Learn About Health Risks Associated with Substance Use

Understand the Risks


Alcohol or drug use has short-term and long-term effects on your health.

In the short term, using drugs can change your energy level, appetite, heart rate, and mood. In some cases, short-term drug use can result in serious health conditions or death from overdose.

Using alcohol or drugs long-term can cause brain changes that result in an addiction, problems with decision-making, worsening memory, and changes in the way you experience pleasure. Long-term alcohol and drug use can also increase your risk for heart and lung disease, cancer, and mental illness. It can put you in situations where you are at risk for violence, injury, or trauma. People who inject drugs are at higher risk for infectious illnesses such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.  Alcohol and drug use during pregnancy increases the risk for mother and child.

Reducing health risk of alcohol and drug use during pregnancy

During pregnancy, your baby is affected by everything you eat, drink, or take in to your body. Because your baby is still developing, using drugs and alcohol during pregnancy may permanently impact your child’s mental and physical development and can cause infant death. It can also endanger your pregnancy, causing miscarriages or premature labor.

Different substances can have different effects on your baby’s development:


Using alcohol during your pregnancy increases the chances of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD can have lifelong mental, behavioral, and physical impacts on your child. Development that could be impacted includes the baby’s skeletal system and bones, heart, kidneys, and hearing.


Taking opioids during pregnancy can result in early delivery, miscarriage, and serious problems in the baby’s development. After birth, your baby can experience withdrawal symptoms. Pregnant women taking opioids—including those enrolled in medication-assisted treatment— should talk with their health care provider or a treatment professional before discontinuing use in order to create a healthy treatment plan. Stopping the use of opioids or discontinuing medication-assisted treatment such as methadone during pregnancy can be dangerous.

Additional resources about pregnancy and substance use

It is not uncommon for individuals who are addicted to alcohol or drugs to be unable to stop their use without help. If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs and are also pregnant, the two most important things you can do are get prenatal care and talk to your doctor or counselor about your alcohol or drug use.

There are treatment programs specifically designed to help pregnant women stop their use of alcohol and drugs.

Explore information provided by the American Pregnancy Association to learn more about the effects of different drugs on your baby, national laws related to prenatal substance use, and to find additional resources.

Reducing health risk of injection drug use

In addition to the effect on your mental and physical health, there are risks associated with how you use drugs. Sharing needles, syringes, or other injection equipment increases the risk of becoming infected with or spreading diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

It is important to know these risks in order to protect yourself. For example, HIV can survive on a used needle for more than a month. HIV is a dangerous virus that weakens your immune system, making it more difficult to fight off diseases and infections. It can also be transmitted to babies during birth and to sexual partners.

Hepatitis B and C are viruses that infect your blood and attack your liver, which can cause liver failure or scarring. People who regularly inject drugs also expose themselves to other serious health conditions such as skin infections or abscesses. They are also at risk of overdose.

Stopping injection drug use is the best way to reducing your risks. If you want to stop your use of drugs, there are treatment options, including medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, that can help you stop.

You can lower your risk of infection by:

  • Cleaning needles with bleach
  • Using sterile water to fix drugs
  • Cleaning your skin with alcohol before injecting
  • Avoiding getting blood on your hands or needle
  • Disposing of needles safely
  • Regularly getting tested for HIV
  • Using a condom when having sex

Reducing risks of overdose

People who have an opioid addiction are at risk for overdose, especially when combining opioid medications with other drugs, taking medications in higher doses than prescribed, and using drugs that have been purchased on the street. Medication-assisted treatment, which combines the use of medication with counseling, is an effective way to treat opioid addiction and is available in Colorado.

In Colorado, Naloxone can be purchased at pharmacies and administered by anyone responding to an overdose. If you are concerned about a friend or family member, consider purchasing Naloxone and carrying it on you or keeping it in your home.

The overdose reversal application OpiRescue is another important resource. It helps friends and family members understand what to do if a loved one overdoses on opioids. It helps people recognize the signs of opioid overdose and walks through how to reverse an overdose using Naloxone. The app also connects users with resources, including a treatment locator and the Colorado Crisis Services line to speak with a counselor or get substance use treatment referrals. OpiRescue is available for free in the iOS and Android app stores.

The signs of an opioid overdose are

  • Pale or clammy skin
  • Limp body
  • Vomiting
  • Nonresponsive or loss of consciousness
  • Weak or no pulse
  • Bluish purple lips or skin tones in lighter-skinned people; grayish or ashen tones in darker-skinned people
  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Making choking or gurgling sounds

If you believe someone is overdosing

  • Immediately call 911
  • Administer Naloxone if you have it available. Naloxone is a life-saving medication used to reverse an opioid overdose and is available without a prescription at many Colorado pharmacies. Learn more about Naloxone here.
  • Try to keep the person awake and breathing
  • Lay the person on their side to prevent choking
  • Stay with the person until help arrives

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