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How recreational drugs harm your health

Drug use remains a recurring risk, with new types bringing new health concerns.

“Drugs are a major concern for us,” says Geoff Boulton, Advanced Life Support practitioner and Branch Manager: ER24 Johannesburg Central. “And the risk is rising – especially with younger people.”

As Boulton explains, drugs can have a wide range of short and long-term effects: “The main problem, we find, is that while drug users might start off experimenting with small doses, they soon escalate – to both larger doses and more dangerous types.”

Drug use: an emergency waiting to happen

“Drugs can seriously incapacitate a person, and quickly,” says Boulton. “You can go from looking and feeling absolutely normal to unconscious, in minutes. And in that scenario, there is very little that bystanders can do to help without expert medical assistance.”

Boulton says many drugs – especially those that fall under the depressant’s category – affect a person’s breathing. “Respiratory depression is a real danger, as it can lead to respiratory failure and eventually respiratory arrest. This is especially prevalent in patients who have been using heroin.”

The different kinds of drugs

Recreational drugs are classified according to the way they affect the body: depressants, hallucinogens and stimulants all have an impact on how you think, feel and act.


Such as: alcohol, cannabis, gamma-hydroxybutyrate, heroin, morphine, codeine, some tranquillisers

  • Suppress the functioning of the central nervous system
  • Slow the way messages are transferred to and from the brain
  • Reduce your capacity for concentration and coordination
  • May cause vomiting, unconsciousness and respiratory depression, in large doses


Such as: ketamine, lysergic acid diethylamide, phencyclidine, magic mushrooms, cannabis

  • Distort your sense of reality
  • Can cause emotional and psychological euphoria
  • Can cause panic and paranoia, manifesting in jaw clenching, gastric upset and nausea


Such as: nicotine, amphetamines, cocaine, 3.4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine

  • Have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system and most organ systems
  • Make you feel alert and confident
  • Cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature
  • Cause agitation and sleeplessness
  • May cause anxiety, panic, seizures, stomach cramps and paranoia, and cardiac arrest in large doses

How do drugs harm your health?

Regular or prolonged drug use can lead to:

  • Infectious disease
  • Harm to the throat, stomach, lungs, liver, pancreas, heart, brain and nervous system
  • Mood swings
  • Addiction
  • Psychosis
  • Accidental overdose
  • Higher risk of mental illness, depression, suicide and death
  • Cancer

What to do if someone has overdosed

Common signs and symptoms of a drug overdose can include:

  • Abnormal behaviour
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gurgling sounds indicating the airway is blocked
  • Blue lips or fingers
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abnormally high body temperature
  • Convulsions or seizures

“The first and the best thing to do if you suspect someone has overdosed, is call 084 124,” says Boulton. “It’s that simple. Waiting will only put the patient’s life at risk.” Any drug overdose requires immediate expert emergency medical assistance. As Boulton explains, when ER24 medics arrive at the scene of a suspected overdose, they will monitor the patient’s airway, breathing and circulatory function, before transporting the patient to the nearest hospital for further treatment.  For some types of drug overdoses (e.g. Opioids like Heroin),  there are specific antidotes that can be administered by the paramedic that could be life-saving.