Drugs: What Are They and How Do They Affect You?

Drugs have become a part of our society and it is no different while in college. No matter your past experience with or exposure to drugs—or lack of experience or exposure—you will need to make a decision about whether or not to use drugs. Your decision should be based on an awareness of the health and legal risks. 

The Basics

A psychoactive drug is defined as a drug, chemical, or other substance that has a specific effect on the brain. People use psychoactive drugs for a variety of reasons, like relaxing in social situations or increasing their energy levels. 

There are four basic categories of psychoactive drugs:

  • Stimulants (also called uppers) increase alertness, energy, physical activity, and feelings of well-being.
  • Depressants (also called downers) decrease body processes such as breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity.
  • Hallucinogens can cause visual, auditory, and other sensory hallucinations.
  • Narcotics (known as analgesics or pain relievers) work by blocking pain messages to the brain.

To learn more about commonly used drugs, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Commonly Abused Drugs Chart page.

Drugs and Your Health 

Drugs may have both short-term and long-term negative effects on your health. The extent of the effects depends on a variety of factors, such as purity, quantity, the type of drug, how often it is used, how it is used (inhaling, snorting, or injecting), whether it is mixed together with other drugs and/or alcohol, and your current physical and emotional state. 

Negative health effects are vast and can include: 

  • loss of motor coordination, which can result in injury or death through car crashes, falling, or drowning 
  • injury or death through violent or self-destructive behavior 
  • impaired memory, reduced alertness, loss of judgment, and/or other cognitive impairments 
  • impaired sexual response 
  • overdosing (poisoning from toxic levels of the drug, leading to permanent impairment or death) 
  • depression, anxiety, and/or psychosis 
  • potential for dependency 
  • high blood pressure 
  • deterioration of the heart muscle 
  • heart or respiratory failure 
  • digestive problems 
  • liver damage 

Excessive use or overdose of certain drugs can have more immediate, severe physical consequences, such as heart attack, brain damage, coma, and even death. 
Drug abuse can also lead to interpersonal conflicts, psychological issues, and financial difficulties. 

Mixing Drugs and Sex 

Drug use can impair your judgment and limit your ability to communicate effectively, leading to unhealthy sexual decision-making. 

Drug use may affect your correct and consistent use of condoms and other barrier or contraceptive methods. In turn, this can increase your potential for contracting sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV. It can also increase the risk of unplanned pregnancies. 

Learn more about your sexual health here.

Consequences of Drug Use 

There can be serious legal and academic consequences of using drugs, depending on the circumstances. These penalties may include: 

  • getting arrested 
  • legal fees associated with arrests and convictions 
  • a period of probation, community service, or a prison sentence 
  • expensive fines 
  • losing academic credit and financial aid and/or being suspended or expelled 
  • inability to obtain professional licenses and jobs 

Driving Under the Influence

Driving under the influence substantially increases your chances of having or causing a car crash. If you drive under the influence of drugs you can have your driver’s license suspended or revoked or have your driving privileges restricted. 

Drugs and Relationship to Violent Crimes

In addition, drugs are frequently associated with many violent crimes, such as homicide and aggravated assault, as well as a high percentage of sex-related crimes. Depressants (including alcohol, tranquilizers, and GHB), have been used in cases of sexual assault and other crimes. These depressant drugs can be mixed in a drink (including non-alcoholic beverages) without someone’s knowledge, rendering that person incapacitated and unable to prevent a crime or resist a sexual assault.

To find the latest trends and alerts on drug use, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Emerging Trends and Alerts page.


How Can I Prevent Drug Abuse?

You must first realize that the decision to use drugs is a personal choice — and a choice with potentially serious health, academic, and legal consequences. It is up to you to determine when, where, and why you might use drugs and if you are willing to accept all the consequences that may result.

Ways to reduce your risk for drug abuse include:

  • Know your predispositions. Consider your personal or family history for substance abuse problems and take responsibility. If you find yourself using too much in certain situations, set limits for yourself or avoid those situations.
  • Consider your reasons for using drugs. Is it to feel good, to study, or to be more socially comfortable? What are your choices? Which ones are healthy? Which ones carry potential legal or health problems?
  • If you choose to use drugs, develop your own risk reduction strategies. Talk to a health professional on your campus or in the local community. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a health professional, contact one of the organizations listed on the back of this brochure or a campus staff person you trust. If you find yourself unable to implement the risk reduction strategies you develop, recognize that you may need to get help.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA National Helpline
1-800-662-HELP (4357)

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Narcotics Anonymous