The Potential Repercussion of Substance Abuse on the Respiratory System

Last Updated: June 17, 2019
Medical Education Chart of Biology for Respiratory System Diagram

The respiratory system is designed to deliver oxygen to tissues in order to help them perform their functions. While many individuals view the respiratory system as simply being composed of the lungs, it is a very complex system with numerous components. The respiratory system includes:

  • The mouth, nose, and nasal cavity
  • The pharynx, the part of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity and in front of the esophagus and larynx
  • The larynx, the muscular organ holding the air passage to the lungs, which also contains the vocal chords
  • The trachea, the tube extending into the bronchial tube and lungs
  • The bronchi, the major air passages into the lungs
  • The lungs, the primary organ of the system
  • The alveoli, the tiny sacs in the lungs that perform gas exchange functions

Respiratory conditions range from mildly common conditions such as the common cold to very serious and life-threatening disorders and diseases like cancer. These conditions affect the organs of the body that make gas exchange possible and can be broadly arranged in four different classes of conditions.

  • Obstructive conditions that block parts of the respiratory system, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma
  • Conditions that restrict the respiratory system’s ability to function, such as pleural effusion or fibrosis
  • Conditions that affect the vasculature of the respiratory system, such as pulmonary edema, pulmonary hypertension, and pulmonary embolisms
  • Infections, environmental insults, and other conditions that can include tuberculosis, different types of cancers, and pneumonia

Numerous drugs can affect the functioning of the respiratory system.

Tobacco Products and the Respiratory System

The damage that occurs to the respiratory system from smoking tobacco products cannot be understated. The effects of smoking tobacco progress relatively slowly and increase in severity over time. The respiratory system attempts to clean itself by trapping dirt and other foreign bodies, such as microbes, and then removing them through the cilia via mucus or other methods. So-called “smoker’s cough” is often a result of the lungs attempting to rid themselves of impurities associated with tobacco products. Over time, these products take their toll, and many of the carcinogens cannot be removed completely.

People who continue to smoke tobacco products lose elasticity in the walls of the system, and many of the small structures within the system rupture or become thickened. Toxic chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products number literally in the hundreds, and eventually, these substances lead to an increase in the risk of getting certain respiratory conditions and the risk of developing numerous forms of cancer by changing the cellular structure of the tissues.

The major respiratory conditions associated with smoking tobacco products include the following:

  • Various forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a progressive condition that interferes with a person’s ability to breathe. These conditions can include emphysema, a chronic condition that disrupts the functioning of the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs, and bronchitis, which is inflammation of the bronchi in the lungs. It has been suggested that 80 percent of individuals with COPD developed the condition as a result of smoking tobacco products.
  • Asthma: This condition results in difficulty breathing. Potential causes include pollutants in the air, cigarette smoke, and other issues. Smoking makes asthma worse.
  • Lung infections: There is an increased probability that individuals will get lung infections like pneumonia.
  • Lung cancer: Research suggests that 80 percent of all lung cancer cases are somehow related to cigarette smoking. Less than 15 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer are still alive five years after their diagnosis.
  • Other forms of cancer: These can include cancer of the larynx, trachea, and pharynx.

These are typically chronic conditions that slowly develop but become progressive and worsen at an accelerated rate. Interestingly, many of these conditions can be alleviated significantly by simply quitting use of tobacco products.

Opioid Drugs

girl sits outside and looking down at pills in hand

Opioids drugs are a large class of prescription analgesic (pain-relieving) drugs and some illicit drugs. Opioids have received quite a bit of media attention due to a rise in overdoses and recent stories of abuse of prescription opioids.

Opioids are central nervous system depressant drugs that reduce the activity of the neurons in the brain and spinal cord. This central nervous system depressant action also affects the functioning of the respiratory system by slowing down a person’s breathing rate. The actions also result in their medical uses as analgesics and contribute to their abuse as they produce a reduction in a person’s experience of pain, feelings of relaxation, and euphoria.

In most cases, opioid drugs are not smoked. They are taken in pill form, ground up and snorted, or mixed with liquid and injected. Nonetheless, due to their significant ability to suppress breathing, chronic use of these drugs can lead to respiratory issues. Some of the issues include:

  • Decreased functioning of the immune system, which can lead to susceptibility for numerous infections and diseases, including pneumonia and other diseases
  • Worsening existing respiratory issues, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma
  • A significant increase in the risk to develop pulmonary edema, fluid buildup in the lungs, which can be fatal if left unchecked and can also facilitate the development of other respiratory problems

Over the long-term, there is the increased risk of developing problems that are associated with reduced oxygen delivery to various organs. Decreased levels of oxygen delivered to certain organs, like the brain, liver, and heart, can result in damage. In some cases, if oxygen is cut off to certain areas of these organs, the tissue will die.

