Effects of Drug Abuse on the Male and Female Reproductive Systems
Substance abuse can negatively impact the reproductive health of both sexes in a number of ways and may contribute to serious problems like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), infertility, and cancer.
Women who use drugs and alcohol while pregnant put their unborn children at risk of pregnancy-related complications and future problems that can impact their health and ability to function in the world.
It is crucial for both men and women to understand the effects of drugs on their reproductive system in order to make more informed decisions about their health.
Effects of Drugs on the Female Reproductive System
Substance abuse can lead to organ damage, infections, and diseases.
Research on humans and animals has found that women are generally more vulnerable to the long-term physical effects of drugs and alcohol compared to men 2. Differences in physiology, weight, and hormone levels can affect the breakdown of drugs and alcohol in the body. In particular, drug use can harm the reproductive system and impact women in one or more of the following ways:
- Changes in the menstrual cycle — Drug and alcohol use may alter a woman’s menstrual cycle and may result in lighter or heavier menstrual periods and increased cramping 2. Heroin and methadone use may also lead to amenorrhea (absence of a period) in some women.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and other infections — Intravenous drug use puts women at risk of contracting infections and diseases transmitted through the blood, including HIV/AIDS, which may harm a woman’s fertility 2. Heavy alcohol use is also linked to higher rates of contracting STDs that may damage the reproductive system and/or hinder the ability to get pregnant 3. Women under the influence of drugs and alcohol may be more likely to put themselves in harmful situations that increase their risk of contracting STDs.
- Cancer — Women who abuse alcohol and other drugs may put themselves in risky situations where they are more likely to contract an STD, which, depending on the infection, may contribute to cancer. For example, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is linked to increased cervical cancer risk.
- Fertility — Drugs and alcohol are also related to infertility in women. One study found that females who are heavy alcohol users are more likely to experience fertility problems compared to low and moderate alcohol users 5. Women who use tobacco products may also be at risk for fertility issues and delayed conception 2.
- Sexual dysfunction — Substance use may impact sexual arousal, pleasure, and desire in women 6. Specifically, heavy alcohol use can decrease vaginal lubrication and the ability to achieve an orgasm 7. STDs resulting from risky behaviors associated with substance use may also impact sexual desire.
Effects of Drugs on the Male Reproductive System
Men may experience one or more of the following reproductive problems as a result of drug and alcohol use:
- STDs and other infections — Drug and alcohol abuse may put men at higher risk of contracting STDs. This may be due to lowered inhibitions associated with substance use. Alcohol can also suppress the immune system, making it easier to contract an STD 3. Men who use intravenous drugs and share needles put themselves at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other bloodborne diseases. HIV and antiretroviral treatment drugs may negatively affect a male’s fertility.
- Fertility — Substance use can lead to fertility problems in men 8. Men who use marijuana and cocaine may experience changes in hormone levels that can affect sperm movement and lead to infertility. Anabolic steroids also pose a danger to male fertility. Performance-enhancing drugs increase testosterone levels in the bloodstream, which leads the reproductive organs to produce lower amounts of the hormone. This can cause the testicles to shrink and produce less sperm. In some cases, infertility may be irreversible after a period of heavy steroid use. However, in most cases the body will return to normal within months after stopping the drugs. Medications may also be prescribed to increase sperm production after quitting steroids.
- Sexual dysfunction — Men who use drugs and alcohol may experience problems with sexual arousal 6. In small to moderate amounts, alcohol lowers inhibitions, which may appear to increase the desire for sexual activity and reduce apprehensions. However, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it slows the body and brain and may lead to erectile dysfunction, or inability to attain or maintain an erection, and problems with ejaculation 7. Similarly, men who use methamphetamine may initially experience sexual benefits, such as heightened arousal. However, over time the use of methamphetamine and cocaine can lead to erectile dysfunction and delayed orgasm.
Effects of Drugs on Pregnancy
- Low birth weight.
- Birth defects.
- Changes in physical features.
- Premature birth.
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Women who use illicit drugs during pregnancy are up to two times more likely to have a stillbirth. Some infants become dependent on the drugs their mothers take and go through withdrawal shortly after birth. This is common in infants exposed to heroin and other opiates, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates and caffeine.
Drugs that may have a negative effect on infants during pregnancy include:
- Heroin — Women who use heroin and other opioid drugs while pregnant put infants at risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a condition where infants become opioid dependent after exposure to the drugs through the placenta 1. Infants with NAS may demonstrate increased irritability, seizures, and stomach problems. Infants with NAS may be treated with small amounts of methadone or morphine in order to gradually wean them off of the drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that a baby is born with NAS every 25 minutes 9.
