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Substance Use

Many people use substances to alter the way they feel or think. They may use legal substances such as caffeine, regulated ones such as alcohol or tobacco, or illegal ones such as heroin or cocaine. 
All substance use carries some risk. It's important to know how a substance can affect your health and when it may become a problem.
Alcohol

Many people enjoy drinking alcohol, and most people usually do it safely. Other people choose not to drink alcohol at all.

Most health risks are strongly linked with the amount of alcohol you drink. These risks include organ damage, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, certain cancers, difficulties with brain function and injuries.

Depending on the disease, drinking a small amount every day may carry health benefits or health risks. Some studies suggest that having one drink a day may help lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes in middle-aged adults. Other studies show that any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer.

If you choose to drink alcohol, the key is to keep your drinking at the safest possible levels, called low-risk drinking. It's not recommended that you start to drink or increase your drinking as a way to be healthy.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has developed Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. The guidelines for low-risk alcohol drinking are lower for women than for men. Biological differences make the female body generally more sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

Due to specific health risks, there are also separate guidelines for alcohol use during pregnancy, and for youth/young adults.

Resources

If you need help for an alcohol use problem, contact the Alcohol & Drug Information and Referral Service to find resources and support. Call 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free in BC) or 604-660-9382 (in the Lower Mainland). Staff can refer you to services across the province.

Chronic disease

There are additional low-risk alcohol drinking recommendations and resources for different ages and stages of life.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy and while breastfeeding can affect your baby. Alcohol use during pregnancy may increase your baby's risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD includes a range of lifelong physical, mental and behavioural effects and learning disabilities. Alcohol also passes easily into breast milk and can affect your baby's feeding and development.


The safest option is to not drink alcohol at all if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. If you are breastfeeding your baby, you are also advised to either avoid drinking alcohol or to breastfeed or pump breast milk before drinking alcohol.


Resources
 

As a parent, you play an important role in how your child views alcohol use. You can set a positive example by talking openly and honestly about alcohol with your children, following low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines and never drinking and driving.


Resources
 

Alcohol use can affect young people's general health, physical growth, and emotional and social development. Many young people do not develop problems. However, if you start using alcohol when you're young and you use it on a regular basis, you're more likely to develop problems later on. Different factors can increase your risk of developing a substance use problem.


Young people should wait at least until they are in their late teenage years to drink alcohol. Follow the laws for the legal drinking age where you live. In British Columbia, the legal drinking age is 19.


Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines vary according to age:


Youth under 19

  • Speak to your parents about drinking;
  • Never have more than one to two drinks per occasion; and
  • Never drink more than one or two times per week.

Adults aged 19 to 24 years

  • Females: Never have more than two drinks a day and never more than 10 drinks a week
  • Males: Never have more than three drinks a day and never more than 15 drinks a week
  • Please note that these guidelines differ from the general guidelines as these limits apply even on special occasions.

Resources
 

Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines vary between women and men:


Women

  • Have no more than 10 drinks a week and no more than two drinks a day most days; and
  • Have no more than three drinks on any single occasion and stay within weekly limits.
  • The safest option during pregnancy, when planning to become pregnant or before breastfeeding is to not drink alcohol at all.

Men

  • Have no more than 15 drinks a week and no more than three drinks a day most days; and
  • Have no more than four drinks on any single occasion and stay within weekly limits.
 

As you get older, your body processes alcohol more slowly. You may become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. This can increase your risk of accidents, falls and the worsening of some health issues. If you take medications, you should avoid alcohol.


Canadians older than age 65 should never exceed the recommendations of the guidelines:


Women

  • Have no more than 10 drinks a week and no more than two drinks a day most days; and
  • Have no more than three drinks on any single occasion and stay within weekly limits.
  • The safest option during pregnancy, when planning to become pregnant or before breastfeeding is to not drink alcohol at all.

Men

  • Have no more than 15 drinks a week and no more than three drinks a day most days; and
  • Have no more than four drinks on any single occasion and stay within weekly limits.
Resources
 

Drugs

Drug use has existed in every human society for a very long time. Many individuals use drugs and do not develop problems. However, people who use drugs are more likely than other people to get injured or develop an infectious illness. Drug use is also closely linked to mental illness, social isolation and chronic health problems.

Individual health risk depends on many things, including the type of drug and how it's used, the frequency of use and other factors. Health risks are higher during pregnancy and among young people who are still developing physically, emotionally and socially.

There are different approaches to reducing health risks caused by drug use. One approach is abstinence, which means totally avoiding drug use. Another is the harm reduction approach, which means trying to reduce the health risks associated with drug use. An example of harm reduction is not sharing needles when you use drugs to protect yourself and others against infections.


