On February 12, the 54th annual GRAMMY Awards paid tribute to music legend Whitney Houston, who died the previous night at the young age of 48. Early reports suggest that a deadly mix of prescription drugs and alcohol were the cause of Houston’s death, though toxicology results are still pending. It is well known that the six-time GRAMMY winner battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Michael Jackson…Amy Winehouse…and now Whitney Houston. Legendary singers who seemed to have it all—talent, charisma, fame, money, power, family support. And yet, they could not overcome their addiction to drugs. That’s because addiction doesn’t care if you’re famous or rich—once you’re in its grip, the experience is similar for many of the 20 million people in the United States today who struggle with this brain disease.
Why Do People Continue To Take Drugs?
Why do people continue to abuse drugs and, in some cases, combine them with alcohol, when so many others have fallen from doing so? Although Houston entered rehab three times, she is a perfect example of why addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary—but after that, a combination of genetics and environment will write the rest of the story. Some people will become addicted and will find it impossible to stop taking drugs without help. Addiction changes the brain’s structure and how it works. Brain imaging studies from people who are addicted to drugs show physical changes that not only affect feelings of pleasure but also judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and self-control. That may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors that characterize addiction.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Prescription Drugs?
One of the greatest myths about prescription drugs is that, because doctors prescribe them, they are safer to abuse than illegal drugs. But as prescription drugs have become more available, more people are literally dying from their abuse. In fact, every year in the United States, more people die from an accidental overdose of painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined.
The word “prescription” is not the same as the word “safe,” especially when alcohol is added, which can affect heart rhythm, slow respiration, and even lead to death.
Resources To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse
Although we can be saddened by Houston’s passing, we can also take a thoughtful look at her experience and learn from it.
NIDA offers many resources so you can learn the science behind what prescription drug abuse does to your brain and body. Are you curious how the choice to abuse prescription drugs could play out? Check out NIDA’s Choose Your Path videos to put yourself in the shoes of a story’s main character.
We do not yet know exactly how Whitney Houston died. We can only guess that her drug abuse and addiction may have contributed to her death. We do know that addiction was a major blow to her life, career, family, friends, and fans, all of whom are experiencing the sad consequences.
In March 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office reported that Whitney Houston’s official cause of death was accidental drowning. Cocaine use and heart disease were contributing factors in her death.
The coroner believes that cocaine use caused Whitney to suffer heart problems (she already had heart disease), which led her to become unconscious. Bruises on her forehead, chest, and upper lip suggest that she fell into the bathtub, where she drowned.
The six-time Grammy winner also had marijuana, the prescription drugs Xanax and Flexeril, and the over-the-counter medicine Benadryl in her bloodstream, though the coroner does not believe they played a role in her death.
Cocaine Can Lead to Scary Side Effects
Cocaine is a stimulant—a class of drugs that elevate mood, boost feelings of well-being and euphoria, and increase energy and alertness. Stimulants make a person feel good by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, but they also have some nasty side effects. Short-term effects can include increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; dilated pupils; nausea; blurred vision; muscle spasms; and confusion.
With repeated use, cocaine can lead to addiction (something Whitney struggled with for years), which changes how the brain works and makes it more difficult to feel any pleasure at all. People who abuse cocaine are forced to take more and more of the drug to experience the same effects as they did at first. Regularly snorting cocaine can lead to other long-term effects such as a hoarse voice, loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, and a chronically runny nose. Whitney’s famous voice was noticeably damaged in recent years, and the autopsy showed she had a hole inside her nose from repeated cocaine use.
Cocaine and Heart Disease
Another long-term effect of abusing cocaine is heart damage. Stimulants cause the body’s blood vessels to narrow, limiting blood flow and forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. It also restricts blood flow to the heart, killing some of the heart muscle.
Because the effects of cocaine are worse on arteries that are already damaged, people who have heart disease—like Whitney did—suffer most from the effects. The chance of having heart trouble, such as a heart attack, also increases.
Unfortunately, Whitney’s cocaine abuse ultimately led her to suffer the worst effect of the drug—death. We hope that people can learn from her experience and avoid the same tragedy.
Did Whitney’s death change the way you or your friends think about drugs? Tell us in the comments how her death affected you.