During the past two decades, illicit methamphetamine – also known as crystal meth – has presented one of the largest and most dangerous drug epidemics in America. This extremely powerful stimulant, which can be smoked, injected, snorted, or eaten, produces a rapid and intense high that’s brief enough to keep users coming back for more. The result is a strong addiction and days-long binges, encouraged by the development of tolerance that makes meth users require more and more of the drug over time. And while meth use has decreased slightly in recent years, it remains a significant public health issue: In 2013, more than half a million Americans reported using meth within the past month, and the DEA has seized more than a thousand kilograms of meth in the U.S. every year since 1997, peaking at nearly 5,000 kg seized in 2013 and remaining at almost 3,000 kg in 2014.
This highly addictive drug also poses a heavy risk of damaging one’s health in a variety of ways. The effects of meth can impact several crucial organ systems and cause long-term harm to the body, and the sharing of needles sometimes used for the injection of meth presents even greater dangers. Meth users face an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, liver damage, immune suppression, and even Parkinson’s disease, and these conditions can be potentially fatal. Make no mistake: Chronic meth abuse can have a permanent impact on a person’s health, even after quitting. Read on to see how different parts of the body are affected by methamphetamine use.
The Effects of Meth on the Brain
Meth’s impact on the brain is widespread and severe. One of the most dangerous risks meth use poses is an increased chance of stroke, a condition in which blood flow is cut off to an area of the brain, resulting in tissue death and potentially permanent brain damage. This can lead to memory loss, partial or total paralysis, loss of speech, cognitive impairment, and even death.
Meth also has a strong effect on neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. The “high” feeling of methamphetamine is produced by an excessive release of these chemicals, which rapidly depletes the brain’s supply. In the long term, this overstimulation of dopamine- and serotonin-releasing brain cells can lead to their destruction, with an accompanying decline in dopamine levels and greater difficulty experiencing pleasure (which can lead to depression). This is yet another form of brain damage that can result from meth use.
In addition to the loss of these key neurons, chronic meth use can also produce abnormalities in the substantia nigra area of the midbrain. This can place users at more than triple the risk for actually developing Parkinson’s disease, and for women, this risk may be nearly five times greater. This condition compromises the body’s ability to control its muscle movements.
Methamphetamine’s effects on brain cells can further lead to the development of psychosis, with symptoms such as hallucinations and paranoia that are very similar to those of schizophrenia. Although these symptoms may resolve over 1–6 months after quitting, some meth users find that they persist in the long term, and relapse of psychotic symptoms can occur even after a long period of abstinence.
The Effects of Meth on Muscles
Chronic meth use can lead to a variety of effects on the musculoskeletal system of the body – ranging from relatively benign to quite dangerous. On the mild end of the spectrum, meth use can result in an increase in deep tendon reflexes or “hyperreflexive” state. More seriously, frequent meth use can elicit generalized, involuntary myoclonus, or muscle twitching/tremors, as well as troublesome repetitive or “stereotypic” movements.
While the precise cause isn’t always known (and can potentially result from a combination of increased body temperature, dehydration, increased muscle movements as previously mentioned, and trauma to the musculature that otherwise would not occur in sober individuals, as well as direct toxic activity of the substance on muscle cells), methamphetamine abuse has been linked to a quite serious condition known as rhabdomyolysis. This condition involves the rapid destruction of muscle tissue, with a potential toxic release of the contents of the damaged cells into the bloodstream. Methamphetamine-induced rhabdomyolysis can result in widespread muscle pain, wild fluctuations of serum electrolytes, and – if not caught and treated early enough – irreversible kidney failure.
The Effects of Meth on Teeth
Meth is particularly infamous for its visibly harmful impact on oral health. The damage it causes is so extensive that “meth mouth” has become common shorthand for this meth-induced decay, and a variety of factors work together to produce this damage. Meth use can lead to dry mouth, and a lack of saliva can reduce the body’s ability to fend off cavity-causing bacteria. It can also cause compulsive grinding of the teeth, which can wear them down over time. In combination with neglect of nutrition and regular oral hygiene due to being high, meth users can often experience severe tooth decay, cracked teeth, and even tooth loss. This damage also isn’t limited to the teeth: The gums can experience extensive erosion and recession as well.