Health warning

Using illicit street drugs can be very dangerous because you don't know for sure what they contain. Different street drugs may be contaminated with toxic chemicals or they may be cut with other ingredients - such as fentanyl - that can be deadly. In fact, BC's provincial health officer has declared a public health emergency because of a recent increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths across British Columbia.

 


Resources

If you need help for a drug use problem, contact the Alcohol & Drug Information and Referral Service to find resources and support. Call 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free in BC) or 604-660-9382 (in the Lower Mainland). Staff can refer you to services across the province.

If you or a loved one uses drugs, there are resources to help prevent or reverse the effects of a drug overdose:

  • Toward the Heart - Information and resources supporting harm reduction, including the use of naloxone for reversing the effects of an overdose.
  • Know Your Source - Information for drug users discussing the risks of fentanyl and tips for preventing an overdose.

There are also specific resources about drug use according to stage of life.

It's important to know that using drugs during pregnancy exposes your baby to its effects. This includes the use of prescription and over-the-counter medications. 


Health risks can vary depending on the drug; in some cases, drug use can increase the risk of serious physical, mental and emotional problems for your baby.


You may need prescribed medications to manage a medical condition. Check with your health provider to determine what's best for you and your baby.


In general, it's best to avoid taking drugs that are not medically required. This includes avoiding over-the-counter medications and illicit drugs as soon as you know you're pregnant.


Resources
 

As a parent, you play an important role in how your child views drug use. 


You can set a positive example by talking openly and honestly about drug use with your children and practicing responsible behaviours related to your own drug use, including taking medicines only as prescribed by your doctor.


Resources
 

Drug use can affect young people's general health, physical growth, and emotional and social development. Many young people do not develop problems. However, if you start using drugs when you're young and you use drugs on a regular basis, you're more likely to develop problems later on. 


Resources
 

As a general rule, when your drug use starts to cause problems in your relationships, or begins to negatively affect your work, finances or health, it's probably time to think about making some changes.


Resources
 

As a general rule, when your drug use starts to cause problems in your relationships, or begins to negatively affect your work, finances or health, it's probably time to think about making some changes.


Resources
 

Tobacco

Most people know that tobacco use – particularly smoking – is a leading cause of serious health problems. Conditions caused by tobacco use include several types of cancer, heart disease, lung disease, stroke and kidney disease. Tobacco use is linked to slower recovery after surgery and low birth weight in newborns whose mothers smoke.

Second-hand smoke is also harmful. Exposure to second-hand smoke can cause the same health conditions as smoking and it is linked to higher rates of asthma in children.

BC has the lowest rates of tobacco use in the country. In spite of this, The Centre for Addictions Research of BC reports that tobacco remains responsible for the most substance-related hospitalizations and deaths in British Columbia.

People sometimes use smoking as a way to cope with stress or anxiety in their lives. Like unhealthy eating or using alcohol or drugs, tobacco may be a stress-reducing strategy that can cause more problems than it solves.

Resources

If you want to quit smoking or reduce your tobacco use, you can follow a cessation program. Cessation programs can double your chances of quitting. The BC Ministry of Health's BC Smoking Cessation Program offers free tobacco cessation aids to eligible BC residents who wish to stop smoking or using other tobacco products.

There is also information targeted to specific age groups.

Smoking during pregnancy may increase the risk of:

  • Low birth weight
  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth
  • Preterm labour
  • Problems with the placenta
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Babies exposed to smoke after birth tend to get sick more often and have more breathing problems.


Quitting smoking at any time during pregnancy reduces the risk for your baby. Many programs are available to help pregnant women quit smoking. Ask your doctor or midwife for information on quitting smoking or reducing your tobacco use.


Resources
 

As a parent, you play an important role in how your child views tobacco use. 


You can set a positive example by talking openly and honestly about tobacco with your children and setting a positive example with your own tobacco-related behaviours.


Resources
 

Most people who use tobacco start in their teens. Smokers who start at a younger age are more likely to become regular and heavier smokers. They are also less likely to quit. If you don't start to smoke during adolescence, you're unlikely to ever become a smoker.


If you are a parent of a teen, you play an important role in how they view tobacco use. It's important to set a positive example by not smoking and by having open and honest discussions about how tobacco and other substances can harm them.


Resources

  • Hi5living.org – a cancer-prevention website for school-age youth that includes information about tobacco. 
  • Drugcocktails.cacreated for youth to help them get the facts about the effects and risks of mixing medications they take with substances like cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and other street drugs. 


 

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