Recreational drugs and asthma

If you take recreational drugs, knowing the facts means you can look after your asthma better

There are legal and illegal ‘recreational drugs’. Legal recreational drugs include alcohol and nicotine. There are lots of different Illegal recreational drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, ketamine and spice.

Taking illegal recreational drugs can lead to serious problems with your physical and mental health. Drug use is linked to thousands of hospitals admissions every year.

The facts about recreational drugs and asthma

  • Taking drugs can trigger asthma symptoms and make your asthma worse, increasing your risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.
  • Drug use can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, which have all been linked to making asthma worse.
  • Some drugs contain unknown harmful ingredients and it’s impossible to know what effect these will have on your asthma.
  • Research has shown that taking recreational drugs means it’s more likely you'll miss taking your asthma medicines every day as prescribed. This increases your risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack.

The effects of certain drugs on your asthma

  • Cannabis can trigger asthma symptoms and lead to long-term lung damage, especially if it’s smoked with tobacco.
  • Cocaine use (both snorted and smoked) can lead to much worse asthma symptoms and asthma attacks.
  • Crack cocaine (made by heating cocaine powder with baking soda) can lead to serious lung damage, especially if it’s smoked.
  • DXM, PCP and ketamine – hallucinogens and dissociative drugs – can lead to breathing problems especially if they’re mixed with alcohol.
  • Heroin – and other opioids, such as fentanyl – may cause your breathing to slow down and block air from entering your lungs making asthma symptoms worse. 
  • Inhalants – highly concentrated chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays, such as lighter fluid, can cause breathing difficulties.
  • New psychoactive substances (NSPs), such as spice and mephedrone, contain one or more chemical substance to mimic the effects of other illegal drugs. There’s not enough known about many of these drugs to know about their strength, their effects on people, or what happens when they’re used with other substances or alcohol.
  • Poppers – liquid nitrates inhaled from the bottle or a cloth or cigarette dipped in the liquid – are absorbed into the lungs almost instantly. Any inhaled substances can irritate your lungs and trigger asthma symptoms.

Drugs can also affect your asthma in ways you may not expect. For example, ecstasy or speed can make you feel more energetic so you may find yourself dancing longer. This increased activity may bring on asthma symptoms. And smoking cannabis can make you feel anxious, which can bring on asthma symptoms.

Look after your asthma

  • Take your preventer medicines as prescribed every day. This soothes the inflammation in your sensitive airways and lowers the chance of you getting asthma symptoms.
  • Always carry your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you. It could save your life if you have an asthma attack.
  • Take a photo of your written asthma action plan on your phone so you can check what to do if your asthma gets worse.
  • Send your friends the photo of your written asthma action plan so they know what to do if you have an asthma attack.
  • If you notice that your asthma symptoms are getting worse seek medical help straight away.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help prevent your airways drying out, which can make your asthma worse.
  • Avoid mixing recreational drugs with alcohol as this exaggerates their effects.
  • Set the timer on your phone to remind you to have regular breaks if you’re dancing all night.

Getting help

Your GP can to you about talk about your concerns and help you choose the most appropriate treatment or refer you to a local specialist drug service.

Visit Frank for honest information about drugs and local drug treatment services

  • Call: 0300 123 6600 (24 hours a day, 365 days a year)
  • Text: 82111

Some people find support groups like Narcotics Anonymous helpful. 

ADFAM – information and support for the families of drug and alcohol users

DrugWise  – evidence-based information about drugs, alcohol and tobacco 

Last updated April 2019

Next review due April 2022