Alcohol and recreational drugs


A lot of young people face the personal decision about whether to start drinking even before they reach the legal age to drink. Before you make that decision, it helps to get as much information as you can.

How alcohol affects your body

When a person drinks alcohol, it is absorbed into their bloodstream and carried throughout their body.

Alcohol can have both depressant and stimulant effects.

  • Its depressant effects slow down the functioning of your brain and spinal cord. These effects can make you lose coordination, slur your speech and take longer to respond to things.

  • Its stimulant effects raise your heart rate and blood pressure, interfering with your ability to have a deep and restful night of sleep. They can also make you either very friendly and talkative, or angry and aggressive.

You probably already know that drinking a lot of alcohol can leave you with a hangover the next day.

Mixing alcohol and energy drinks

Many teens and young adults are tempted to mix alcohol with energy drinks. This can be extremely dangerous, causing a severely increased heart rate, which usually requires an emergency trip to the hospital.

Longer-term effects of alcohol

  • Alcohol can interact with your pain medications. This can lead to serious health problems such as liver damage. It is important to communicate with your doctor about the risks of consuming alcohol with your medications.

  • Drinking regularly can reduce your ability to study well and concentrate, leading to problems at school and work.

  • Alcohol use can impair your judgment and lower your inhibitions, leading you to do embarrassing things or engage in risky behaviour such as having unprotected sex, drinking and driving or injuring yourself when drunk.

  • The legal age to drink in most Canadian provinces is 19. Drinking when underage can lead to trouble with the law. According to the National Crime Prevention Centre, young people who drink are also more likely to get into fights and commit crimes than those who do not.

  • Drinking alcohol regularly can lead to addiction, particularly if you drink alcohol to numb the pain sensations, or if you drink alone.

  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short time period can lead to alcohol poisoning. This is exactly what it sounds like – the body becomes poisoned by a large amount of alcohol. Vomiting is usually the first symptom of alcohol poisoning. Extreme sleepiness, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, low blood sugar levels, seizures and even death may result. If you suspect someone may have alcohol poisoning, seek medical help immediately.

Recreational drugs

The term “drug” can refer to a medication that is prescribed by a doctor or bought over the counter at a pharmacy. Medications that are prescribed are often misused, and should be only taken as instructed by your healthcare team. The term can also refer to recreational drugs.

Recreational drugs include:

  • marijuana (also known as pot, weed, joint, THC, cannabidiol) – this is different from the pharmaceutical cannabinoids that might be prescribed to treat pain. In some cases, marijuana can be prescribed, but should not be prescribed to anyone under the age of 25.

  • cocaine (also known as coke, snow, flake, blow)

  • amphetamines (for example ecstasy, X, E, uppers, XTC, speed, meth, ice, crank, m-cat)

  • heroin (also known as H, horse, smack)

  • anabolic steroids.

Some drugs have a depressant effect while others are powerful stimulants.

Why people take drugs

Some people believe drugs will help them to think better, be more active or become better athletes. Others are simply curious and assume that trying them once won't hurt. Still more take them because they want to fit in and be more popular with their peers.

Many people also use drugs because they are depressed and think drugs will help them escape their problems. This can be a risky way of thinking, especially if you are considering recreational drugs to help you handle your chronic pain. Drugs don't solve problems. In fact, they only hide feelings and problems for a short term and may actually make things worse once they wear off. Using drugs can ruin every aspect of a person's life.

Dangers of recreational drugs

  • Recreational drugs can interact with your pain medications and possibly cause severe damage to organs such as your brain, liver and kidneys.

  • They may cause confusion, anxiety, learning difficulties or memory loss.

  • They can lead to risky behaviour such as having unprotected sex or engaging in “high driving” (driving while impaired by drugs).

  • Repeated use can lead to addiction. You use the drug for a psychological high and your body becomes used to the effects of the drug.

  • You may never be sure if the drug you are taking is laced or “cut” with something else. Some drugs can be laced with other substances to bulk them up (and make them more profitable). It is difficult to know what is in them and what effect theyncan have on you alongside the drug.

  • Many drugs are illegal. Being caught in possession of some of these drugs, even for personal use, will get you in trouble with the law.

  • A drug overdose can cause serious mental or physical damage or even death.


Cigarettes have a number of ingredients: tar, carbon monoxide, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic and, of course, nicotine.

How cigarettes affect your body

When you breathe in cigarette smoke, it passes from your lungs into your bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, it causes the body to release a hormone called epinephrine, which leads to higher blood pressure, faster breathing and an increased heart rate.

When nicotine reaches the brain, it causes the release of much higher than usual levels of a feel-good chemical called dopamine. The release of this hormone is what causes someone to feel happy and relaxed when they smoke, and what makes cigarettes so addictive, even if someone knows how harmful they are.

Some people use e-cigarettes because they believe they are a safe alternative to smoking. However, they are not. E-cigarettes are another way of putting nicotine (a highly addictive drug) into your body.

Why people smoke

There are many different reasons why people start smoking. Some people might want to fit in with their peers or think that smoking helps them manage stress or their weight. But just like recreational drugs, cigarettes don't solve problems. In fact, they may actually make things worse with regular use.

Dangers of cigarettes

  • Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, at least 70 of which are known to cause, trigger or promote cancer.

  • Cigarette smoking also causes emphysema (a serious lung condition) and heart disease.

  • If you are a regular smoker, an accident is more likely to lead to an injury and you are more likely to take longer to recover from it. This is because smoking can affect your body’s ability to produce collagen, the protein that connects your bones, tendons, cartilage and muscles. If you damage your tendons and ligaments as a smoker, they will take longer to heal.

  • Because cigarette smoke goes straight to the lungs, smokers tend to have more respiratory infections, such as colds, flu, bronchitis and pneumonia, than non-smokers.

  • Young people who try to manage their weight by smoking instead of eating balanced meals tend to lack the nutrients their growing bodies need to develop properly and fight off illness.

  • Female smokers are at much higher risk for blood clots, strokes and heart attacks if they take hormone-based birth control such as the pill, patch or ring.

  • A pack of cigarettes typically costs $10 to $15. If you start smoking, it won’t take long for it to make a big dent in your wallet.

  • Cigarette smoking gives you bad breath and makes your hair and clothes smell.

  • Over time, it also causes you to develop premature wrinkles and turns your teeth yellow.

How to quit if you are concerned about your lifestyle habits

If you think you need some help or just someone to talk to about your drinking or drug use, you can speak to your doctor, family, partner or someone else that you trust. A lot of organizations have resources to help people who are concerned about heavy drinking or recreational drug use. One of them is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

If you smoke and would like to quit, a lot of support is available. You can get information online, through your local hospital and from organizations such as Health Canada. You can also speak to your healthcare provider about effective medical and other supports to help you to stop smoking. These resources can help you with whichever approach to quitting you prefer. Some people decide to give up smoking all at once and others find that a gradual approach is better. Others may even prefer a support group for young people who would like to quit.

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