The Effects of Meth on the Heart
Meth’s stimulant effects can substantially raise users’ heart rates, and over time, excessive and chronic use of meth can produce heart palpitations. This alarming symptom is typically experienced as a powerful pounding feeling in the chest or neck. Meth use can also lead to the development of an arrhythmia, also known as an irregular heartbeat. These can feel like a “skipped” heartbeat, and if the arrhythmia becomes severe, it can lead to lightheadedness, collapse, or even cardiac arrest.
Overuse of meth can raise blood pressure as well, and over time, chronic high blood pressure can damage arteries, causing them to harden and block blood flow to various organs. The symptoms can be silent as damage occurs – and meth users may not be aware of the harm to their bodies until it’s too late.
The Effects of Meth on the Respiratory System
Meth abuse has a variety of effects on the lungs and respiratory system. The stimulant effects of methamphetamine lead to rapid breathing, potentially causing lightheadedness and fainting. Smoking meth can also result in coughing up blood due to bleeding in the alveoli, the portion of the lungs responsible for gas exchange with the blood supply. Meth use is further associated with pulmonary hypertension due to the destruction of small pulmonary blood vessels, and pulmonary edema.
Snorting meth can lead to violent coughing and respiratory trauma, such as a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) and the release of air into the body outside of the lungs (pneumomediastinum) . When meth is inhaled, its impurities can be deposited in the lungs, forming granulomas and leading to interstitial lung disease.
The Effects of Meth on the Skin
Meth use can lead people to pick at their skin as a compulsive behavior, often due to psychosis, delusions, and the feeling that bugs are crawling under their skin. Continual and repetitive scratching of the arms and face can lead to the development of numerous open sores, which can then become infected. An appearance of rapid aging can also occur as a result of severe acne, a loss of skin elasticity, and the development of a “leathery” skin texture. All of these factors can cause meth users to have a generally unhealthy-appearing complexion.
The Effects of Meth on Weight
As a powerful stimulant, meth functions as an appetite suppressant, and it has historically been used as a diet pill. However, meth is far from just a harmless diet aid. Meth users experience a severe loss of appetite and often neglect to eat regularly, potentially going days without food. Because meth also speeds up the body’s metabolism, this can lead to rapid weight loss so severe that meth users may take on an emaciated appearance.
The Effects of Meth on the Liver and Gastrointestinal System
Methamphetamine abusers sometimes use needles to inject the drug, and they may also share needles with other users due to the expense and difficulty of obtaining new needles each time they use meth. The practice of needle sharing can easily spread blood-borne diseases from one user to another, and hepatitis B and C are two commonly transmitted conditions. Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, can cause progressive damage over time, and may lead to jaundice, cirrhosis, bleeding, and nervous system damage.
The blood vessel constriction caused by methamphetamine use can cut off blood flow to the bowel, potentially leading to the death of bowel tissue. This can cause perforation of the intestinal wall and peritonitis, a potentially fatal infection of the abdominal cavity that can progress to septic shock.
The Effects of Meth on the Immune System
Meth usage can also affect the functioning of bodily systems in more subtle ways. Using meth has the potential to suppress the immune system and may reduce the body’s ability to resist and fight off disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This can leave meth users chronically vulnerable to various infectious illnesses.
Worse still, needle sharing among users who inject meth can also spread HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV degrades the cells of the immune system over time, and this can leave meth users even less protected from contracting any number of diseases.
Hope for Those Struggling With Meth Addiction
Methamphetamine is an extremely addictive drug, and the compulsion for continued use can be tough to overcome alone. With each passing day, meth users progressively accumulate far reaching damage to their health, compromising their bodies, minds and their future. Meth addiction might feel hopeless to those actively struggling with it, but help is available. With the proper professional treatment, a healthy recovery is possible. If you or someone you know is struggling with methamphetamine abuse or dependence, and want to hear more about meth detox, rehabilitation and recovery options, call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers?. With the right help, you can take your life back from the ravages of substance abuse.
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