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Ketamine is becoming more popular but there is a real risk that it can cause long-term bladder damage. Here’s what you need to know.

Ketamine is a sedative drug, or dissociative anaesthetic. That means people who take ketamine can experience a sense of detachment from their body and surroundings. It was originally developed in the 1960s for medical use, but its psychedelic effects made it popular as a recreational drug. Like MDMA and GBL, it’s often used as a party drug, for example at music festivals.

Ketamine is also known as Ket, K, Special K, Vitamin K, or Wonk. It is typically bought as a fine white, or off-white, powder which is usually snorted.

While there are a number of risks that come with taking ketamine, a serious long-term effect can be a condition known as ketamine cystitis, or ketamine bladder syndrome.

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What is ketamine cystitis?

Ketamine cystitis is a form of urinary tract infection that affects the bladder. When ketamine and its metabolites enter the bladder, they damage the epithelial cells of the bladder lining. These cells are designed to contain the urine, but if they become too damaged, urine can seep through, reaching the inner layers of the bladder wall and causing deeper damage.

According to the Global Drug Survey, 1 in 4 regular ketamine users report urinary symptoms It’s a fairly new reported side effect of ketamine, first documented in 2007. Long term use of ketamine can also damage the gallbladder, which contains epithelial cells, and there’s growing evidence to suggest it can damage a number of other organs as well.

What are the symptoms of ketamine cystitis?

Symptoms of ketamine cystitis can include:

  • Increased urinary frequency.
  • Increased urgency.
  • Pressure and pain behind the pelvic bone.

If damage continues, these symptoms can get worse and someone may also experience incontinence and blood in their urine. Bladder capacity can also shrink as the cells in the bladder wall become stiff and unable to expand.

In serious cases, this can result in someone needing a partial or full bladder removal, and renal failure resulting in dialysis.

Ketamine cystitis can be a debilitating and permanent condition if the bladder becomes so damaged it’s unable to repair itself.

If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of ketamine cystitis, the best thing to do is stop using ketamine and seek medical advice. There are treatments for ketamine cystitis, both to relieve pain as well as to heal the bladder. Support and resources are also available from the Ketamine Cystitis Network.

Be careful: Because ketamine is a pain reliever, some people with ketamine cystitis have reported that before they realized what was going on, they would use ketamine more often to relieve their bladder pain, which only caused more damage and more pain in the long run.

If you’re worried about your own drinking or drug taking, you can reach out to the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797, or text 8681. You'll be able to speak with a trained counsellor who can provide you with helpful information, insight and support. They’re available 24/7, all calls are free and confidential. You can also chat to the Alcohol Drug Helpline team online through the website.