Updated on February 6, 2024
9 min read

How to Recognize and Prevent Heart Damage from Drug Use

Heart damage from substance misuse is a serious and widespread problem with potentially severe health consequences. Substance misuse includes the inappropriate use of prescription medications and illegal drugs

Certain drugs can harm the cardiovascular system, including the blood vessels. These include drugs like stimulants, opioids, and some over-the-counter medications.  

It can lead to cardiovascular diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels like: 

  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Arrhythmias
  • Heart attacks (myocardial infarction)
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Atrial Fibrillation

It’s essential to be aware of the potential risks linked with drug and alcohol abuse. Consult healthcare professionals about any concerns or pre-existing heart conditions before taking medications. 

Additionally, seeking support for substance abuse or addiction issues is crucial to reduce the harmful effects on the heart and overall health.

Recognizing Signs of Heart Damage From Drug Abuse

Symptoms of Drug-Induced Heart Damage

Signs of heart damage from drugs can vary between substances. 

Symptoms of heart damage from drugs include:1 

  • Arrhythmia, or an abnormally fast or slow heart rhythm
  • Lack of blood and oxygen supply to the heart
  • Cardiomyopathy, or diseases of the heart muscles
  • Ineffective heart muscle contraction
  • Heart muscle cell death

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek urgent medical assistance.

Changes to heart function may cause a person to experience several different symptoms, including: 

  • Chest pain
  • Slow, racing, or irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack or cardiac arrest
  • Stroke
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sudden fatigue

These symptoms indicate heart damage because they all relate to malfunctions in the heart's operation that can be caused by cardiac injury.

How Can I Check If My Heart Is Okay at Home?

There are some home-monitoring methods for assessing heart health. However, it’s crucial to understand that these methods aren’t substitutes for professional medical evaluation.

One method is to monitor your resting heart rate by placing two fingers on your wrist or neck over your artery. Then, count the number of beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate for adults typically ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. 

Some fitness trackers and smartwatches can also provide heart rate measurements throughout the day. This gives you insights into your heart's activity patterns. 

Another approach is to monitor blood pressure using a home blood pressure monitor. However, it’s essential to follow the instructions carefully and consult with a healthcare professional to ensure accuracy and proper interpretation of the results. 

Remember, only a qualified healthcare provider can:

  • Conduct comprehensive assessments
  • Diagnose potential heart conditions accurately
  • Recommend appropriate treatments

Regular check-ups and evaluations by medical professionals are critical for maintaining optimal heart health and detecting any underlying issues promptly.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you suspect you’re experiencing heart damage from drugs, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly. 

Remember, symptoms that suggest heart damage include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles 

If you’re taking medications that have potential heart-related side effects, it’s best to regularly monitor your cardiovascular health through check-ups and consultations with a healthcare professional.


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Can You Reverse Drug-Induced Heart Damage?

​​In some cases, stopping drug use can reverse symptoms of heart damage. A 2017 study found that methamphetamine users with meth-induced heart failure could reduce or reverse heart damage by stopping their drug use.4

The recovery potential from drug-induced heart damage depends on various factors, including the: 

  • The specific drug involved
  • The extent of the damage
  • Characteristics of the person

In some cases, stopping drug use and implementing appropriate medical interventions can lead to partial or complete recovery of heart function. 

The following lifestyle changes can also support the recovery process and improve overall heart health:

  • Adopting a healthy diet
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Managing underlying risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels 

It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized advice and guidance based on your circumstances.

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The Connection Between Drugs and Heart Attacks

Substance misuse, particularly the misuse of illegal drugs, can significantly increase the risk of heart attacks or cardiac arrest.

Do Drugs Increase the Risk of Heart Attacks?

Drug use increases the risk of heart attacks through various biological mechanisms. Stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can cause vasoconstriction. This leads to reduced blood flow to the heart muscle. 

Numerous studies have highlighted the adverse effects of substance abuse on heart health. For example, a study on the need for hospitalization in approximately 4,800 illicit drug users found that 223 of these users were admitted to the hospital due to cardiovascular disease.2

Additionally, drugs can disrupt normal blood clotting mechanisms, increasing the risk of blood clots. These blot clots can block coronary arteries and trigger a heart attack or cardiac arrest. 

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

The primary symptoms of a heart attack are:3 

  • Chest pain or discomfort: Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. This discomfort may last for several minutes, or it may subside briefly only to return. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
  • Feeling weak, lightheaded, faint, or breaking out into a cold sweat
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath: This often comes along with chest discomfort. However, shortness of breath can also happen before chest discomfort

Other heart attack symptoms can include unusual or unexplained tiredness and nausea or vomiting. Women are more likely to have these other symptoms. 

If you notice the symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately. The sooner you reach an emergency room, the sooner you can receive professional treatment to reduce the damage to the heart muscle. 

In some cases, a heart attack or cardiac arrest requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or an electrical shock (defibrillation) to the heart. Bystanders trained to use CPR or a defibrillator may be able to help until emergency medical staff arrive.3 

Which Drugs Are Most Likely to Cause Heart Damage?

