These Illicit Drugs Can Destroy Your Lungs as Well as Your Life

Learn about the ten drugs that are devastating to the lungs and, in some cases, are sufficiently damaging to cause death.

Breathing problem, woman in a hospital

It’s a safe bet that most people realize that illicit drug use can lead to the loss of everything dear to you. Marriage, children, home and career, and much more are often sacrificed when someone becomes addicted. Illicit drugs are also very hard on the body, with many of them having a direct and damaging effect on the lungs of the user.

When the lungs become damaged, it’s hard for a person to get enough oxygen and release enough carbon dioxide. The results are symptoms like these:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lack of energy
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Spitting up blood
  • Pneumonia

When the damage is severe enough, the outcome can be coma or even death. It’s vital to discontinue illicit drug use before this habit can cause irreversible damage.

Multiple Pathways to Lung Damage

There are four main pathways to lung damage for a person who uses illicit drugs.

  1. Several drugs directly depress the body’s ability to continue breathing. If this effect is pronounced enough, the drug user will stop breathing and die.
  2. Stimulants increase the heart rate and blood pressure. This increased pressure can damage the arteries of the lungs.
  3. The ingredients in some drugs block small arteries or capillaries in the lungs, resulting in increased blood pressure within the lungs.
  4. Drug use is often accompanied by exposure to pathogens that can damage the lungs.

Different drugs work on different pathways or even multiple pathways at one time. Continuing to use any illicit drug is a fast path to lasting damage to these vital organs.

Ten Drugs That Directly Harm the Lungs and One’s Ability to Breathe



It may not be broadly known that alcohol is a respiratory depressant, meaning it impairs the ability to breathe.

  • In adults, respiratory depression results from very heavy alcohol consumption. In adolescents, it can occur at lower levels of intoxication. At any age, respiratory depression can be so profound as to result in death due to asphyxia. 1 2

  • Chronic alcohol ingestion increases the risk for severe lung injury that can lead to sepsis or pneumonia. The close association between alcohol abuse and pneumonia was established hundreds of years ago. Those abusing alcohol often have more severe symptoms and die of this disease more often than non-abusers.3 4


Powdered cocaine (also called cocaine hydrochloride) is usually inhaled directly into the lungs by way of the nose, or it may be dissolved and injected. This strong stimulant speeds up the heart and increases the blood pressure. The drug has an intense effect on the lungs.

  • Intravenous cocaine use is associated with pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs). It can also result in emphysema and blood clots in the lungs.5

  • Autopsies of those testing positive for cocaine found lung hemorrhages in many.5

  • Inhaling cocaine is also associated with lung inflammation and the development of scarring in the lungs. Scarred lung tissue becomes thick and stiff, making a transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream difficult.5

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure) in the lungs can also result from cocaine use. This condition weakens the heart and can lead to heart failure.5

  • Inhaling or injecting cocaine can create injuries known as granulomas which are tiny clumps of tissue formed as a result of irritants, bacteria, or other foreign bodies entering the lungs.6

Crack cocaine

Crack cocaine is a purified form of cocaine that can be smoked. It is not only highly and quickly addictive; it is terribly hard on the lungs.

  • Crack cocaine constricts the blood vessels and damages the tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchial passages (alveoli). In fact, this injury is so common that the condition of damaged alveoli is referred to as “crack syndrome.” When alveoli are damaged, emphysema results.7

  • Chronic crack cocaine use can disable the lungs, requiring oxygen supplementation to keep the person alive.8

  • Pneumonia becomes much more likely when the lungs become damaged, along with arterial blockage and tissue death.8


Both pharmaceutical fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are highly potent opioid drugs. As such, they impact a person’s ability to breathe, which can cause the person’s death.

  • As with several other drugs, smoking fentanyl can cause widespread hemorrhages in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchial passages. This damage can eventually result in death.[9]

  • High doses of all forms of fentanyl can cause “wooden chest syndrome,” or chest wall rigidity, which then causes respiratory failure. This symptom has not been seen with heroin or semi-synthetic prescription opioids, just with the drugs in the fentanyl family.9


Of course, smoked heroin damages the lungs like smoking any other drug, but any method of heroin consumption directly harms the lungs.

  • All forms of heroin use depress the body’s ability to breathe and can cause fluid buildup in the lungs. Depression of the body’s breathing is what causes most heroin-related deaths.10

  • A 2020 study of heroin smokers noted that many of these individuals suffer from cardiac obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and other respiratory illnesses. One analysis found that those who abused illicit opioids were 15 times more likely to suffer from COPD than those who did not.11

  • Intravenous heroin use is associated with lowered immunity, infections, and edema. Pneumonia becomes more likely but may not be realized by the user because of the painkilling effects of the heroin.12

  • Contaminants in this illicitly manufactured drug can be another contributing factor in causing pneumonia.12


In every home, garage, and shop, there are dozens or even hundreds of different substances that can be misused to get high. Commonly abused inhalants include gasoline, permanent markers, correction fluid, hairspray, paint, cleaning fluid, glues, cooking spray, and many, many others.

  • Inhalant abuse can cause sudden death due to respiratory failure, along with harm to many other systems of the body. The most common complaints of inhalant abusers are coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Emphysema can also result.13

  • Once in the lungs, these gases displace the air, which brings about hypoxia or oxygen deprivation. Hypoxia can be severe enough to cause death from suffocation.14


Ketamine is an anesthetic used in both care of humans and animals.

