Effective Treatment for IV Drug Use

When someone states that they’re an IV drug user they’re telling you that they use a needle to shoot drugs directly into their bloodstream. This is something that can be done through a vein (intravascular), underneath their skin (subcutaneous), or in their muscle (intramuscular). Most drugs (other than marijuana) can be injected so that the user feels a stronger high. However, this is quite dangerous and can result in a severe addiction.

There are a variety of drugs people choose to shoot up. However, one of the most common drugs used intravenously is heroin. Unfortunately, the number of Americans who report using heroin has been increasing each year since 2007, especially among those ages 18 – 25. Besides heroin, some of the other common IV drugs include fentanyl, hydrocodone, and buprenorphine.

What are IV Drug Use Risks?

Most people get addicted to drugs by smoking or ingesting the substance. However, as their dependence increases, they begin seeking a stronger, faster high many will start shooting up.

Unfortunately, what they don’t consider is the fact that IV drug use can result in serious health issues which is why it’s so dangerous, especially given the rise in synthetic opioids and so-called ‘super meth.’ With these substances on the streets, it has never been more dangerous to be an IV drug user.

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Who Uses Intravenous Drugs?

There are approximately 11 million IV drug users throughout the world today. While there are many variables based on demographics it’s still interesting to note:

  • Those who’ve used IV drugs are less likely to work once they’re clean. For instance, 60% of those who once used IV drugs hold a full-time job as compared to the 64% of those who abused other drugs and now hold a full-time job. Similar statistics also exist regarding high school graduation.
  • Adult males are more likely to use IV drugs than adult females.
  • The majority of IV drug users are white.
  • People who use IV drugs are twice as likely to get divorced or separated than those who used other types of drugs.
What are the Signs of IV Drug Use

What are the Signs of IV Drug Use?

If you’re wondering if your friend or loved one is shooting up, there are some common signs to look for. Knowing what these signs are will enable you to encourage your friend to get help if necessary.

Scarring And Needle Tracks

Most people who use IV drugs will eventually develop scarring in their veins. Frequently these will last for as many as 5 years after you get sober. These are referred to as “pop scars” because of their round or oval shape. When permanent, they can stigmatize you for the rest of your life.

Skin Issues

This is one of the most common problems those who use IV drugs suffer from. The likelihood of developing skin issues is even higher if the drug you inject isn’t pure or if it’s laced with other drugs. These skin issues include scarring, swelling, abscesses, and cellulitis.

Puffy Hand Syndrome

Those who’ve used IV drugs for long periods may get a swollen hand after they’ve shot up. When left untreated the swelling may become permanent. Fortunately, not many IV drug users develop this issue, but if you notice this occurring, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately so that it doesn’t become permanent.

Necrotizing Fasciitis

This is another rare but life-threatening issue. It’s caused by a bacterial infection in the soft tissue of your skin. Although it looks like cellulitis it’s much more serious because you’ll also have a fever, severe pain, nausea, and dizziness. To prevent this infection from spreading surgery is required.

Vein Problems

Another common complication IV drug users face has to do with their veins. This is because when you repeatedly inject drugs into your veins they will eventually collapse, and you may also develop life-threatening blood clots. Without treatment, your collapsed veins may be permanent.

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The Most Serious IV Drug Use Risks

Misusing drugs is dangerous, but IV drugs frequently result in severe health issues. This is especially true if you share or reuse needles since this allows germs and bacteria to spread easily. When you inject a contaminated needle into your skin it introduces bacteria directly into your bloodstream.

If you get sick from a contaminated needle or develop an abscess due to one, this is commonly referred to as a “dirty hit.” Some of the reasons you may get a dirty hit include:

  • Using dirty water to dissolve your drugs
  • Chemicals in the cigarette filter you used to filter your shot
  • Contaminants in the drugs themselves
  • Not cleaning your skin properly before injecting the drugs

Abscesses And Cutaneous Infections

At some point, most IV drug users experience abscesses and infections related to IV drug usage. This is because most drugs contain at least one pathogen (e.g., bacteria, fungi). When you combine these substances with non-sterile needles and poor hygiene the risk grows even higher. While you may try to sterilize your needle and clean your skin before using it, you still can’t prevent the contaminants’ effects.


Endocarditis and heart problems are also fairly common. Endocarditis is characterized by inflammation of the interior lining of your heart. It occurs when you repeatedly abuse IV drugs because these substances tend to drain into the right side of your heart. Therefore the valves on the right side of your heart may develop this condition. When it’s left untreated it may damage or destroy your heart valves, resulting in life-threatening complications.

Hepatitis C

The spread of Hepatitis C is caused by using IV drugs. This is a viral infection. During its early stages, it’s difficult to diagnose. However, 6 months to 10 years after developing it symptoms become more apparent. The most serious symptom is liver inflammation.

Bacterial Infections and Viral Bacteremia

Cellulitis is quite common for those who use IV drugs. It’s caused by bacteria (e.g., streptococcal) and fungi. Symptoms include red streaking, inflammation, tenderness, and pain. When left untreated it can result in serious health issues.

