (IE)

Infective endocarditis (IE) is a dangerous infection that occurs when bacteria build up on the heart’s valves or inside its lining. According to the American College of Cardiology, this condition was previously uncommon. It mainly affected older individuals who had certain heart conditions or an artificial heart valve, for example.

Today, infective endocarditis is a growing consequence of IV drug use. For example, studies from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center show that between 2012-2017, hospital admissions from drug-related infective endocarditis grew 437 percent. Furthermore, in 2017, one out of four patients admitted for this condition passed away in that hospital system.

Treatment includes antibiotics and heart valve surgery. However, an artificial heart valve also increases the risk of infective endocarditis, especially if patients continue to inject substances. Without surgery, patients can experience fatigue, shortness of breath and an increased risk of cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack. Therefore, treating a substance use disorder is the only effective way to stop this dangerous cycle. 

Blood-Borne Infections 

Those engaged in substance use put themselves at risk for blood-borne infections like hepatitis B and hepatitis C. According to the CDC, people who inject drugs are at greater risk for hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections due to sharing needles and equipment used to prepare or inject drugs. In recent years, there has been an outbreak of hepatitis C in both rural and suburban areas. 

HIV is another blood-borne infection often linked to substance use. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This infection lowers the number of immune cells (T cells) in the body, making it more difficult for the body to fight disease and infection. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of an HIV infection. At this stage, the body is unable to fend off disease. HIV can be spread through the sharing of needles or unprotected sex. 

Find Help At Seneca Health Services 

Substance use can cause many types of infections, some of which can be life-threatening. Therefore, the best way to avoid infections and other dangerous health risks is not to use substances. 

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