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7 Facts Nobody Told You About Drug Abuse and Skin Problems

There are countless ways that drug abuse can damage your health, but did you know that your skin is one of them? From methamphetamine abuse to binge drinking, nearly any drug that you abuse can give you skin problems. 

You may have heard of meth skin or crack hands, but they aren’t the only skin conditions brought on by substance abuse. You could get scarred veins or skin infections from injecting drugs. Drinking too much alcohol could even give you yellowed or reddened skin.

There are countless ways that substance abuse can harm your skin. Read on for seven facts nobody told you about drug abuse and skin problems: 


Track marks are one of the most well-known skin problems caused by drug use. They look like long scars in the shape of lines up and down your arms. Sometimes they appear on other body parts, like the legs, groin, or neck. You can get track marks anywhere that you use as an injection site. 

Because they’re caused by injection wounds, track marks can be caused by abusing: 

  • Amphetamines, including methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Morphine

These aren’t the only drugs that can cause track marks. You can get track marks from using any injectable drug. When you inject drugs into a vein, they can damage the vein by causing it to scar. This scarring is visible through the skin, and it’s what’s known as a track mark. 

Track marks are unsightly, but they’re a problem because: 

  1. They indicate that your veins have been damaged, and 
  2. They’re a telltale sign to potential employers, family members, and other people that you’re a drug user 

The easiest way to prevent track marks is to avoid injecting drugs completely. You’re at increased risk for track marks if you inject drugs with a dull or used needle or if you use dirty water to prepare your injection solution. 


Ever notice that on television, sometimes characters who are alcoholics are portrayed with discolored or yellow skin tones? 

There’s some truth to that detail. Heavy alcohol use can lead to two conditions that cause your skin color to change. 

They include:

  • Hyperpigmentation: Your skin can darken around the eyes, mouth, and legs when you’re a heavy, long-term drinker. It’s not fully understood why this happens, but we do know that it’s the consequence of liver damage. It’s usually not reversible, even if the liver damage is managed. 
  • Jaundice: This condition is also called alcoholic hepatitis. When you drink too much alcohol over a long period of time, you can start to develop yellowing of the skin and eyes. This happens when alcohol damages your liver so it stops processing waste products out of your blood effectively. The waste products (called bilirubin) build up in your blood, changing the color of your skin and eyes. When the jaundice is treated, the skin color usually goes back to normal. 

Both of these conditions can be avoided if you don’t drink alcohol. You can also avoid your risk of developing alcohol-related skin problems by limiting your alcohol use. Moderate drinking means up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Limiting how much you drink can reduce your risk of hyperpigmentation and jaundice considerably. 


Ulcers can be a dangerous consequence of injecting drugs. They’re a risk no matter what kind of drug you inject, from meth to cocaine to heroin. 

An ulcer is an open sore on the skin. It starts as a tiny injection site wound that becomes infected. If the infection isn’t treated, it can spread to the bloodstream, which is called sepsis. 

Sepsis can be life-threatening if it spreads to your organs. It can cause organ failure, or it can stay localized to the injection site (often an arm) and lead to amputation (removal of the limb). 

Your risk of an injection site ulcer is higher if you: 

  • Share needles
  • Reuse needles
  • Inject into the same site multiple times
  • Use unsafe materials or dirty water to prepare drugs 

You can remove the risk of injection site ulcers altogether if you skip injecting drugs. Injection is the riskiest way to use drugs, especially if you engage in risky practices like injecting multiple times per session. 


Opioids work by attaching to receptors in the brain and nervous system that handle multiple body processes, including sensation. They are known for reducing pain and causing a high-like euphoria. Itching is a side effect that’s just as common and less talked about. 

The problem with opioid-induced itching is that it can be relentless. You might feel like you never get a break from itching if you take opioids regularly. Relentless itching leads to scratching, so you can end up with a rash, welts, redness, or even scabs. That’s not to mention the constant discomfort. 

Itching from opioids doesn’t respond well to common itch remedies such as colloidal oatmeal and corticosteroid drugs. Until recently, there weren’t any good remedies for this kind of itching except for discontinuing the drug. Today, there’s a drug called Remitch that stops opioid-related itching, though it’s only used in Japan as of 2018. 


Stimulant drugs can cause a side effect called formication, which is the feeling of bugs crawling on your skin even though there’s nothing there. It’s a tactile hallucination, which means a hallucination that you experience through the sense of touch. 

Formication can seem very real, especially if you’re still under the influence of drugs when you experience it. It’s most common when you take cocaine or methamphetamine, which is why you may have heard of the term “meth mites.” 

The sensation can occur on its own or it can happen alongside a delusion called parasitosis, a belief that you’re infested with bugs, worms, or parasites and need to remove them from your skin. 

When it happens along with parasitosis, formication can lead to skin damage and scarring from scratching or even cutting the skin in an attempt to remove imaginary bugs. 


Long-term alcohol use can cause a disorder called rosacea. Rosacea is an autoimmune disorder that causes: 

  • Redness 
  • Visible blood vessels
  • Persistent acne
  • Swelling 

These symptoms almost always happen on the face. The most common sites are the chin, cheeks, nose, and forehead. 

Alcohol-related rosacea is chronic and it lasts even after you stop drinking alcohol, though it’s likely to be worse while you’re drinking. Drinking heavily can make it flare up, causing symptoms to get worse for a period of time. 

Treatment includes:

  • Prescription cleansers, moisturizers, and skin products
  • Brimonidine gel
  • Oxymetazoline cream

Gels and creams contain active ingredients to manage redness and swelling, while prescription skin products help keep your skin nourished and healthy to avoid flare-ups. 


Alcohol abuse can cause skin cancer, especially if the abuse is long-term and severe. In fact, alcohol causes over 3% of all cancer deaths in the United States as of 2019.

Skin cancer caused by alcohol abuse is either basal or squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma forms in the outer layer of the skin, while squamous cell carcinoma forms in the top layer of the epidermis. 

The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk. You can limit your risk for skin cancer caused by alcohol abuse by limiting your drinking. The American Cancer Society recommends reducing your alcohol intake to one drink daily for women or two drinks daily for men. 


Substance abuse can wreak havoc on your skin, your health, and your life. Treatment and recovery can help you take back your skin and your life. Your first step is to call a certified treatment center for substance abuse to learn more. 

Customized treatment plans help you through the toughest parts of treatment so you can have a successful recovery. Don’t wait any longer, make the call today to start your journey!

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