Last Updated: 2013-04-22
Worldwide estimates of illicit substance use are between 153 and 300 million people (3.4% to 6.6% of the population aged 15-64 years) according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Cannabis users constitute the largest number of illicit drug users (119-224 million people), followed by users of amphetamine-group substances, opioids, opiates, and cocaine. 
Opiates are opioids that are naturally derived from the opium poppy (e.g., morphine). They are used to treat pain but may also be abused because of their euphoric effects. Opioid dependence is characterized by a maladaptive pattern of opioid use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, occurring in a 12-month period,  including symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal, despite knowledge that continued opioid use is the cause of these problems. Commonly abused opioids include codeine, fentanyl, heroin, morphine, opium, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.
Overdose occurs when the quantities taken are larger than can be physically tolerated, resulting in CNS and respiratory depression, miosis, and apnea. Can be fatal if not treated rapidly.
Cocaine is a drug of abuse that is usually either insufflated (snorted), injected, or smoked in its freebase form (crack). Cocaine is a type IA antidysrhythmic, local anesthetic, and sympathomimetic. Episodic cocaine use leads to short-lived states of autonomic arousal. Chronic use can lead to scarring of heart tissue and myocardial hypertrophy, with increased myocardial calcium content resulting in an increased risk for lethal arrhythmias and sudden death. Cocaine use causes a hyperadrenergic state associated with abnormal mentation. The symptoms of any hyperadrenergic state include nausea, jitteriness, trouble concentrating, anxiety, paranoia, and euphoria.
Refers to adverse events that occur in the setting of cocaine use. These events, which can occur in combination or isolation, include hyperthermia, rhabdomyolysis, dysrhythmia, ischemia, intracranial hemorrhage, agitation, psychosis, and seizures. Events occur within minutes or hours of excessive cocaine use.
Amphetamine abuse involves use of a class of noncatechol sympathomimetic amines, including amphetamines, methamphetamines, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy). These are taken by oral and IV routes, by nasal insufflation (snorting), and by inhalation (smoking), resulting in either acute or chronic toxicity. Patients have a high probability of repeated abuse of amphetamines after documented acute or chronic abuse.
The most abused illicit drug.  Acute health effects include impairment of cognitive development (in children and adolescents) and psychomotor performance. Chronic health effects include further cognitive impairment, dependence, exacerbation of schizophrenia, and airway and lung damage associated with smoking the drug.
The deliberate inhalation of a volatile substance to achieve an altered mental state.  Inhalants used include volatile solvents from household and industrial products, aerosol propellants, gases from household, industrial, and medical products, and nitrites. Hypoxia and heart failure can occur within minutes. Longer-term adverse effects include hearing loss, peripheral neuropathies, and liver and kidney damage.
Includes LSD, peyote cactus, psilocybin (from certain types of mushrooms), and PCP (phencyclidine). Psychological effects can be unpredictable.
Overdose can be intentional in suicidal patients, accidental in combination with other CNS depressants such as alcohol and opioids, and in older people, and occasionally by medication error. The key feature is excessive sedation with unremarkable vital signs and anterograde amnesia. Larger doses can cause coma and respiratory depression.
Tricyclic antidepressants have a narrow therapeutic index and therefore become potent cardiovascular and CNS toxins in moderate doses. Best markers for suspected overdose are a history of depression, suicidality, and overdose, with a sudden deterioration in mental status and vital signs.
Testosterone derivatives are used to improve athletic performance or to increase lean body mass and muscle size. Adverse effects in men include acne, oily skin, disproportionate muscular development of the upper torso, changes in libido, testicular atrophy, scrotal pain, impotence, infertility, temporal hairline recession, irreversible gynecomastia, and increased voice pitch. In women, adverse effects include acne, oily skin, muscular development of the upper torso, menstrual irregularities, and changes in libido. The potential irreversible masculinizing effects include hirsutism, male pattern baldness, deepening of the voice, and clitoral hypertrophy.
Occurs by acute single ingestion of a large amount or by repeated ingestion of an amount exceeding the recommended dosage or by multiple doses. Poisoning may cause various degrees of liver injury including fulminant hepatic failure and hepatorenal syndrome. Initial presentation with coma and severe metabolic acidosis is rare.
Alcohol dependence is a chronic, relapsing disorder that results from a variety of genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors.  It is characterized by increased tolerance to the effects of alcohol, the presence of characteristic withdrawal signs and symptoms, and impaired control over the quantity and frequency of drinking.  Prolonged exposure causes adaptive changes in the brain receptors and neurotransmitters, which are responsible for various effects such as addiction, tolerance, and withdrawal. Alcohol dependence, particularly when chronic and severe, can be associated with a variety of medical and psychiatric sequelae.
Children may ingest a toxic substance accidentally while exploring their environment, or deliberately in response to stress or underlying mental problems, or in an attempt to get "high." Agents consumed may be pharmaceutical substances; drugs of abuse (including alcohol); toxic plants, berries, or mushrooms; or chemicals. Diagnosis is based on a combination of thorough clinical evaluation and comprehensive laboratory investigation to identify all ingested substances.
Acute coronary syndrome (ACS) refers to acute myocardial ischemia caused by atherosclerotic coronary disease, and includes ST elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), non-ST elevation MI (NSTEMI), and unstable angina. One survey found that 1 in every 4 nonfatal myocardial infarctions in people aged 18 to 45 years was associated with frequent cocaine use.  The lifetime risk of nonfatal MI with cocaine use is 7 times the risk in nonusers.  Cocaine also has direct myocardial toxic properties. 
STDs include infections where sexual contact is the only important mode of transmission, as well as infections that can be transmitted by nonsexual means and are not primarily considered STDs (e.g., hepatitis, MRSA, shigellosis, amebiasis, giardiasis, candida). Drug users are at risk from STDs from both injection of drugs and taking part in high-risk sexual behavior under the influence of drugs.
Needle-sharing injection drug use with an infected source is a risk factor for HIV infection.
The pathologic end-stage of any chronic liver disease and most commonly results from chronic hepatitis C and B (which can be caught from intravenous drug use), alcohol misuse, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The main complications of cirrhosis are related to the development of liver insufficiency and portal HTN and include ascites, variceal hemorrhage, jaundice, portosystemic encephalopathy, hepatorenal and hepatopulmonary syndromes, and the development of hepatocellular carcinoma.
Depressed patients may abuse drugs to "dull the pain" or to address feelings of low self-worth. Additionally, the chemical effects of drug use may cause depressed mood.
Drug use is very common in patients with schizophrenia.  Relates to an increased incidence of psychosis and psychotic decompensation.
Overdoses with tricyclic antidepressants, stimulants, opiates, steroids, and analgesics may be associated with delirium. 
Use of sympathomimetic street drugs (e.g., cocaine, LSD, amphetamines, ecstasy) predisposes to hypertensive emergency.
Complications of injection drug use
Chronic intravenous drug abuse will lead to scarred and/or collapsed veins. Chronic intravenous drug abuse will lead to skin changes that can be a hallmark of heroin addicts. These skin changes may develop into infections such as cellulitis and abscesses that require medical care with antibiotics and possibly surgery.