Sores from Drugs: Causes & Dangers

Apr 2024 Sores from Drugs: Causes & Dangers

Overdose. Brain damage. Liver failure. Discussions of the dangers of drug abuse often focus on debilitating or potentially fatal effects like these. While it is obviously important to be aware of the grievous harm that substances can cause, it is also worthwhile to understand the impact of smaller (but still extremely serious) problems, such as sores from drugs.

Drugs That Cause Sores

When you think about sores from drugs, there’s a decent chance that methamphetamine is one of the first substances that come to mind. 

This is due in no small part to a campaign called “Faces of Meth” that the Multnomah County (Oregon) Sheriff’s Office launched in December 2004. That controversial effort used mugshots of people who had become addicted to meth to highlight the dramatic changes in appearance that the drug can cause.

There’s no doubt that meth addiction can lead to sores from drugs. But you may not realize that meth abuse isn’t the only form of substance use that can cause this type of problem. Other drugs that can cause scabs, sores, lesions and other types of serious skin damage include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Xylazine
  • Some prescription opioids
  • Alcohol

What Are Sores from Drugs Caused By?

In some cases, sores from drugs result from the substances themselves. In other cases, either the way someone uses the drugs or the disorienting effects they cause may be to blame.

Here are a few examples:

  • Methamphetamine can cause a person to experience the tactile (touch-based) hallucination that bugs are crawling over or beneath their skin. This phenomenon is so common that it has earned the nicknames “meth mites” and “meth bugs.” People who develop this hallucination may compulsively pick at their skin to try to get rid of these nonexistent bugs, which can lead to scabs, sores, and abscesses. 
  • People who use heroin via intravenous (IV) injection often develop bruising, sores, and abscesses as a result of frequently injecting drugs in the same area. Often referred to as “track marks,” this type of skin damage is one of the more obvious physical signs that someone has been injecting drugs. Attempting to hide this type of damage is one of the reasons why people who have become addicted to heroin may start wearing long sleeves and long pants, even in warm weather. 
  • In recent years, people have begun to abuse an animal sedative called xylazine (which is also sometimes called tranq or tranq dope). Some individuals who abuse this substance have developed severe damage, including ulcers, abscesses, and necrosis (skin death). In some cases, the damage is so extreme that amputation is the only way to prevent it from spreading.
  • Alcohol may not seem like an obvious entry in a list of substances that can cause sores from drugs, but people who drink heavily for an extended period may develop various forms of alcohol-related skin damage. This can include hives, cellulitis, rosacea, and spider veins. Dehydration, malnutrition, and poor self-care can exacerbate these problems, increasing a person’s risk for widespread and potentially irreversible harm.

Dangers of Sores From Drugs

As we alluded to in the previous section, sores from drugs are among the more obvious physical signs that someone has been abusing alcohol or another substance. But these are not merely superficial, appearance-based concerns. Drug-related sores and other forms of skin damage can also pose serious health risks.

One of the more worrisome aspects of drug sores is that they can become infected. The risk of infection can be magnified by impaired function of the immune system, substandard self-care, and a reluctance to seek medical attention, all of which are not uncommon among people who have been engaging in illicit IV drug use. 

Infections can also spread from the skin to other organs, which can cause a host of additional health problems. Worst-case scenarios of drug-related infections include amputation and death. 

How are Drug Sores Treated?

Treatment for sores from drugs can involve two separate processes: caring for the sores themselves and addressing the behavior that led to the sores.

Healing drug sores usually involves antibiotics. For more severe damage, abscesses may need to be drained and necrotic skin may need to be cut away in order to prevent spread and preclude amputation. 

Sores from drugs aren’t included in the official criteria for an addiction diagnosis. But continuing to use substances even after incurring harm is one of the signs of addiction. This means that someone who has developed sores, abscesses, or other types of skin damage due to substance use may need professional addiction treatment.

Depending on a variety of individual factors, including which drug a person has been using and how long they have struggled with addiction, treatment may occur in one or more of the following programs:

Within these programs, patients may take part in the following types of treatment:

  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Individual, group, and family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
  • Neurofeedback therapy
  • Holistic therapy

No single program or type of treatment is ideal for every person. Instead, the best way forward is to find a provider that will conduct a thorough assessment, then work with the patient to develop a customized plan just for them.

Contact Phoenix Rising About Our Addiction Treatment Programs in California

Phoenix Rising Recovery offers a full continuum of care for adults whose lives have been disrupted by addictions and certain co-occurring mental health concerns. 

At our addiction treatment center in southern California, you will be cared for by professionals who are committed to providing personalized service within a safe and respectful environment. We can meet you wherever you are in your recovery journey. Our team will help you find your path toward a much healthier and more hopeful future.

To learn more about our addiction treatment programs and services, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call us today.