  • An overdose or too-rapid administration can prove fatal due to respiratory depression. Symptoms of respiratory depression include slower and shallower breathing and poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.15


Woman smokes marijuana on a street and coughing

Smoking is just one of many ways marijuana (cannabis) can be consumed. Since the commercialization of cannabis, smokable marijuana products come in many forms, including leaves and buds, hash oil, wax, and liquids for vape pens. No matter how it is smoked, it is hard on the lungs.

  • Marijuana smoke is a lung irritant and is associated with airway inflammation and bronchitis.16

  • Marijuana may reduce the immune response of the respiratory system, increasing the risk of infections such as pneumonia.16


Methamphetamine is a strong stimulant that is most often smoked.

  • Lung injuries commonly include edema or fluid buildup in the lungs, respiratory distress, alveolar hemorrhage, and pneumonia.17

  • Methamphetamine use has been associated with pulmonary arterial hypertension, or high blood pressure in the lung’s arteries. This can lead to heart failure. Fewer than half of the people who suffer from this disorder survive for five years.18

Ritalin and other prescription stimulants

When Ritalin and similar pills are crushed and injected, they often contain starch or talc, which can block small arteries or capillaries in the lungs.

  • Talc particles reaching the capillaries in the lungs can cause obstruction, which can cause blood clots in the lungs. Pulmonary arterial hypertension can also occur, accompanied by heart enlargement and failure[20].

  • Injecting these pills causes scarring and hemorrhages of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs, and blockages in the lung’s capillaries.19

A Special Note About Injected Drugs

The injection of drugs is associated with its own special dangers such as the transmission of HIV or hepatitis C, both of which can have damaging effects on the lungs.

  • People who inject drugs (PWID) risk chronic pulmonary complications because of the direct effects of the drugs as well as exposure to contaminants such as talc and bacteria. Other possible outcomes include pneumonia, edema in the lungs, and pulmonary hemorrhage.19

  • HIV is often transmitted through needles shared by PWID. Those with HIV are already at increased risk for pulmonary arterial hypertension. When a person also abuses drugs, the incidence of this hypertension is even higher.20

  • While hepatitis C is primarily a lung disease, it is known to impact the lungs as well. Possible impacts include initiation or worsening of COPD and inflammation and scarring of the lungs.21

Preserving Health, Preserving Life

Anyone who has ever been addicted knows that this problem wreaks havoc on every part of their life. If they can get help soon enough, the body may be able to heal from the damaging and toxic effects of these drugs.

It can be frustrating to try to convince an addicted person to accept help. But there are ways to break through this barrier. An experienced interventionist has helped many families and individuals find a successful resolution to this problem. Helping someone you care about break free from addiction might be the most helpful thing you can ever do for someone you love.


  1. “Acute Alcohol Intoxication in Adolescents.” PubMed, 2013. PubMed ↩︎

  2. “Forensic Appraisal of Death Due to Acute Alcohol Poisoning.” National Library of Medicine, 2020. NLM ↩︎

  3. “Chronic-Alcohol-Abuse-Induced Oxidative Stress in the Development of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome." Scientific World Journal, 2012. Scientific World Journal ↩︎

  4. “The Epidemiology of Alcohol Abuse and Pneumonia.” National Library of Medicine, 2014. NLM ↩︎

  5. “Pulmonary Effects of Cocaine Use.” MedCrave, 2017. MedCrave ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  6. “A Case of Pulmonary Talc Granulomatosis.” Chest, 2019. Chest ↩︎

  7. “Alveolar Hemorrhage Associated with Cocaine Consumption.” ScienceDirect, 2019. ScienceDirect ↩︎

  8. “A Severe Complication of Crack Cocaine Use.” National Library of Medicine, 2015. NLM ↩︎ ↩︎

  9. “Non-Fatal Opioid Overdose and Associated Health Outcomes.” Health and Human Services, 2019. HHS ↩︎

  10. “Opioid Toxicity.” National Library of Medicine, 2017. NLM ↩︎

  11. “Screening Heroin Smokers Attending Community Drug Clinics for Change in Lung Function: A Cohort Study.” Chest, 2020. Chest ↩︎

  12. “Acute eosinophilic pneumonia in a heroin smoker.” European Respiratory Journal, 1993. European Respiratory Journal ↩︎ ↩︎

  13. “Effects of Volatile Substance Abuse on the Respiratory System in Adolescents.” National Library of Medicine, 2011, NLM ↩︎

  14. “Inhalants.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2010. VA ↩︎

  15. “FDA warns patients and health care providers about potential risks associated with compounded ketamine products.” Food and Drug Administration, 2023. FDA ↩︎

  16. “What Are Marijuana’s Effects on Lung Health?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, undated. NIDA ↩︎ ↩︎

  17. “Methamphetamine-Induced Lung Injury.” National Library of Medicine, 2019. NLM ↩︎

  18. “Methamphetamine and the Risk of Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension.” National Library of Medicine, 2018. NLM ↩︎

  19. “Pulmonary Complications of Illicit Drug Use.” Journal of Thoracic Imaging, 2007. Journal of Thoracic Imaging ↩︎ ↩︎

  20. “Drug-induced Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension: A Primer for Clinicians and Scientists.” National Library of Medicine, 2019. NLM ↩︎

  21. “The Impact of Hepatitis C Viremia Status on Lung Functions in Chronic Hepatitis C Patients.” National Library of Medicine, 2019. NLM ↩︎


After a few years working at the Narconon center in Oklahoma, Karen has been researching drug trends around the world and writing reports and articles on addiction and recovery for nine years.
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