Chronic use of opiate drugs also increases the risk of the development of all forms of cancer, including different cancers of the respiratory system.

Alcohol

Chronic use of alcohol is associated with an increased risk for numerous diseases and health conditions. Alcohol is also a central nervous system depressant and reduces the breathing rate of people who use it. Some sources refer to alcoholic lung disease or a disease of the lungs that is caused by a chronic and excessive alcohol use disorder; however, this is not a recognized medical condition.

Nonetheless, chronic use and abuse of alcohol is known to increase the risk for the development of numerous infectious diseases and disorders, numerous forms of cancer, and other health issues associated with poor nutrition and a lack of attention to self-care. When alcohol is combined with other drugs, such as tobacco products, the risk for health issues is increased even further.

Cocaine Use

man cocaine lines Cocaine is a controlled substance that is typically snorted or smoked. This type of use can result in numerous respiratory issues.

Cocaine is a very harmful central nervous system stimulant that increases the firing rates of the neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Its use results in a constriction of the veins, arteries, and capillaries in the vascular system, and it can lead to hardening of the cellular walls in organs like the lungs and death of cells in the respiratory system.

Smoking cocaine can lead to:

  • Pulmonary edema, swelling of the lungs, and even hemorrhages (ruptures of the veins or arteries) in the lungs
  • Ruptures of the air sacs in the lungs (pulmonary barotrauma)
  • Increased probability to develop asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema, or exacerbation of these conditions

While researchers suspect that smoking crack does increase the risk for lung cancer, the evidence remains inconclusive at the time of this writing.

Although smoking cocaine is far more detrimental to the health of the respiratory system, individuals who snort cocaine can also develop various issues, including:

  • Damage to the nasal passages and significant tissue death in these passages
  • Increased risk to develop nasal infections
  • Ischemic damage in the trachea and nasal passages (the death of tissue due to a lack of oxygen)

Inhalant Use

Inhalants are products like solvents, cleaners, paint thinners, and aerosol products that are used by some people to produce different types of euphoria by inhaling their gas or vapor. Most of the individuals who use these products are younger individuals, under the age of 25. The majority of individuals in this age group do not normally have issues with respiratory functioning, but chronic inhalant abuse can produce numerous potential issues, which can include:

  • An increased risk of lung infections, including the development of pneumonia
  • An increased risk of developing asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis
  • An increased risk of contracting tuberculosis
  • Tissue damage to the lungs due to the caustic nature of many of these products that may not only resolve upon abstinence

Cannabis Products and Respiratory Health

There have been numerous studies that have investigated the effects of smoking cannabis products on the respiratory system. As recreational use of marijuana becomes legalized in many states, researchers will continue to look at the findings from the data, which remain mixed. The overall findings suggest the following:

  • There is insufficient evidence to conclude that smoking cannabis products can significantly increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
  • There appears to be a connection between the development of bronchitis and smoking cannabis products.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis products may increase the risk of emphysema, but this evidence remains controversial.
  • Respiratory infections such as pneumonia may be increased in individuals who chronically smoke cannabis products.
  • Overall, there is a much smaller risk of developing respiratory conditions as a result of smoking cannabis products compared to smoking tobacco products.

Again, the evidence remains mixed. At the time of this writing, much of the research is inconclusive. It is suggested that very heavy, chronic smokers of cannabis products are at a greater risk to develop respiratory problems; however, the exact definition of “heavy, chronic smokers” may vary from study to study.

Signs of Respiratory Issues

 Save Download Preview The unshaven man in the white shirt is tight and stuffy and he tries to expand the collar to make a breath

There may be some signs that can be used to determine if someone is developing or has developed a respiratory issue. Some of the signs include:

  • Increased or labored breathing
  • Pale, grayish, or bluish skin around the mouth or lips
  • Increased perspiration without being overheated or without a fever along with labored and increased breathing
  • Grumbling in the lungs, crackling sounds, or whistling sounds that occur when a person breathes

The exact treatment for a respiratory condition will be contingent on the type of condition that is being addressed. Initially, there will be some type of a clinical examination to determine what the problem is and then the particular intervention will be decided upon.

Interventions can include medications, respiratory physiotherapy (working on inflating the lungs fully, breathing properly, etc.), and various forms of ventilatory support using suction or other methods to clean the airways can be used. Some individuals may require oxygen if their condition is advanced.

Obviously, if a respiratory condition is believed to be caused by substance abuse, the individual would need to be involved in a recovery program that focuses on abstinence and treatment of their substance use disorder. Only a commitment to abstinence from drugs and/or alcohol can eventually help to counteract some of the changes that may have occurred as a result of ongoing drug abuse. This means these individuals must be involved in long-term recovery programs.

Last Updated on June 17, 2019
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