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Updated on February 11, 2021

Signs of Drug Use: What Are Track Marks?

What are Track Marks?

The appearance of track marks is one of the tell-tale signs of frequent intravenous drug use. They occur at the injection site and lead to collapsed veins. 

Injection drug users often use long sleeves, pants, and make-up to hide track marks from a loved one. Track marks are a sign of long-term substance use. Intravenous drug use leads to an intense high that’s far more potent than other methods. 

However, iv drug users are at an increased risk for a number of serious health problems. 

What Do Drug Track Marks Look Like?

The initial appearance of track marks resembles deep bruising. When the bruising subsides, the injection site scabs over. Long-term users will have track marks on all areas of the body. Many users will have clusters of track mark scabs on the arms, legs, and between the fingers and toes. 

Track mark scabs can also resemble dark, round circles. These particular track marks are the result of scar tissue from “skin popping.” This is a method in which the needle is injected under the skin as opposed to a vein. 

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Heroin Addiction & Track Marks

Heroin use is one of the most common reasons for track marks. Heroin users that use intravenously have typically built a substantial tolerance to the drug. As such, intravenous use is the only way to satisfy cravings. 

Heroin works by increasing dopamine, a feel-good chemical, in the brain. This exchange of injection and dopamine directly changes the reward center of the brain. This same mode of operation is used by prescription opioids such as OxyContin. 

Prescription opioids are frequently the cause of future heroin addiction. 

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What are the Dangers of IV Drug Use?

Track marks pose a number of notable health risks. They are also an indicator for substance use disorders (SUD). The dangers of IV drug use include:

  • Skin infections: Skin infections occur from repeated piercing, scar tissue, and needle sharing. 
  • Blood clots: Blood clots occur from repeated vein punctures, and general heroin use. 
  • Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B, a severe liver condition, arises from sharing needles

Hepatitis C: Hepatitis C, a more severe version of Hepatitis B, arises from sharing needles. 

  • Scarring: Track marks are permanent scars. They can be covered by make-up and clothing. However, scarring from drug abuse can also increase negative thoughts and depression.
  • HIV
  • Sepsis

Track marks are the number one sign of drug addiction and injection drug use. They’re a symptom of long-term drug abuse. 

Other Signs of IV Drug Use

Substance use disorder (SUD) affects millions of people world wide. The changes caused by addiction affect lifestyle, appearance, and physical and mental health. Other signs of shooting up include: 

Appearance

  • Significant weight loss
  • Dirty or disheveled clothing
  • Sores
  • Collapsed veins due to restricted blood flow
  • Thinning or patchy hair 
  • Poor dental hygiene 
  • Formation of abscesses
  • Overly aged appearance 

Lifestyle

  • Drug paraphernalia 
  • Unable to keep appointments
  • Declining bank account balances 
  • Unable to sustain a job
  • Unpaid bills 
  • Homelessness 
  • Sudden disregard for interpersonal relationships 

Mental Health

  • Onset or triggering of mental illness 
  • Mood swings
  • Chaotic or incoherent thought 
  • Suicidal thoughts and speech 
  • Diminished logic 
  • Poor sleep 
  • Unable to focus on non-drug related concerns

While there are other signs of shooting up; these are the most common. Snorting drugs and orally consuming drugs have their own symptoms. However, these symptoms often coincide with the aforementioned risks of intravenous use. 

Treatment Options for Addiction

Treatment programs for prescription opioids, methamphetamine, and heroin are available for those that need it. Addiction treatment options include:

Inpatient treatment: Inpatient treatment takes place at treatment centers for rehabilitation clinics. They offer 24/7 care and counseling. Inpatient treatment also helps separate a drug user from poor influences, and environments that may trigger addictive tendencies. 

Inpatient treatment also provides a safe transition into a drug-free life. 

Outpatient treatment: Outpatient treatment refers to any detox or addiction treatment that doesn’t result in hospitalization or a full-time rehabilitation program. An example of this treatment is therapy. Therapy serves to uncover stressors and provide tools for dealing with cravings. 

Outpatient treatment also provides options for those unwilling or unable to leave their jobs, family, or environment. 

Medical Treatment: Medical treatment will likely be required for either of the previous treatment options. Medical treatments can help with the withdrawal symptoms and long-term effects of severe drug abuse. It can be as simple as taking drugs like clonidine or multi-vitamins and nutrients. 

Seeking addiction treatment is the first step in recovery. Consult local clinics and treatment centers for more information.

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Resources

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, et al. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States.” SAMHSA, 2018, www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Injection Drug Use and Wound Botulism.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Oct. 2018, www.cdc.gov/botulism/wound-botulism.html. 

Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior. “Potential Complications Of IV Drug Use.” Potential Complications Of IV Drug Use | Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/Potential_Complications_Of_IV_Drug_Use.

Cornford, Charles S, et al. Deep Vein Thromboses in Users of Opioid Drugs: Incidence, Prevalence, and Risk Factors. Dec. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3223775/. 

World Health Organization. Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings. 1 Jan. 1970, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK310652/.

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