How Do Alcohol, Drugs, and Nicotine Impact Heart Health?

Alcohol, drugs, and nicotine can cause significant damage to your heart and blood vessels, often leading to severe problems, such as heart attack, stroke, disability, and even death.

Key takeaways:
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    Alcohol consumption can lead to an increased risk of heart and blood vessel conditions.
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    Drugs like cocaine and opioids are common causes of heart problems.
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    Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S.
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    Alcohol, drugs, and nicotine usage can raise your blood pressure, increase plaque development along the walls of your blood vessels, and cause heart arrhythmias.

Alcohol and your heart

In small amounts, certain forms of alcohol are generally viewed as beneficial for your heart and may protect the heart to some extent. One alcoholic drink per day may be good for you.

However, drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol acts as a toxin to the heart and blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to the brain and body. As a result, alcohol consumption can lead to an increased risk of heart and blood vessel conditions, some of which can be severe, even debilitating, or fatal:

Coronary artery disease, also known as heart disease, occurs when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. This plaque can break loose and block an artery, leading to a heart attack.

A heart attack occurs when the heart muscle does not receive enough blood, and the muscle begins to die. If enough of the muscle dies, other heart complications and even death can occur.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, occurs when chronic high pressure in the blood vessels makes the vessels hard and stiff, decreasing their ability to convey blood throughout the body. High blood pressure can lead to severe complications, such as cardiomyopathy, which can lead to death.

Cardiomyopathy is a heart muscle disease that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively. Cardiomyopathy can cause other heart complications, heart failure, and death.

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to give your body and brain enough oxygen. Heart failure will eventually lead to death.

Congestive heart failure happens when your heart cannot pump blood effectively, and the blood backs up into your lungs and body. Congestive heart failure can lead to swelling in the legs, difficulty breathing, and death.

Heart arrhythmias occur when the electrical system in your heart does not work correctly. The heart may beat too fast, too slow, or chaotically. These abnormal rhythms can lead to more severe heart problems and eventually death.

Atrial fibrillation is a heart arrhythmia where the top part of the heart does not pump effectively. Instead of beating, it quivers, which can cause blood clots. If these blood clots reach your brain, they can cause a stroke.

You may have a stroke if a blood vessel in your brain is blocked, and the brain cannot receive enough oxygen. Strokes can have severely debilitating effects and may even be fatal.

Drugs and your heart

Most illegal drugs can cause heart problems. The use of drugs like cocaine and opioids is a common cause of heart problems and is associated with worse outcomes.

Cannabis, or marijuana, interacts differently with your heart and blood vessels depending on how much you consume, how you consume it, and the content of cannabinoids.

Cocaine use can cause heart arrhythmias and increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, heart attacks, or strokes.

Methamphetamine users have a significantly higher prevalence of heart failure than non-users.

Opioids, such as morphine or heroin, affect your heart rate and rhythm.

Injecting drugs into your veins can cause collapsed veins and infections in your blood vessels and heart.

Nicotine and your heart

In the United States, smoking is the most preventable cause of death.

The nicotine in tobacco can lead to severe heart-related health problems:

  • It can raise your heart rate and your blood pressure.
  • It raises triglycerides and lowers your "good" cholesterol (HDL), which leads to plaque build-up inside your blood vessels.
  • This plaque narrows your blood vessels, leading to heart attacks.
  • It can damage the lining of your blood vessels.
  • It is a significant cause of coronary artery disease. One in every four deaths from coronary artery disease is associated with smoking.
  • It makes your blood thick and sticky, leading to blood clots and a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • It is associated with bad outcomes after major heart-related events like heart attacks and strokes.

Smoking nicotine is dangerous for the smoker, but it is also dangerous for those who spend a significant amount of time around smokers. Secondhand smoke can cause coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. Nearly 34,000 people die in the United States every year from complications of secondhand smoke.

The use of alcohol, drugs, and nicotine can lead to significant heart and blood vessel damage. They can raise your blood pressure, increase plaque development along the walls of your blood vessels, and cause heart arrhythmias. The risks of heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke also increase with substance abuse.

Talk to your doctor if you have any symptoms of heart problems, such as:

  • swelling in the legs
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • dizziness or fainting

Call 9-1-1 if you or someone near you develops symptoms of a heart attack, such as:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • pain that radiates down one arm or into your jaw or back
  • excessive sweating

Call 9-1-1 if you or someone near you develops symptoms of a stroke, such as:

  • weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • difficulty speaking or understanding
  • confusion

Talk to your doctor if you have a problem with substance abuse and are ready to quit. They may be able to help you find resources to help you.

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