These drugs are commonly associated with an increased risk of causing heart disease, many directly affecting the heart muscles: 

  • Cocaine: Cocaine abuse can lead to severe cardiovascular events. For example, heart attacks, arrhythmias, and significant damage to heart muscles.
  • Methamphetamine: Methamphetamine abuse can lead to high blood pressure, severe damage to heart muscles, and an increased risk of congestive heart failure.
  • Heroin: Heroin primarily affects the respiratory system. However, it can indirectly harm the heart by causing infections, endocarditis, or increasing the risk of blood clots. 
  • MDMA (Ecstasy): MDMA can increase heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to cardiovascular toxicity and potentially cause heart rhythm disturbances or heart attacks.
  • Prescription NSAIDs: NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke when used in high doses or for prolonged periods. This is mainly in people with existing heart conditions.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics such as erythromycin and clarithromycin can prolong the QT interval. 
  • Antidepressants: Some antidepressant medications can affect heart rhythm and increase the risk of arrhythmias, especially at higher doses. For example, tricyclic antidepressants.
  • Antipsychotic medications: Certain antipsychotic drugs carry a risk of causing abnormal heart rhythms.

This list isn’t exhaustive. The potential for heart damage from substance abuse varies depending on personal factors, dosage, duration of use, and overall health status.

It’s always best to consult healthcare professionals for information and guidance regarding specific medications and their potential effects on the heart.

Side Effects of Drugs on the Heart

Illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin can have profound adverse effects on the heart, potentially leading to cardiovascular disease. 

Cocaine misuse can: 

  • Constrict the blood vessels
  • Increase the heart rate and blood pressure
  • Disrupt the normal rhythm of the heart

These effects can potentially escalate into cardiovascular disease, leading to heart attacks or life-threatening arrhythmias.

Methamphetamine misuse can cause: 

  • Severe hypertension
  • Heart muscle damage
  • An increased risk of congestive heart failure

Heroin can harm the heart by: 

  • Causing infections
  • Causing endocarditis
  • Increasing the risk of blood clots

These effects can lead to cardiovascular disease, manifesting as heart attacks or strokes.

Side Effects of Prescription Drugs

When not used as directed, prescription drugs can also have side effects on the heart. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke, particularly in those with existing heart disease.7

Several medications, like erythromycin and clarithromycin, can cause prolonged QT interval. It can lead to severe arrhythmias.

Additionally, some antidepressants and antipsychotic medications have been linked with an increased risk of abnormal heart rhythms, especially at high doses. 

These examples represent just a fraction of the drugs that can harm the heart.

How Do Drugs Cause Heart Damage?

Stimulant drugs can constrict blood vessels, increasing blood pressure and strain the heart. Effects like this can cause heart disease through various mechanisms, leading to: 

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • The development of cardiomyopathy

An increased strain can lead to hypertensive heart disease. This is where the heart muscle thickens and becomes less efficient in blood flow.

Additionally, drugs like cocaine can disrupt the normal electrical signaling in the heart. This can result in irregular heartbeats and other arrhythmias, which can be life-threatening. 

Prolonged drug use may also lead to cardiomyopathy. This condition is characterized by the weakening and enlargement of the heart muscle, affecting its ability to pump effectively. 

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  • Heart damage from drug abuse, including illegal drugs and misuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications, can lead to severe conditions such as cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, and heart attacks. Recognizing this risk can help with prevention and early intervention.
  • Awareness of drug-induced heart damage is crucial. Consultation with healthcare professionals is essential, especially for people with pre-existing heart conditions or concerns about potential heart risks from specific drugs. 
  • Illegal drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and some prescription medications (like specific NSAIDs, antibiotics, and psychotropic medications), can have severe cardiovascular effects.
  • Symptoms such as arrhythmia, chest pain, changes in heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, and sudden fatigue can suggest heart damage from drug use. 
  • If drug-induced heart damage is suspected, seeking immediate medical help is critical. Regular consultations with healthcare professionals are essential for those using medicines with potential heart-related side effects. Early detection and seeking treatment options for heart damage can lead to better outcomes and the possible reversal of some effects.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
7 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Mladěnkal et al. “Comprehensive review of cardiovascular toxicity of drugs and related agents.” Medicinal research reviews, 2018.
  2. Onyeka et al. “Hospitalization in a cohort seeking treatment for illicit drug use in Finland.” Journal of substance abuse treatment, 2015.
  3. Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2022.
  4. Schürer et al. “Clinical Characteristics, Histopathological Features, and Clinical Outcome of Methamphetamine-Associated Cardiomyopathy.” JACC, 2017.
  5. Kim, Sung Tae, and Taehwan Park. “Acute and Chronic Effects of Cocaine on Cardiovascular Health.” International journal of molecular sciences, 2019.
  6. Ghuran et al. “Cardiovascular complications of recreational drugs.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 2001.
  7. NSAIDs: Do they increase my risk of heart attack and stroke?, Mayo Clinic, 2022.

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