What Role Does Drug Abuse Play in the Health of the Reproductive System?

Last Updated: November 12, 2019
Human Reproductive System Vector Illustration Diagram, Male and Female.

There is extensive research on the health issues of individuals with substance use disorders, and many of these effects vary by the type of drug a person uses and by their level of abuse. It would be difficult to list all the effects on the reproductive systems of males and females that can occur with all possible substances that can be abused; however, some general conclusions can be made. For substance abuse rehab please call our toll free number, every American Addiction Centers facility provides its own combination of proven therapies and services to meet your needs.

This article is not designed to diagnose a reproductive health issue in anyone. It is to be used for educational purposes regarding the abuse of drugs and alcohol and reproductive health.

General Effects of Substance Use Disorders on the Female Reproductive System

The overall body of research suggests that females may be more susceptible to long-term effects of a substance use disorder than males. Differences in size, weight, and hormone production can influence how substances are metabolized in the body, and females are generally at overall disadvantage when the same amount of a substance is being used.

The manifestation of a substance use disorder in a woman can affect their reproductive system in numerous ways.

  • An increased risk to get infections: Abuse of drugs or alcohol can lead to risky behaviors or to a lack of attention to personal care that can leave one susceptible to numerous diseases or infections. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) may affect a woman’s fertility. The risk of other infectious diseases as a result of risky behaviors or lack of personal hygiene or personal care as a result of a substance use disorder can also affect the reproductive system.
  • Menstrual cycle alterations: Use of drugs and alcohol may result in an alteration of a woman’s menstrual cycle and can even lead to a condition known as amenorrhea (the absence of a menstrual period). This condition, when prolonged, can have ramifications for reproductive health.
  • Increased risk of cancer: Women who abuse any type of drug are at increased risk to develop numerous forms of cancer, including cancers that affect the reproductive organs. For instance, diagnosis of a substance use disorder increases the risk of getting numerous types of infections, and infections like the human papilloma virus have been linked to an increased risk to develop certain cancers like cervical cancer.
  • Issues with fertility: Drug and alcohol use can affect fertility in females. For instance, researchers found that females who have alcohol use disorders are more likely to experience a problem with fertility than women who are low to even moderate alcohol users.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Abuse of alcohol or drugs can impact sexual performance, including a woman’s sexual desire, the ability to achieve sexual arousal, or the ability to experience pleasure. Heavy drug or alcohol use can decrease vaginal lubrication, and having an STD can impact sexual desire.

Effects of Substance Abuse on the Male Reproductive System

Men can experience numerous issues with reproductive problems as a result of a substance use disorder.

  • Issues with fertility: Numerous substances of abuse can lead to fertility problems in males. For instance, abuse of cocaine, cannabis, or even alcohol can lead to changes in hormone levels that can affect the production of sperm and the mobility of the sperm. Abuse of performance-enhancing drugs can increase testosterone, which can lead to testicle shrinkage and lower sperm production.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Use of drugs and alcohol can lead to issues with sexual arousal in males. In some individuals, even the use of alcohol in small amounts can lead to temporary impotence, which can become exacerbated with continued alcohol use. Abuse of other central nervous system depressants can lead to issues with sexual dysfunction. Abuse of stimulants on a chronic basis can lead to issues with erectile dysfunction in males.
  • Diseases and infections: Like women, having a chronic substance use disorder can lead to issues with self-care, personal hygiene, and an increased ability to develop infectious diseases including STDs. Intravenous drug use and needle sharing raises the risk for infections, such as HIV and hepatitis or other blood-borne infections.
  • Cancer risk: Chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol leads to an increased risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer that can affect sexual functioning and the reproductive system. This includes an increased risk for testicular cancer.

The Effects of Drugs on Pregnancy

A shot of a uzi pregnancy and pills with a jar, a black background, capsule

Use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy can lead to significant developmental issues in the fetus. Many types of drugs and alcohol can easily be transferred to the developing child through the placenta.

The list of potential conditions that can occur in the child as a result of alcohol or drug use during pregnancy is numerous and include issues with low birth weight, premature birth, an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), an increased risk of birth defects, and an increased risk for numerous developmental disorders. The drugs that carry significant risks include:

  • Alcohol: Despite attempts by the media to continually present the risks of using alcohol during pregnancy, a significant number of women still use alcohol within their first trimester and beyond. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) continues to report that a significant and surprising percentage of women report using alcohol at least once during the first trimester of pregnancy. It should be stressed that there is no amount of alcohol that is safe to drink during pregnancy, and women should refrain from using any amount of alcohol at any time while they are pregnant.The list of potential issues that occur during pregnancy as result of alcohol use/abuse are numerous.
    • Increased risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery
    • An increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, which is the leading cause of infant death in the United States
    • The development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can range on a continuum of severity from mild to severe, and most often affect learning, memory, emotional control, impulse control, communication, socialization, and learning to perform daily activities
  • Opiate drugs: Women who use opiate drugs during pregnancy place their babies at risk for the development of neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition where infants become physically dependent on opioid drugs as a result of their exposure in the womb. These individuals may also display numerous issues, including conduct problems, increased potential to develop seizures, and other physical problems.
  • Stimulants: Pregnant women who use cocaine may develop problems with seizures and migraine headaches. They may also have numerous problems during pregnancy, including very serious issues, such as the separation of the placenta from the uterus or pregnancy related high blood pressure (hypertension), which can lead to organ damage in the mother. Babies born to women who use cocaine during pregnancy demonstrate an increased risk for developmental problems, low birth weight, and smaller head circumference. Women who use methamphetamine during pregnancy have an increased risk for their children to have significant emotional problems and cognitive problems that can range on a continuum from mild to severe.
  • Cannabis products: Even though cannabis products are becoming legalized throughout the country, they are not considered safe for use by pregnant women. Cannabis use during pregnancy has been linked to various developmental issues in children.

The Effects of Drugs on Fertility

Several different drugs are known to have significant effects on the fertility of both men and women. These include the following:

  • Tobacco products: Tobacco use of any type affects nearly every organ in the body, and use of tobacco may affect the ability of women to conceive. Women who smoke are often found to have a significantly harder time getting pregnant than women who don’t. Smoking can also affect the quality of sperm in men.
  • Cannabis: Even though the current zeitgeist is to portray cannabis products as being relatively harmless and even having medicinal properties (which some cannabinoids do), there is research to suggest that use of marijuana may affect the quality of sperm in males resulting in abnormal sperm development. Women who smoke marijuana may have a significantly decreased risk of conceiving compared to women who do not use it.
  • Heroin: Chronic use of heroin may result in some males experiencing significant problems with sexual dysfunction even after they remain abstinent from the drug for significant periods of time. Heroin also appears to affect the quality and mobility of sperm.
  • Cocaine: Males who are chronic cocaine users may have abnormally developed sperm and low sperm counts. They may also suffer from long-term issues with sexual dysfunction. Chronic use of cocaine impacts ovarian functions and ovulation in female rats, and it is believed that the drug has the same effect in humans.

The Best Chances of Recovery

The overall body of research paints a grim picture for the prospect of healthy sexual functioning in people who have substance use disorders. The best way to deal with the issue is to get help, become abstinence, and remain in a long-term recovery program that can help to change behavior.

Some of the effects of drugs and alcohol may remit over time; others may not. Certainly, individuals who remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol will experience more positive effects compared to individuals who do not become involved in recovery.

Last Updated on November 12, 2019
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