Beyond Needle Marks – How Substance Abuse Affects Skin5 min read
The damage caused by substance abuse becomes increasingly challenging to camouflage. You may see the signs in yourself; you may see the signs in someone you care for. The mirror rarely lies. Your reflection will eventually reveal the burden you work so hard to conceal.
Substance Abuse Damages the Skin
For those who are relatively healthy, skin changes are often the first recognizable indicator of substance use and abuse. This may explain why dermatologists are often the first of the medical professionals to recognize the early signs of substance abuse disorder.
For better or worse, your skin is a reflection of what’s happening inside your body. The chemicals fueling your addiction will impair your skin’s ability to repair and heal. The effects are cumulative. While chemical abuse will cause your skin to take on a dull, unhealthy tone, certain types of substances are known to cause specific skin concerns. Some of the common skin concerns include:
• Vascular damage
• Mouth sores
• Skin flushing
Accelerating the Aging process with Stimulants
If you are indulging in any type of stimulant, you potentially expedite 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 the collagen and elastin in your 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 saggy jowls, drooping eyelids, loose skin, wrinkles and deepened folds around your nose and mouth. In fact, stimulant abuse can cause you to 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
The chemical imbalances and dehydration caused by drug use, particularly methamphetamines, can result in uncomfortable and troubling sensations on your skin. You may feel like you have bugs crawling on your skin and below the surface. The sensations can be maddening. You may respond by scratching or picking at your skin. Irritation leads to more scratching and picking. Repeated skin irritation and skin injury will result in sores that heal slowly, or not at all. This cycle will scar your skin.
Sores that are slow to heal, blisters, scabs, and scars are some of the more recognizable skin problems associated with methamphetamine use. Commonly called meth sores or meth mites, these sores most commonly occur on your face and arms.
Since methamphetamines also interfere with blood flow, meth sores can appear anywhere on your body. Methamphetamines destroy blood vessels, interfere with your body’s ability to repair cellular damage and can also cause leathery looking skin.
The Enlarged, Protruding or Damaged Veins of Intravenous Drug Use
Many IV drugs are vasodilators that can also induce vasospasms. That means that IV drugs will cause your blood vessels to expand, but then quickly contract. Vasospasms disrupt your circulation, which results in 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 the valves inside your veins that keep your blood flow moving towards your heart don’t close properly. Leaky valves allow the blood to flow backward into the veins. This results in enlarged veins that can bulge and twist, varicose veins.
Severe venous insufficiency can also result in skin ulcers that are difficult to heal because of the decrease in circulation. This skin on your lower legs can discolor and take on a rough, scaly appearance. This is more than a cosmetic issue. Vein damage increases your risk of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) and raises your risk of developing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that travels to the lungs).
Cellulitis as a Consequence of Skin Popping
While most microorganisms living on your skin are harmless, they can cause devastating consequences when entering your body through an injection site. When veins become damaged by drug use, some IV drug users resort to skin popping, injecting drugs under the surface of the skin. Skin popping 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 tender, hot, red swollen rash that spreads rapidly.
Cellulitis requires prompt medical attention. Left untreated this infection can enter your bloodstream and lymphatic system. Cellulitis can cause chronic swelling of the infected limb, or worse. Although it’s rare, cellulitis can destroy soft tissues, requiring surgery to remove the damage.
Staph and Fungal Infections Due to Immune System Impairment
Substance abuse disorders disrupt your immune system. They make it difficult for your body to fight infections, this can result in an increase in infections that your once healthy immune system could have eliminated before it could cause any problems. You may find yourself prone to staph infections and fungal infections, particularly on your feet, where fungus thrives in the moist environment. If you are prone to psoriasis or eczema, you may find your flares more frequent and increasingly difficult to manage.
Surface Indications of Alcohol Abuse
Skin flushing can be an indication of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is a blood vessel dilator. Alcohol breaks down to acetaldehyde, which can cause a histamine release, 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, small, broken capillaries close to the surface of your skin. Spider veins are often the most noticeable on your face, neck, chest, arms, hands, and abdomen. Particularly in those with liver damage.
The damage to your liver caused by alcohol dependency can also cause jaundice, the yellowing of your skin and eyes. This discoloration is an indication that you have an excessive amount of bilirubin in your system. Your liver normally breaks down bilirubin, but the function has been impaired by alcohol. When treated in its early stages, jaundice caused by the alcohol-related liver disease can be improved.
Increased Severity of Breakouts and Acne
Because of 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 your skin’s response to the inflammation cortisol causes. Acne can also be aggravated by the skin picking habits associated with meth use and the simple fact that addiction may 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 blood vessels. Addiction adversely 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 may be enough motivation to get you, or keep you, on the right path to a drug-free lifestyle. It may not. But as you conquer your addiction, you will see the signs of your progress. You can be assured that the improved health of your skin is a visible indication of the healing within.