Wash your hands, cough into your elbow and don’t take MDMA – advice for a pandemic

Image, blue stained macrophages under a microscope

As COVID-19 progresses through New Zealand it’s important to understand how we all have a responsibility to help protect ourselves and others. We each have a responsibility to both stop the spread and flatten the curve, and part of that is being aware there are some ways that taking MDMA can increase your risk of infection.

How can MDMA increase your risk of contracting COVID-19?  

External: where you are and how you act  

  • The environment you take it in – crowded parties or packed festivals with close contact to multiple people around you makes disease transmission far easier. While we are at Level 4 this shouldn’t be a consideration, but remember one of the most effective ways to minimise the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing.
  • The changes to your behaviour – empathogenic effects of MDMA can lead to feelings of closeness and craving for interpersonal intimacy. This makes social distancing harder to practice when using MDMA.

Internal: what happens inside your body 

MDMA is an immunosuppressant, meaning it temporarily weakens your immune system.

How? You can think of MDMA as changing the “chemical background” under which your immune system functions. It makes sense that a substance that would change your brain’s chemistry would also change the chemistry of other parts of your body. 

This change of the chemical background leads to suppression of the activity of disease fighting cells. It also alters patterns of release for chemicals that transport information around your body about where infection is, and the most effective way to fight it. 

Remember COVID-19 affects people with weakened immune systems more harshly. Weakening your immune system makes you both more likely to both contract and spread the virus.

The immunosuppressant effects of MDMA last for about the same length of time as the drug stays in your body – up to 48 hours.

Long term effects of MDMA on the immune system. 

People that take MDMA regularly tend to have higher rates of general illness and infection. A 2002 study from the Recreational Drugs Research Group of East London University found that 9% of people that took MDMA 10-99 times, and 35% of people that took MDMA over 100 times reported increased infections. If you take MDMA on a regular basis consider yourself more vulnerable to illness and make sure to follow the Ministry Of Health recommendations to keep yourself safe.

image, large number of yellow pressed MDMA pills in the shape of Iron Man's helmet
If you’re going to take them, save them for Level 1! Image by Know Your Stuff CC-BY-NC-ND

Harm reduction for the next few months 

Remember that the only way to guarantee safety from drug harm is to not use drugs. Due to COVID-19 this is especially true right now, as the risk of harm to both you and your community are increased.

However if you choose to take MDMA, we suggest you do the following:

  • Treat taking drugs similarly to preparing food: Wash your hands for 20 seconds, and wipe down all surfaces that will come into contact with what you are going to take
  • Avoid snorting MDMA. Sharing straws or banknotes is a surefire way of passing viruses on to your friends, as well as damaging the lining of your nostrils which makes you more susceptible to infection. Don’t share other equipment such as bongs, pipes, straws, etc
  • After taking MDMA, your immune system will be compromised for at least 48 hours. Be extra cautious and double down on Ministry of Health guidelines for safety. The highest risk to you is while you’re high, as this is when the effects on your immune system are strongest. 
  • Ideally you will already have the next day set aside for comedown. Consider extending and using this time to keep yourself socially isolated and let your body readjust. 
  • Remember that MDMA causes hypersociability, but now is not the time for group hugs, cuddle puddles or other forms of close contact with people outside your bubble. Social distancing is here to stay for the next little while, so avoid large crowds such as festivals or parties where you will come into close contact with large amounts of people.

Remember that this is not just about avoiding getting sick yourself. COVID-19 spreads very effectively from person to person, so risks you take are not just personal, but they could affect other people and members of your community. Stay in your bubble and look out for your friends, neighbours, and fellow humans. This will pass and we have to keep ourselves and the people around us safe until it does.

Sources and further reading
(American/opioid based but still key points) 

Acute effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine alone and in combination with ethanol on the immune system in humans.

Ecstasy/MDMA attributed problems reported by novice, moderate and heavy recreational users.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘Ecstasy’)-induced immunosuppression: a cause for concern?

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ‘Ecstasy’): a stressor on the immune system


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