The large spectrum of pulmonary complications following illicit drug use: features and mechanisms

Chem Biol Interact. 2013 Dec 5;206(3):444-51. doi: 10.1016/j.cbi.2013.10.011. Epub 2013 Oct 18.


Damage to lungs may occur from systemic as well as inhalational exposure to various illegal drugs of abuse. Aspiration pneumonia probably represents the most common pulmonary complication in relation to consciousness impairment. Some pulmonary consequences may be specifically related to one given drug. Prolonged smoking of marijuana may result in respiratory symptoms suggestive of obstructive lung disease. Non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema has been attributed to heroin, despite debated mechanisms including attempted inspiration against a closed glottis, hypoxic damage to alveolar integrity, neurogenic vasoactive response to stress, and opiate-induced anaphylactoid reaction. Naloxone-related precipitated withdrawal resulting in massive sympathetic response with heart stunning has been mistakenly implicated. In crack users, acute respiratory syndromes called "crack-lung" with fever, hemoptysis, dyspnea, and pulmonary infiltration on chest X-rays have been reported up-to 48h after free-base cocaine inhalation, with features of pulmonary edema, interstitial pneumonia, diffuse alveolar hemorrhage, and eosinophil infiltration. The high-temperature of volatilized cocaine and the presence of impurities, as well as cocaine-induced local vasoconstriction have been suggested to explain alveolar damage. Some other drug-related pulmonary insults result from the route of drug self-administration. In intravenous drug users, granulomatous pneumonia with multinodular patterns on thoracic imaging is due to drug contaminants like talcum. Septic embolism from right-sided endocarditis represents an alternative diagnosis in case of sepsis from pulmonary origin. Following inhalation, pneumothorax, and pneumomediastinum have been attributed to increased intrathoracic pressure in relation to vigorous coughing or repeated Valsalva maneuvers, in an attempt to absorb the maximal possible drug amount. In conclusion, pulmonary consequences of illicit drugs are various, resulting in both acute life-threatening conditions and long-term functional respiratory sequelae. A better understanding of their spectrum and the implicated mechanisms of injury should help to improve patient management.

Keywords: Acute respiratory distress syndrome; Cocaine; Drug of abuse; Heroin; Marijuana; Pulmonary complication.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Administration, Intravenous
  • Community-Acquired Infections / etiology
  • Crack Cocaine / toxicity
  • Heroin Dependence / complications
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / toxicity*
  • Lung Diseases / etiology*
  • Lung Diseases / physiopathology
  • Lung Injury / etiology
  • Marijuana Smoking / adverse effects
  • Marijuana Smoking / physiopathology
  • Pneumonia / etiology
  • Pneumonia, Aspiration / etiology
  • Pulmonary Edema / etiology
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome / etiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / complications


  • Crack Cocaine
  • Illicit Drugs