Injecting life-saving drugs into damaged or collapsed veins is an issue for people who use illicit drugs intravenously. Along with stopping IV drug use, there are other ways to heal veins.

Intravenous (IV) drug users are at risk for severe vein damage, making the administration of life-saving drugs a challenge. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) cover a scope of treatment that allows first responders to administer medication through an intravenous line. 

Part of the requirement for an EMS is that they are capable of establishing and maintaining access for medication through a patient’s veins. A variety of emergency medical conditions may require first responders to administer drugs through IVs. These include things like hypoglycemia treatment. 

Prolonged and frequent intravenous (IV) drug use may cause permanent damage to the veins at drug injection sites. People requiring regular medical care and people with substance abuse issues may be at risk for these conditions.

Vein damage from IV drug use can lead to chronic venous disorders (CVD). The places on the body people most commonly inject illicit drugs are the arms, hands and feet. Research has shown that people who inject in their legs are over nine times more likely to develop ulcers in their veins.

Multiple factors influence the level of damage from injecting drugs. One is the kind of drug being injected. Studies on heroin injection illustrate the drug’s acidity has a damaging effect on vein health. The same studies indicate that people who regularly use drugs and suffer from vein damage will seek alternate veins, spreading the damage to other parts of the body. In desperation, drug users may even inject into soft tissue.

IV drug use vein damage is a serious challenge to the administration of life-saving drugs in the event of a medical emergency. The Journal of the American Medical Association has outlined the same method since the 1950s for starting intravenous drugs in a collapsed vein. The emergency solutions include cutting into a vein or finding it difficult to reach veins. Either way, there are very limited options if there is severe vein damage, and these solutions may be too little too late. 

IV Drug Use and Chronic Vein Disease

IV drug use is a fast way to get drugs into the body. It is not without its consequences. When performed over a length of time, injecting drugs into the body through the veins can lead to significant medical issues, including:

  • Chronic vein disease
  • Impaired walking mobility
  • Hepatitis C
  • Skin abscesses or infections
  • Thrombosis and blood clots
  • Musculoskeletal infections

When there is damage to the veins, it impacts many other bodily functions. All of these conditions negatively impact health and longevity. Conditions like chronic vein disease have far-reaching effects for well-being. Chronic vein disease causes edema, pain, cramps, itching and weakness. Symptoms will likely get worse with ongoing drug use. 

Vein Damage from IV Drug Use

Vein damage from IV drug use has significant repercussions for health. Some conditions, such as a blood clot from IV drug use, can be fatal. Other issues may include:

  • Collapsed Veins: When someone suffers a collapsed vein, blood cannot pass as it should through the body. Collapsed vein syndrome can be very painful and lead to deep vein thrombosis.
  • Blown Veins: A blown vein occurs when a vein becomes punctured, leaking blood into the tissue around it. A blown-out vein from IV can result in significant bruising. A blown-out vein can also create lumps and swelling.
  • Dilated Veins: Dilated veins are sometimes called varicose veins and result from the vessel walls weakening. A web of thin red, blue or purple lines may be a sign that veins have dilated.
  • Swelling of Extremities: Swollen feet from IV drug use is an unpleasant side effect that may indicate greater health issues. A swollen hand after IV drug use can limit a person’s movement and functionality in daily life. 

Healing Veins From IV Drug Use

Medical professionals outline ways to recover some vein health after prolonged IV drug use. There are many self-care and medical options when considering how to heal veins from IV drug use. These include:

  • Ultrasound to help heal varicose veins
  • Laser and radiofrequency treatments to heal varicose veins
  • Compression socks or bands
  • Maintaining the health of other veins by ceasing to use IV drugs

Many people wonder: “how long does it take for veins to heal?” The answer depends on a number of factors, especially the severity of damage and other health issues. For people who have damage around IV injection sites from substance abuse, a good first step is to seek recovery in a rehabilitation center for addiction, which will give the veins time to begin healing.

Safe administration of life-saving medications is possible when someone has healthy veins. These drugs can be vital in moments of physical distress or crisis.

The process of healing is available to every person who struggles with addiction, however long they have been using drugs. Recovery from substance abuse is possible, as is long-term wellness.

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Editor – Ashley Sutphin
Ashley Sutphin Watkins received her degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Psychology and Journalism. Read more

Ciccarone, Daniel et al. “Fire in the vein: Heroin acidity and its[…]t on users’ health.” International Journal on Drug Policy, December 2016. Accessed August 2, 2019.

Kiefer, MV et al. “Dextrose 10% in the treatment of out-of-[…]ospital hypoglycemia.” Prehospital Disaster Medication, April 2014. Accessed August 15, 2019.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “National EMS Scope of Practice Model.” February 2017. Accessed August 15, 2019.

Pieper, Barbara et al. “Impact of injection drug use on distribu[…]nic venous disorders.” Wound Repair and Regeneration, August 2009. Accessed August 2, 2019.

Pieper, Barbara et al. “Injection-Related Venous Disease and Walking Mobility.” Journal of Addictive Diseases, October 2010. Accessed August 2, 2019.

Till, Harry J. “Method for Starting Intravenous Fluids in Collapsed Veins.” October 9, 1954. Accessed August 2, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.