- Cocaine — Pregnant women who use cocaine may experience migraines, seizures, premature membrane rupture, separation of the placenta from the uterus, high blood pressure, spontaneous miscarriage, preterm labor and delivery problems 1. Infants born to mothers who use cocaine during pregnancy are at risk for low birth weight, smaller head circumference, and shorter length. As infants, they are at risk for showing signs of increased irritability, hyperactivity, and tremors.
- Methamphetamine — Women who use methamphetamine while pregnant have a higher risk of premature delivery, separation of the placenta from the uterus, and preeclampsia, a condition in which pregnancy-related hypertension (high blood pressure) can lead to organ damage 1. Infants born to mothers who use methamphetamine may experience low birth weight and as children may experience high emotional reactivity, anxiety, depression, and attention and cognitive problems.
- Marijuana — Despite marijuana’s growing legalization, it is not considered safe to use during pregnancy 1. Marijuana use during pregnancy has been linked to future cognitive problems in children, including hyperactivity, learning deficits, problem-solving deficits, memory issues, and attention problems. Using marijuana while breastfeeding can also cause similar cognitive problems. Consuming medical marijuana during pregnancy for nausea is not recommended due to marijuana’s effects on the brain.
- Alcohol – The negative effects of alcohol on the developing fetus are so wide-ranging, we’ve devoted a full section to this drug below.
Alcohol and Pregnancy
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2013 approximately 19% of women in their first trimester and 5% of women in their second trimesters reported drinking alcohol while pregnant 10. Despite the fact that almost one in five women drink alcohol while pregnant, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that there is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy 11.
Drinking alcohol while pregnant can lead to serious long-term effects on infants. Alcohol use during the early stages of pregnancy — even before a woman is aware that she is pregnant — can begin affecting the unborn child 1. Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to birth defects and long-term health problems for children 12.
Drinking alcohol while pregnant can increase the risk for:
- Miscarriage and stillbirth — Moderate to heavy alcohol use during pregnancy is one risk factor associated with miscarriages and stillbirth, which occurs when a fetus dies in utero 13. In general, research studies have found that women who drink more alcohol have a higher risk of fetal death.
- Premature delivery — Women who drink during pregnancy risk premature delivery, or giving birth prior to 37 weeks’ gestation 13. Moderate to heavy alcohol use and binge drinking are especially risky.
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) — Symptoms of FASD can range on a continuum from mild to severe. Infants born with FASD may have problems with learning and memory, comprehension, shifting attention, emotional control, impulsivity, communication, socialization, and performing daily activities 11. Drinking alcohol while breastfeeding also poses dangers to infants 1. Breastfeeding women are urged to limit daily alcohol use to two ounces of liquor (eight ounces of wine or two standard beers) and should allow two hours between the last drink and breastfeeding.
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) — SIDS is the leading cause of infant death in the United States and is linked to alcohol use during pregnancy 13. Infants who die from SIDS are two times more likely to have been exposed to alcohol in utero and three times as likely to have been exposed to binge drinking by their mothers.
Abuse of alcohol and other drugs can cause serious harm to your reproductive system and to a developing fetus. If you need help to stop using drugs and/or alcohol, don’t wait another day. Call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? to get help now.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Substance Use in Women.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2015). Substance abuse treatment: Addressing the specific needs of women. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 51. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4426. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Cook, R. L., & Clark, D. B. (2005). Is there an association between alcohol consumption and sexually transmitted diseases? A systematic review. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 32(3), 156-164.
- Zhang, S. M., Lee, I. M., Manson, J. E., Cook, N. R., Willett, W. C., & Buring, J. E. (2007). Alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk in the Women's Health Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 165(6), 667-676.
- Eggert, J., Theobald, H., & Engfeldt, P. (2004). Effects of alcohol consumption on female fertility during an 18-year period. Fertility and Sterility, 81(2), 379-383.
- Johnson, S. D., Phelps, D. L., & Cottler, L. B. (2004). The association of sexual dysfunction and substance use among a community epidemiological sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33(1), 55-63.
- McKay, A. (2005). Sexuality and substance use: the impact of tobacco, alcohol, and selected recreational drugs on sexual function. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 14(1/2), 47-56.
- Fronczak, C. M., Kim, E. D., & Barqawi, A. B. (2012). The insults of illicit drug use on male fertility. Journal of Andrology, 33(4), 515-528.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Dramatic increases in maternal opioid use and neonatal abstinence syndrome.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-48, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4863. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Fetal alcohol exposure.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2014). MedlinePlus, Alcohol and pregnancy.
- Bailey, B. A., & Sokol, R. J. (2011). Prenatal alcohol exposure and miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome. Alcohol Research and Health, 34(1), 86-91.