Beyond the Needle Marks: How Substance Abuse Affects the Skin

The damage caused by substance abuse becomes increasingly difficult to camouflage. You can see the signs in yourself; you can see the signs in someone you care for. The mirror rarely lies. Your reflection will eventually reveal the burden you try so hard to hide.

Substance abuse damages the skin

For relatively healthy people, skin changes are often the first recognizable indicator of substance use and abuse. This may explain why dermatologists are often the first among medical professionals to recognize early signs of substance use disorder.

For better or worse, your skin is a reflection of what’s going on inside your body. The chemicals that feed your addiction will affect your skin’s ability to repair and heal. The effects are cumulative. While chemical abuse will make your skin dull and unhealthy, certain types of substances are known to cause specific skin problems. Some of the common skin concerns include:

• Infections

• Ulcers

• Vascular damage

• mouth ulcers

• Redness of the skin

• Hyperpigmentation

• Outbreaks

Accelerate the aging process with stimulants

If you’re indulging in some kind of stimulant, you may be speeding up the aging process. Your heart beats faster and your body needs to work harder to keep up with the increased demands. Under the strain of stimulants, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol breaks down collagen and elastin in the skin.

Collagen is the support structure within your skin. Elastin keeps your skin supple. When a body is under the stress of chemical dependency, the loss of collagen and elastin will result in sagging jowls, drooping eyelids, sagging skin, wrinkles, and deeper folds around the nose and mouth. In fact, stimulant abuse can make you look decades older. When you combine the effects of collagen loss with the potential weight loss and malnutrition associated with stimulant abuse, the acceleration of skin aging is even more pronounced.

The scars and scabs of methamphetamine use

Chemical imbalances and dehydration caused by drug use, particularly methamphetamines, can lead to uncomfortable and worrying sensations on the skin. You may feel like you have bugs crawling on your skin and below the surface. Feelings can be done. You may respond by scratching or touching your skin. The irritation leads to more scratching and itching. Repeated skin irritation and skin injury will result in sores that heal slowly or not at all. This cycle will leave scars on your skin.

Slow-healing sores, blisters, scabs, and scars are some of the most recognizable skin problems associated with methamphetamine use. Commonly called meth sores or meth mites, these sores most often occur on the face and arms.

Since methamphetamines also interfere with blood flow, meth ulcers can appear anywhere on the body. Methamphetamines destroy blood vessels, interfere with your body’s ability to repair cell damage, and can also cause leathery skin.

Enlarged, protruding, or damaged veins from intravenous drug use

Many intravenous drugs are vasodilators that can also induce vasospasm. That means the IV medications will cause your blood vessels to expand, but then they will quickly constrict. Vasospasms disrupt circulation, leading to pain, swelling, skin ulcerations, skin infections, and blood clots.

Approximately 88 percent of intravenous drug users will also develop chronic venous insufficiency. Venous insufficiency means that the valves inside the veins that keep blood flowing toward the heart don’t close properly. Leaky valves allow blood to flow backwards into the veins. This results in enlarged veins that can bulge and twist, varicose veins.

Severe venous insufficiency can also lead to skin ulcers that are difficult to heal due to decreased circulation. This skin on the lower legs can become discolored and take on a rough, scaly appearance. This is more than a cosmetic problem. Vein damage increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) and increases the risk of developing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that travels to the lungs).

Cellulite as a result of a skin breakout

While most of the microorganisms that live on your skin are harmless, they can cause devastating consequences when they enter your body through an injection site. When veins are damaged by drug use, some intravenous drug users resort to injecting drugs under the surface of the skin. Skin breakout is linked to an increased risk of cellulitis, a rash-like skin infection caused by staph or strep bacteria. While this form of bacterial infection is not contagious, it forms a red, hot, and tender swollen rash that spreads quickly.

Cellulitis requires immediate medical attention. If left untreated, this infection can enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system. Cellulitis can cause chronic inflammation of the infected limb or worse. Although rare, cellulite can destroy soft tissue, requiring surgery to remove the damage.

Staph and fungal infections due to impaired immune system

Substance use disorders alter your immune system. They make it hard for your body to fight off infections, this can result in an increase in infections that your once healthy immune system might have cleared before it could cause any problems. You may be prone to staph and fungal infections, especially on your feet, where fungi thrive in the moist environment. If you’re prone to psoriasis or eczema, your flare-ups may be more frequent and increasingly difficult to control.

Superficial indications of alcohol abuse

Reddening of the skin can be an indication of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is a dilator of blood vessels. Alcohol breaks down into acetaldehyde, which can cause a release of histamine, which is the same thing that can happen during an allergic event.

With long-term alcohol abuse, you may also notice an increase in spider veins, tiny broken capillaries near the skin’s surface. Spider veins are usually most noticeable on the face, neck, chest, arms, hands, and abdomen. Particularly in those with liver damage.

Damage to your liver from alcohol dependence can also cause jaundice, the yellowing of your skin and eyes. This discoloration is an indication that you have too much bilirubin in your system. Your liver normally breaks down bilirubin, but the function has been affected by alcohol. When treated in its early stages, jaundice caused by alcohol-related liver disease can improve.

Increased severity of breakouts and acne

Due to the increased amount of cortisol produced under stress; you may also find that your skin reflects the internal struggle by breaking out. Cortisol increases inflammation; Acne is the skin’s response to inflammation caused by cortisol. Acne can also be aggravated by the skin-picking habits associated with meth use and the simple fact that addiction can cause you to overlook your basic skin care needs.

Drug and alcohol abuse can cause inflammation, malnutrition, and dehydration. It weakens your immune system and damages your blood vessels. Addiction negatively affects your body’s ability to heal. Your skin reflects the damage, while your brain, bones, and internal organs continue to pay the price.

Restoring your appearance can be enough motivation to get you — or keep you — on the right path to a drug-free lifestyle. Maybe not. But as you overcome your addiction, you will see the signs of your progress. You can be sure that the improvement in the health of your skin is a visible indication of internal healing.

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