Septic Thrombophlebitis

When you have an infected blood clot that’s left untreated it’ll cause septic thrombophlebitis in your vein. This is very dangerous, even life-threatening. Symptoms range from tenderness and inflammation to pus draining from the clot. You’ll need antibiotics to treat this properly. The earlier you get them, the more effective they’ll be and the less likely you’ll develop more serious medical complications.

Cotton Fever

Cotton fever and contaminant injection are interrelated. It occurs when you use cotton while shooting up. Unfortunately, the cotton plant contains bacteria that then enter your body causing you to have a fever, headache, chills, nausea, extreme pain, a burning sensation in your kidneys, tremors, anxiety, and trouble breathing. Typically, this happens within 20 minutes of shooting up.

What are Ways of Reducing Harm for IV Users?

There are many policies, programs, and practices being discussed regarding harm reduction. The concept behind them is to diminish the harmful effects of drug use. This is because it’s understood that people will continue abusing substances regardless of any prevention effort.

For IV drug users the number one harm reduction tactic being used is needle exchange programs or NEP (a.k.a., syringe services programs SSP, needle-syringe programs NSP). These community-based programs offer free sterile needles in exchange for the used needles that they then properly dispose of. The program aims to significantly reduce the risks associated with IV drug use.

Can IV Drug Users Recover and Get Clean

Advice for Friends and Family of IV Drug Users

It isn’t easy when a friend or loved one is addicted to drugs. Initiating a conversation with them can be even more challenging. Before doing so, take some time to prepare for this conversation. Here are a few tips to help you do so:

  • Make sure you know the signs of addiction.
  • Your conversation should be a two-way dialogue so that your friend or loved one doesn’t feel like you’re lecturing them.
  • It’s important for your friend or loved one to be sober throughout your conversation so that they’re more understanding.
  • Meet in a neutral location so that everyone is comfortable.
  • Be prepared to take your friend or loved one directly to rehab at the end of your conversation, if you choose to do so.
  • Show your love and support but don’t enable them.

Seeking Treatment for IV Drug Use

Asking for help with your addiction isn’t easy, but don’t let it deter you from getting clean. It doesn’t mean that you have no control of your life, but it does mean you’re choosing something better for yourself. Fortunately, there are a few different ways you can choose to ask for help, including:

  • Send a letter or an email to someone who you trust to help you. Doing so will help you organize your thoughts and possibly arrive at some new realizations about yourself and your addiction.
  • Talk to a medical professional who knows you and can help you take steps to get clean. While this may be difficult for you, remember that nothing phases doctors, they’ve seen and heard a lot before.
  • Talk to someone online or on the phone. There are many resources available today (e.g., helplines, chat rooms, websites) to help with addiction. You may even find it easier to reach out to them since you aren’t face-to-face with them and they’re a stranger. Once you decide to reach out they’ll help you decide what the next steps are, but it’s up to you to act on these steps.
  • Look for someone who’s in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse. They can relate to what you’re going through and are willing to talk to you and try to ease any fears you may have. You can ask what worked for them so you can determine what might work for you.
  • Talk to someone you really trust. Even if they can’t relate to what you’re going through they can listen to you and help you. There’s comfort in knowing that there’s someone there for you during this difficult time.

Unfortunately, many people who struggle with addiction find it’s too hard to ask for help. Even so, you may be fortunate enough that help will still find its way to you. Once you have this help available you’ll feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of you since you’re starting to take steps towards recovery.

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Medically Supervised Detox for Comfort and Safety

Once you decide to get clean, you’ll enter into the medical detox phase. There are various phases here (evaluation, detox, transitioning to inpatient treatment for further help) that’ll lay the groundwork for your successful recovery. It’s important to be medically supervised throughout this process since you may encounter some life-threatening issues.

During the detox phase, all traces of the addictive substance are flushed out of your body. Sometimes this results in side effects (e.g., stomach cramps, headaches, sweating, muscle spasms, constipation, seizures). Since you’re in a medically supervised detox you’ll be both safe and comfortable throughout this phase. There are medications and therapists there who can help you manage your pain, so you remain focused on recovery and don’t get sidetracked by these things.

Advice for Friends and Family of IV Drug Users

Can IV Drug Users Recover and Get Clean?

IV drug users can stay clean, but they need to take it one day at a time, especially in early recovery. This is because you can’t control the future. It is possible to create and work towards goals, but you can’t ever fully predict how things will turn out.

Twelve-step programs are built on this premise for a reason. It’s these programs that’ll enable you to face every day and any occasion with the tools you need to help you with your sobriety. It’s up to use these tools throughout your recovery. Fortunately, this gets easier with time, especially if you practice mindfulness and only worry about today.

Lasting Recovery is Possible with Icarus Behavioral Health

Residential care has proven itself very effective, especially if you’re also struggling with a mental health diagnosis. This is because you receive all the services you need (e.g., meals, life maintenance errands) in a structured environment such as our facilities in Albuquerque and elsewhere.

Attending treatment at Icarus is also a great way to receive the benefits of community support from both professionals and peers alike. All of this is without the stress of daily living, as our residential treatment provides a firm foundation upon which to build your recovery. If you (or a loved one) are ready to put aside drink or drugs, even in the most severe cases of IV addiction developed over many years, the Admissions staff at Icarus Behavioral are ready and waiting to help. Please don’t hesitate to seize the momentum and reach out to us now!

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