Health Risks of Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD)

The physical effects of alcohol and other drugs are well-documented. However, the risks and effects of these drugs vary from person to person based on factors such as frequency of use, concentration or dosage of substance, the person’s health, etc. Students concerned about their health or their own use or the use of a family or friend are encouraged to contact one of the resources listed on VCU Alcohol and Other Drugs Resources and FAQs.

Health Effects for Major Categories of Drugs

Central Nervous System Depressants

This group of drugs, also known as downers, result in decreased activity in the body. These drugs affect the central nervous system by slowing down the messages between the body and the brain. Examples of this drug include alcohol, barbiturates, and sedatives.

  • Alcohol - Alcohol’s initial effects include altered perception, judgment, motor coordination and abstract thinking/cognitive impairment. Continued use of alcohol results in physical and psychological dependence marked by increased tolerance, memory blackouts and the experience of withdrawal symptoms. Very high doses of alcohol can lead to coma or death.
  • Benzodiazepines - Use of this drug causes a feeling of euphoria, vivid dreams, amnesia or hostility. Long-term benzodiazepine misuse has been associated with cognitive impairment. The risk of overdose increases drastically when benzodiazepines are combined with alcohol or opioids. Signs of overdose include shallow breathing, dilated pupils, clammy skin, or coma.
  • GHB - In low doses, GHB can cause euphoria. However, it can cause electrolyte imbalance, decreased respiration, slow heart rate, vomiting, low blood pressure, confusion, unconsciousness, coma, and death at higher doses.

Central Nervous System Stimulants

This group of drugs, also known as uppers, results in increased activity in the body. Drugs of this type include but are not limited to amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine.

  • Amphetamines - Users experience euphoria, abundant energy, and decreased need for sleep. Other signs and symptoms may include irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, irritability, anxiousness, restlessness, panic, paranoia, aggression and impulsive behavior.
  • Cocaine - The user experiences exhilaration, energy, increased mental alertness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, reduced appetite and weight loss. Users often have a stuffy, runny nose and nosebleeds. Immediate effects include dilated pupils, elevated blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature.

Opiates and Opioids

This is a class of drugs that are used to reduce pain. However, long-term opioid usage has been linked to a wide range of negative effects on body systems, including endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal.

  • Fentanyl - A synthetic opioid that is prescribed to treat severe pain. Overuse/misuse may result in brain injury due to repeated depression of the central nervous system.
  • Heroin - The opiate effect of heroin diminishes the sense of pain, inducing euphoria, drowsiness, and confusion. Overdose results in death from stopping breathing.
  • Morphine- Those who misuse morphine at high doses put themselves at risk for overdose. Signs of overdose include inattention, slurred speech, increased thirst, slow or no movement, and muscle stiffness. Overdose can also result in slowed breathing to the point of death.


Hallucinogens, which include but are not limited to Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and psilocybin, cause altered states of perception and feelings, including delusions, hallucinations and illusions including body and time distortion. Physical effects include fever, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, blurred vision, and flushed face. Mood can range from euphoria to panic and depression.


The user experiences slowed thinking and reaction time, time distortion, confusion, impaired balance and coordination, and impaired judgment. Physical effects include elevated blood pressure, a dry mouth and throat, bloodshot and swollen eyes, decreased body temperature and increased appetite. Frequent and/or long-time users may develop chronic lung disease and damage to the pulmonary system.

Other drugs that fit into multiple categories:

  • Inhalants - Solvents (paint thinners, gasoline, glues, butane, propane aerosol propellants, nitrous oxides) produce stimulation, loss of inhibition, slurred speech, and loss of motor coordination. Inhalants can lead to negative health effects after both short-term and long-term use.
  • Ketamine - Can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, problems with control of movements, memory loss, numbness and nausea/vomiting. The user is at high risk for slowed breathing that may lead to brain damage or death.
  • MDMA (Ecstasy) - Methylenedioxymethamphetamine produces mild hallucinogenic effects, amphetamine-like stimulation, and increased touch sensitivity. An increase in display of affection to others may occur.
  • Nicotine - Nicotine acts as both a stimulant and depressant to the central nervous system. It increases heart rate and blood pressure. It also restricts blood flow to the heart muscles. Cigarette smoking is associated with myriad health issues, including lung cancer, bronchitis, coronary heart disease, etc.
  • PCP - PCP is often used to enhance the effects of other drugs such as LSD, cannabis or cocaine. PCP users seek an altered state of bizarre perceptions, confusion, disorientation, impaired judgment and often delirium. Behavioral changes may range from hyperactivity to catatonic states.