Intravenous Drug Use: Harms, Health Consequences and Treatment

The harms and consequences of intravenous drug use Those with addiction are already placed at high risk for health conditions, but the method they use to take their drug of choice can also have a huge impact on their health. Illicit drugs – such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, ketamine, PCP and more – can be injected different ways, including through the veins. Intravenous drug use tends to give people a “high” much quicker because the drugs are injected directly into the bloodstream; although it appears to a fast-acting method for consuming drugs, there are major risks involved – and it can be fatal.

The Rise of Drug Injection

Intravenous drug use has become an increasing concern as the heroin epidemic has grown. In 2017, researchers from the University of Southern California collected data from 776 active drug users; on average, the researchers found that it took around 6 years for these individuals to escalate from first using illicit drugs to injecting drugs for the first time. Adolescents are likely to try intravenous drug use if they’ve smoked crack cocaine for a short period of time, according to a study published in Public Health Reports. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, around 13 million people inject drugs; Ricky Bluthenthal, a research from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, stated in 2017,

“The prescription opioid epidemic is creating a heroin epidemic, which will create an injection drug use epidemic. We’ve seen the first two. Now we’re waiting to see the last emerge on the national level. I predict we’ll see an uptick in injection-related diseases over the next couple of years.”

With so many lives at stake, it’s important that we explore the health risks associated with intravenous drug use – and provide more support for our loved ones to seek help sooner rather than later.

Intravenous Drug Use

A 2016 article written by a researcher from the University of Rochester highlighted that alongside drug injection comes subcutaneous injection, also known as “skin popping”. With this, an individual may inject drugs directly into the skin. Furthermore, drug injection can also be done in a muscle tissue. Heroin is the most commonly used drug for this method, but practically any drug can be injected intravenously if broken down.  Intravenous drug use involves needles and syringes, and many people with active addictions find themselves sharing these tools. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of seriously complex health conditions can arise.

Serious Health Issues at Risk

The sharing of needles from intravenous drug use can cause serious health conditions to arise, such as HIV. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus spread through certain body fluids which attacks the body’s immune system. Over time, HIV destroys so many cells – CD4, or T cells – that the body can no longer fight infections and disease. If this virus becomes its most severe state, AIDS can develop. With AIDS, a person’s immune system is so significantly damaged that they get an increasing number of infections; As the government has noted, there are currently no cure for HIV –  a person can only pursue proper caretaking and by undergoing a form of treatment called antiretroviral therapy, or ART.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) argues that in addition to HIV, two other serious health issues can arise, such as:

  • Infection of the heart and its valves (a condition known as endocarditis)
  • Skin infections (a condition known as cellulitis)

Hepatitis C is another deadly disease that can occur from sharing needles and from misguided judgment of sexual activity from abusing drugs. A serious liver disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that around 75%-85% of those with this disease will go on to develop a chronic infection, and 10%-20% will develop cirrhosis over the next 20 to 30 years. If a person develops Hepatitis C from needle sharing, there are a variety of symptoms that can take place short term:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • And more

The sooner a person can seek treatment, the greater their likelihood of protecting themselves from further development of any of these life-threatening health conditions.


Intravenous drug use is increasingly common, but the health risks can be mitigated if a person seeks help as soon as possible. For those struggling with addiction, Cumberland Heights offers residential treatment programs to provide the intensive support that those recovering need. Treatment will most often begin with detoxification, in which a person’s body naturally cleanses itself of the toxins acquired from drug use. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is also an option, which can help ameliorate some of the pain and discomfort associated with withdrawal effects.

Speak with a professional from Cumberland Heights to learn more about the various treatment programs your loved one may benefit from.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.