How Do Drugs Change How You Look?
While some substances may take a relatively long time to show up on our faces or figures, others have rapid effects, ruining our looks in a dramatically short span of time. In this way, one might say that not only do addictions wear people down, but people can also “wear” their addictions.
How Drugs Can Ruin Your Looks
The media have widely covered the ravaging effects of certain drugs on our appearance — many publishing photo essays of drug addicts that take us on a harrowing pictorial journey through alarming before-and-after pictures of heavy users — usually focusing on the devastating physical side effects of drugs such as methamphetamine (meth), heroin, cocaine and oxycodone. One of the most famous of these photo essays was launched by the Sherriff’s Office in Multnomah County, Oregon in 2004 as part of its “Faces of Meth” campaign, and the images quickly went viral. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration launched its “Just Think Twice” campaign in 2005, using science-based facts as well as images to raise awareness among youth of the damaging and disfiguring physical effects of drugs.
Here is a list of the many ways that drugs can alter a person’s appearance:
Eyes — People who use heroin or other opiates like oxycodone pain pills often have “glassy,” bloodshot eyes with small, or constricted, pupils. Drugs like marijuana, hash, MDMA (ecstasy), speed, cocaine and ketamine have the opposite effect, making the pupils dilate, or become larger while the user is under the influence. Either effect can sometimes last for two or more days after use. Heavy users of meth can suffer permanent eye damage and vision impairment.
Many other drugs can cause a person’s eyes to appear red and heavy-lidded, with dark circles underneath, making them look drawn and tired. Often, those heavy under-eye circles are a result of skipping sleep to “party” all night while using.
Teeth — One of the primary drugs that can negatively impact teeth is methamphetamine, or “meth.” You may have heard of “meth mouth,” which refers to the dry mouth, jaw clenching and teeth grinding that abusers of this drug experience as a side effect of the harsh chemicals and reduced saliva which, in turn, lead to bad breath, eroded tooth enamel, cracked teeth, cavities and lesions on the gums. An increased craving for sweets and junk food further damages the teeth, as does reduced attention to dental hygiene when high.
Skin — Opiates can cause a flushing of the skin, often with perspiration. Meth addiction can lead to the appearance of acne, as well as skin swelling, sores and scratches, often on the face. The skin sores are usually the result of “meth bugs,” where heavy meth users lose a lot of their skin’s natural oils due to the side effect of excessive sweating, causing dried-out skin and a sensation of bugs crawling on it. This sensation causes meth addicts to scratch and pick incessantly at their skin to “remove” the imaginary bugs.
Heroin, cocaine and other amphetamines can also cause the sensation of bugs crawling on the skin, leading heavy users to scratch and pick at it. The physical outcome is skin that ends up pocked with scratches, scabs and open sores that sometimes get infected.
Meth may be the substance that causes the most drastic changes to a user’s skin, making it appear blemished and aged at an accelerated rate, but alcohol abuse also takes a toll. Alcohol causes dehydration of skin, which can lead to broken or distended capillaries, especially over the nose and cheeks. You are probably familiar with the stereotype of a chronic drunk who has a red and bulbous nose and mottled cheeks, often depicted in classic films by character actors like W.C. Fields. The red nose and cheeks result from a widening of blood vessels near the surface of the skin, causing a loss of heat from the body.
Alcohol also causes the depletion of vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy complexion, so many people who drink excessively can have dry, discolored or heavily lined skin. It is widely known that long-term alcohol use can damage the liver, which also can damage or discolor the skin.
Nose — People who snort cocaine experience a rapid shrinking of the blood vessels in the sinus passages, followed by a widening of the blood vessels after the cocaine wears off. This leads to a chronically red and runny nose.
In addition to the risks of increased nose bleeds and a decreased sense of smell, prolonged, heavy cocaine use can lead to erosion of the septum, the internal supporting structure between the two nasal passages. If the septum erodes, the bridge of the nose can collapse, leaving heavy users with what look like bashed-in noses.
Nails and Hair — Many drugs, prescription and otherwise, can interfere with the normal keratinization of the “nail matrix,” causing lines or ridges to form in the fingernails (and toenails) or discolored, dry, brittle, splitting and broken fingernails.
Just as nails can become dry, brittle and broken from drug use, so can hair. Heavy drug users often experience a loss of moisture in their hair, leading to split ends and dull hair that lacks the shine we correlate with healthy locks.
Body — Heavy marijuana smokers often gain weight because the drug stimulates the appetite, triggering the user to snack on sweets and carbohydrates after each use. Some alcoholic drinks, particularly beer and sweet mixed drinks, are high in calories, causing drinkers who favor these to pack on pounds. On the other hand, chronic consumption of hard liquor can cause drinkers to lose their appetite, and therefore, lose essential nutrients.
Heroin, opioid painkillers (oxycodone, hydrocodone), meth, cocaine and other amphetamines, and a host of other drugs can cause loss of appetite, making them appear gaunt and skeletal. In some users, meth and other drugs increase a craving for sweets and other unhealthy foods, leading to weight gain. Heroin, though it causes weight loss, can also increase the appearance of cellulite dimples under the skin.
Drug and alcohol use can negatively impact the immune system, leading to a tendency to get more colds and other illnesses, and have an appearance of general malaise or exhaustion.
Getting treatment for addiction can be the first step toward reversing the harmful effects of drugs, both internal and external. Once an addict enters recovery, they can start to gradually rebuild their health through proper nutrition, exercise and rest, which can do much to heal the body and restore an appearance of vitality.