Drug use and misuse can cause strokes, sometimes in otherwise healthy people on the first use. Understanding the symptoms of stroke can help you get emergency treatment when you need it.
Drug use is a risk factor for stroke. In fact, it’s increasingly identified as a reason for stroke among young adults, even those without prior health problems.
A stroke can occur on the first use of a substance, but long-term drug use can also increase the risk of stroke. Drug use can damage blood vessels in the brain and the heart. This can increase the risk of conditions like high blood pressure, the leading risk factor for stroke.
Drug use can have a number of significant health consequences. Stroke is one of the most serious because drug use can lead to both ischemic stroke and a hemorrhage in the brain.
Keep reading to learn more about how drug use damages blood vessels and increases the risk of a blood clot and stroke.
When to call emergency services
A stroke is a medical emergency, and time is critical. If you think you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of a stroke, call 911 or local emergency services immediately. The main symptoms to look for are:
- an uneven smile or droop on one side of the face
- weakness or numbness in the arms (a person may be unable to raise or hold them up)
- slurred speech or extreme confusion
You must receive immediate medical care to reduce the risk of long-term complications and damage, especially to the brain. Immediate treatment may also reduce the risk of death.
When it comes to drug use and stroke risk, one time is all it takes — but ongoing use may increase your risk of a stroke, too.
That’s likely because drugs have several significant, often sudden, effects on the body. For example, stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine cause an immediate surge in blood pressure. At the same time, stimulants can constrict or narrow blood vessels in the brain, which can reduce blood flow and cause a blockage.
Here are some of the effects of common illegal drugs:
Cocaine can cause a sudden stroke during or immediately after use. Cocaine quickly and dramatically increases blood pressure, which can lead to a brain bleed. Cocaine use can also cause the blood vessels in the brain to narrow or spasm. This can cut off blood flow to the brain.
People who inject drugs, including heroin, are at risk of infections that can lead to a stroke. One example is endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining.
In people with endocarditis, bacteria enter the blood and begin to grow over the heart’s valves and vessels. A clump of bacteria can break off, leave the heart, and travel to the brain, where it can block a blood vessel and cause a stroke.
This group of stimulants produces sudden and volatile increases in blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke in the immediate minutes and hours after use.
With long-term use, the stress on the blood vessels can cause weakening. Weakened blood vessels may rupture and cause a stroke.
The symptoms of a drug-induced stroke are no different from strokes caused by other issues. Stroke symptoms can include:
- face drooping or slumping
- weakness or numbness in the arms and legs
- slurred speech or trouble speaking
- confusion or memory problems
- sudden vision changes
- loss of balance or difficulty walking
- severe headache
- nausea or vomiting
If you or someone you’re with experience any of these symptoms, call 911. A stroke is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
Always be honest with ER staff
If you or someone near you is experiencing a drug-induced stroke, make sure to disclose what substance (and how much) was being used.
Paramedics and emergency room staff cannot report this information to authorities, but they can use it to save your life.
There is no at-home treatment for stroke. You need medical treatment at a hospital.
However, if you believe you or someone with you is having a stroke, there are a few things you can do for safety before emergency services arrive:
- Make them comfortable: Ask them to sit down in a chair or lie on the floor, preferably on their side with their head elevated. This will help prevent choking if they begin vomiting.
- Speak calmly: Provide reassurance by remaining calm and level-headed.
- Check that they’re breathing: If they are not breathing, perform CPR until emergency responders arrive.
- Stay with them: A person having a stroke may feel terrified. Having someone with them can be comforting. Watch them for changing symptoms, too. Tell emergency responders what happened, be honest about any drug use, and alert them if the person fell or hit their head.
If you are worried about your stroke risk or want to avoid another stroke in the future, you may want to consider changing your drug use habits.
Whatever your choice, there are people there to support you on your journey. Treatment options include:
- Residential treatment: These facilities, sometimes called rehab, use a variety of treatment and therapy programs to help people stop using substances. These facilities can be short term or long term.
- Counseling and therapy: This type of treatment is often used with others, like medication and hospitalization programs. It aims to help people cope with the reasons their substance use began. It can also help people develop coping strategies to handle challenges that may lead them to begin using again.
- Support groups: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) use group support and self-help strategies to help people quit and recover. Other groups like SMART Recovery may work for people who don’t like the 12-step programs of AA and NA.
Drug use or misuse increases the risk of stroke, even in healthy people who do not have previous health issues. People who experience one stroke are at risk of future strokes, too.
It’s important for people who use drugs to recognize the symptoms of a stroke. If you believe you’re having a stroke, or show signs of a stroke, call 911 immediately. Emergency medical attention is required to prevent long-term complications, including death.
You can reduce your risk of stroke by stopping drug use. Support groups and rehabilitation programs can help you quit and stay sober.
These organizations can be community-supported or part of a hospital system, such as residential treatment programs. Finding an option that works for you can help you be successful.