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Drugs and Alcohol: These Looks Can Kill

Drugs-and-Alcohol-These-Looks-Can-KillDrug and alcohol abuse do ugly things, not only to our insides but to our outsides. And the effects on our appearance can have the power to move us. Tell us that alcohol damages our liver and brain, and we nod. Tell us that it may make us fat, well, now you have our attention.

Call us vain or call us visual, too-tight pants can hit home more than all the dire medical warnings in the world. After all, as long as the damage stays hidden from our eyes, we can pretend it’s not happening. But when it’s staring us in our puffy face, it’s no longer possible to ignore that we might just have a problem. Consider the effects of these drugs of abuse:


Modest drinking – no more than about one drink a day for women and two for men – may have limited health benefits, but excessive drinking can bring: Weight gain: Alcohol is packed with empty calories. That nice big glass of wine? Think of it as a cupcake. Beer has been called “liquid bread” due to its combination of carbs and calories. And on top of the drinks themselves, alcohol can lower our resistance to overeating and make it seem even more satisfying. One survey found that binge drinking caused people to eat more than 6,000 extra calories in the following 24 hours. To work that off, you’d have to climb stairs for about 10 hours. But who wants to exercise with a hangover? Dry, dull skin: Anyone who has awakened from a night of heavy drinking with a raging thirst knows that alcohol dehydrates. It works the same way on skin, sucking out moisture and nutrients. Skin begins to look dull and sallow, and any wrinkles pop into prominence. Broken capillaries: Want spidery red veins and a bulbous nose, a la W.C. Fields? Keep drinking. Alcohol dilates blood vessels, which can cause those thin red lines to appear, especially around the nose. It can also make eyes appear bloodshot and exacerbate any pre-existing skin conditions, such as rosacea. Long-term drinking can lead to facial puffiness and skin that is permanently red and blotchy. Brittle hair and nails: Drink too much and you forfeit needed iron and water. That leads to brittle hair and nails. You may even start to lose hair. Premature aging: As we age, we lose collagen, which is essential for skin tone and elasticity. Excessive drinking speeds up that process by robbing your body of the nutrients necessary for collagen production, especially vitamin A. The more you drink, the more your skin ages.


Weight gain: Whether marijuana is or isn’t a dangerous drug continues to be debated, but on one thing, everyone is clear: Marijuana makes you hungry. For those suffering from debilitating illnesses that sap the appetite, this may be a desired effect. For most others, though, that triggering of the appetite mechanism is a virtual guarantee of overeating – and it probably won’t be on health food. And now that marijuana is being added to candy, cookies and gelato, people can get fat while they’re getting high.


A collapsed nose: When cocaine is snorted, the most common form of ingestion, the nose is being asked to take punishment it may not be able to withstand. Cocaine causes the delicate blood vessels in the lining of the nasal septum to constrict, which can shut off the oxygen supply. Enough constriction and the result can be erosion and a hole in the nasal septum. In some cases, the nose actually collapses, taking on a pronounced saddle shape, curving inward in the middle. Surgical reconstruction is necessary to fix the damage. At the least, cocaine snorting can leave you with an unattractively inflamed and runny nose. Sores and scratches: Like some other drugs (notably meth), cocaine can cause users to experience the sensation that bugs are crawling beneath their skin – called formication – leading them to scratch or pick at their skin until it bleeds. Pale, unhealthy-looking skin: Excessive cocaine use can leave you with sunken facial features or with a puffy face, known as “coke bloat.”


Weight loss:  Heroin use can suppress your appetite, but the weight loss that comes with it is far from “heroin chic,” a term popularized in the 1990s, when waifish, emaciated models became the vogue. Expect a stringy thinness from the rapid loss of healthy fats – in other words, more Keith Richards than supermodel. Premature aging: Because heroin kills the appetite, it can rob you of vitamins essential for healthy skin. That hastens the development of wrinkles and saggy skin. Bluish skin and nails: Heroin lowers blood pressure and heart rate, which can affect the body’s blood supply. This can show up as a bluish tint to skin and nails, and dark circles under the eyes. Abscesses and track marks: Heroin users who inject the drug wear long sleeves for a reason. Injections can create painful abscesses, and bruising and track marks at the injection site are also common. Sores and acne: Heroin users often feel a compulsive need to pick and scratch at their skin. The result can be acne, open sores, scabs, bruises and scarring.


Weight loss: Methamphetamine is a potent stimulant and can kill your appetite while inspiring a need for continuous activity, leading to sometimes extreme weight loss. That may sound appealing to some, but it comes at a hefty price. This is not the kind of weight loss that makes you look better in a swimsuit; this is the kind that depletes your store of nutrients and leaves you looking haggard and sick. Tooth decay: It’s called “meth mouth” – broken, discolored, rotten stumps where teeth used to be. Several factors cause it. Meth makes blood vessels shrink and eventually die, causing decay of oral tissues. Meth also causes dry mouth, which allows the mouth’s acids to eat away at tooth enamel.  Meth users are also known for grinding their teeth and for binging on sugary foods and drinks. And they aren’t generally the best at oral hygiene. Some experts believe that the chemicals found in the drug also play a role in damaging the teeth. Sores and scabs: Meth users are known to pick compulsively at their skin, leaving open sores and scabs. Because meth impedes the body’s ability to repair itself, the sores can take years to heal. Accelerated aging: Addicted men and women often look decades older than they are. Facial lines are deeply etched, skin has no luster or elasticity, and features seem off-kilter and distorted.

Nothing Pretty About It

A little vanity can be a useful tool in arming people against drug abuse. If you need extra incentive, keep this in mind: As horrible as the external effects of drug and alcohol abuse are, they pale in comparison to what’s going on beneath the surface.


Drugs and Alcohol: These Looks Can Kill

David Sack, M.D.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.

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APA Reference
Sack, D. (2015). Drugs and Alcohol: These Looks Can Kill. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Jun 2015
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