Substance Abuse And Skin
Some people start contemplating their substance abuse after a visit to their dermatologist. That fact might seem strange. But, the well-trained eye of a skin specialist can pick up on signs of a person’s drug or alcohol habit early in their drug abuse history. Yes, a dermatologist may issue the first wake-up call. But, they don’t usually refer patients directly to the drug detox center. They just get the patient to contemplate quitting. The observations of dermatologists go way beyond the popular culture stereotypes.
When people think of telltale signs of drug use and addiction, they often go right to the image of needle marks, also known as “track marks.” Many could even assume an addict will always have the formulaic gaunt complexion, dark circles under the eyes and malnourished appearance. But addiction and drug use often reveal themselves in more ways than we’ve picked up by watching the television series Breaking Bad or 1990s movie Trainspotting.
Drug use takes a severe toll on the human body’s largest organ, the skin or the epidermis. From the “harder” drugs such as heroin and meth to substances that are considered less dangerous like marijuana or alcohol, all of these substances often leave indicators on the skin. First, the substances driving a person’s dependence slow their skin’s mending process. Common skin diagnoses in people who use drugs and alcohol include:
- Skin flushing
- Blood vessel damage
- Nose and mouth lesions
- Acne breakouts in adults
- Methamphetamines and Skin
The chemical imbalances and dehydration caused by methamphetamines may create discomfort. Many stimulant users report strange sensations on their skin. “It feels like there are spiders burrowed under my skin,” is a common complaint. They tend to feel it in their face and arms. Naturally, people respond to skin discomfort by scratching. Some people become obsessed enough with the perceived bugs under their skin that they pick at the sensitive areas. Then a vicious cycle spins out of control. The skin irritation leads to more frequent scratching. Then the meth sores begin. The compromised skin is slow to heal. Over time, scar tissue forms.
There are other ways methamphetamines and other stimulants contribute to premature skin aging. Stimulants make users’ hearts pump harder. Naturally, their other organs strain to keep up with the increased demands. And when the body is under stress, its endocrine system kicks in and stimulates the production of skin-damaging cortisol. Cortisol destroys two substances that keep skin springy and tight, elastin and collagen. Loose skin and wrinkles emerge onto the faces of the afflicted. Over time the saggy jowls appear, and the eyelids start to develop that overhang look.
Substance Abuse and Veins
Some elicit IV drugs make blood vessels spasm in a series of rapid expansions and contractions. Vasospasms disrupt circulation which is painful. It also causes swelling, ulcers, blood clots and infections in the skin.
Most intravenous drug users develop chronic venous insufficiency when the valves inside veins fail to close properly. Leaky valves allow the blood to flow backward and produce the pressure that creates bulgy varicose veins. Acute cases of venous insufficiency may produce skin ulcers that heal slowly because of the weak blood flow.
Skin Popping, Cellulitis and Infections
Some IV drug users inject drugs under their skin—a practice called skin popping. Skin popping often leads to cellulitis, a bacterial infection. It manifests as a painful swollen rash and constitutes an urgent medical condition. Patients who delay seeking treatment run an extreme risk of permitting the infection to infiltrate their bloodstream and lymphatic system and develop further complications.
Substance abuse damages the immune system and decreases its ability to fight infections. As a result, diseases that a once healthy immune system would eliminate, turn into full-blown illnesses. People who never imagined staph and fungal infections, find themselves visiting the doctor for some aggressive treatment. People genetically disposed to psoriasis or eczema, may endure more frequent flares. And the remedies that once helped tend to be ineffectual.
Alcohol Abuse Shows Up On Skin Too
Skin flushing may be a hint that an individual is abusing alcohol. Flushing occurs when alcohol triggers blood vessels to dilate. One of alcohol’s byproducts is acetaldehyde, which triggers histamine releases. It’s very similar to an allergic reaction
After years of alcohol consumption, some people notice spider veins developing. These small, broken capillaries, close to the skin’s surface, tend to pop up on people’s faces. But, they also make their homes on peoples’ arms abdomen and neck. People with impaired livers are even more likely to develop spider veins.
An alarming sign of prolonged alcoholism jaundiced skin and eyes. When the liver has become so damaged that the blood is saturated with bilirubin, it gives the skin an orange tint. Eventually, the liver will fail. The body will fail to eliminate certain toxin byproducts from the ethanol. If a patient accepts the services of a drug detox center when jaundice is still in its early stages, the condition and associated yellow coloring often dissipate.
People living with a chemical dependency content with more acne breakouts. Adults who thought they left acne behind find patches of pimples popping up. The cortisol—that hormone stressed endocrine systems produce—is the catalyst. It amps up the inflammation in every body system, and the skin suffers the consequences.
Along with the inflammation, substance abuse can contribute to malnutrition, which weakens the immune system and damages blood vessels. Addiction adversely affects the body’s ability to heal. What a person sees on their outer skin is indicative of injuries occurring to internal organs, brain, muscles, and other tissues.
The motivation to look good is a deep human instinct. While dermatologists are not the most frequent doctors to refer patients to a drug detox center for substance abuse, they may point out the first signs of trouble. Skin doctors may be the first person to really get a person with a substance abuse problem to start to consider making drastic life changes. But, one other benefit of drug rehab is the patient’s possibility of once again feeling comfortable in their own healthy skin.