What is Methamphetamine & How Addictive is it?

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Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system (CNS). 

Meth comes in three primary forms:

  • Speed, which appears as a fine white powder
  • Crystal meth, which has a rock-like appearance
  • Base, which appears as an oily and thick brownish-yellow substance

As is the case with other illicit drug use types, tolerance to methamphetamine’s pleasurable effects develops when taken repeatedly. Meth addicts need to take higher doses of the drug, take it more frequently, or change how they take it to get the desired effect. Chronic meth users may develop difficulty feeling any pleasure other than that provided by the drug, fueling further abuse.

In the United States, over 1.5 million Americans struggle with meth addiction.

Symptoms of Meth Addiction

Individuals who take methamphetamine exhibit physical symptoms, whether the person is new to taking the drug or physically dependent on it. Physical effects of meth use include:

  • Becoming thin or frail
  • Facial acne or sores
  • Rotting teeth
  • Sagging skin
  • Convulsions or ‘tweaking’
  • Liver damage
  • Stroke
  • Lowered immunity
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased libido 
  • Intense scratching
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Memory loss
  • Violent behavior
  • Weight loss
  • Repetitive motor activity
  • Changes in brain function
  • Mood changes

Methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, they are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Severe depression
  • Psychosis
  • Intense drug cravings

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How Meth Negatively Affects The Body

Meth can have negative psychological and physical effects on the body:

Psychological Effects

Four common psychological effects of meth use include:

Visual and auditory hallucinations

Meth use can cause auditory, visual, or tactic hallucinations, making a person hear, see, or feel things that don’t exist.

Delusions

Meth use can cause delusions or strange, unrealistic, or false beliefs. A common methamphetamine delusion is a parasitosis, in which patients feel like insects are crawling on their skin.

Paranoia

Meth use increases brain activity, which can result in paranoid thoughts and rumination. When combined with hallucinations, paranoia may cause a meth user to become overly suspicious of those around them and may even believe that people are out to get them.

Aggression

When someone experiences meth psychosis’ effects, such as paranoia or delusions, the increased energy and hyperactivity that occurs due to meth use may lead to aggressive or violent behavior.

Physical Effects

Three common physical effects of meth use include:

Teeth & Gums (Meth Mouth)

Long-term meth use can lead to severe dental problems, otherwise known as “meth mouth.” People who use meth can break, stain, or rot their teeth. They often drink lots of sweet things, grind their teeth, and have dry mouth.

According to the American Dental Association, meth mouth is caused by a combination of meth’s physical and psychological effects. Meth addicts often experience xerostomia (dry mouth), extended periods of poor oral hygiene, and bruxism (teeth grinding), which, when combined, can lead to tooth decay.

Skin Changes

Methamphetamine use can cause acne due to the drug’s effects of dry skin and extreme itchiness. Because meth can also cause a delusion of ‘bugs crawling under the skin,’ meth addicts often engage in obsessive scratching and picking at the skin, which results in sores and facial scarring. The physical stress and frequent illnesses common of a meth addict cause the skin to appear pale. Patients who smoke meth are more likely to develop wrinkles and gain a rough, coriaceous texture to their skin.

Facial Muscular Culture & Fat (Undernourishment)

Methamphetamine suppresses appetite and can lead to undernourishment. When weight loss is dramatic, the body begins to consume muscle tissue and facial fat, giving meth users a gaunt, skeletal appearance.

Exaggerated Aging

Due to the combination of skin issues, facial muscle loss, hygiene neglect, and oral decay, a meth addict will often appear much older than they are. Methamphetamine use can weaken the immune system over long periods and make it ineffective against illness and injury. A lowered immune system contributes to premature aging.

Because many meth users also abuse other drugs, this further increases toxins and the premature aging process, escalating the aging process even more rapidly.

What is Meth Head Syndrome? 

An individual addicted to meth is often referred to as a ‘meth head’ or a ‘tweaker.’ Chronic abuse of methamphetamine causes long-term brain changes that control memory, mood, and motor coordination. These long-term effects are called ‘Meth head syndrome.’

Causes & Symptoms of Meth Head Syndrome 

Methamphetamine causes protracted physiological and psychological problems caused by the drug’s impact on neural pathways. Long-term meth use produces a significantly reduced density of critical dopamine transporter molecules. In other words, methamphetamine changes the availability of dopamine in the brain, which contributes to many mental health disorders. The more prolonged and more severe the meth use, the more severe the resulting psychiatric symptoms.

Other symptoms of meth head syndrome include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Anxiety and psychotic episodes
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of reasoning power
  • Extreme paranoia
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Engaging in violent or criminal behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicide

Treatment for Meth Abuse & Addiction

If you or a loved one struggles with meth abuse and addiction, you should immediately seek addiction treatment. Many physical symptoms—including advanced aging effects, tooth decay, and other health problems caused by meth use—are difficult to reverse, and the damage is often permanent.

Methamphetamine can also take a significant toll on mental health and cause psychosis. Meth users often lose contact with reality and cannot truly realize the damage they are doing to themselves. The addicted person must receive treatment or suffer these physical and mental health effects, as well as destroyed relationships, financial poverty, and criminal charges.

To support a loved one struggling with addiction, family members should consult with a healthcare professional. A professional can help train you to approach the addicted person and persuade them to seek treatment.

The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction include behavioral therapies and medication. One study of patients with methamphetamine use disorder treated with naltrexone and bupropion had a success rate of over 13%, which is a similar success rate to other medications used to treat brain disorders.

Available treatment programs for meth addiction include inpatient, outpatient, detox, and partial hospitalization programs (PHP). The best treatment depends on the patient’s individual needs and the severity of their addiction, assessed by a healthcare professional.

To learn more about the best treatments for meth use or another drug addiction, contact an addiction specialist.

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Resources +

“Effects of Meth on Brains and Bodies.” Easy to Read Drug Facts, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Sept. 2019, https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/content/effects-meth-brains-and-bodies

Frieden, Joyce. “Skin Manifestations May Signal Crystal Meth Use.” Familypracticenews.com, Pfizer Labs, 15 Jan. 2006, https://cdn.mdedge.com/files/s3fs-public/issues/articles/72526_main.pdf

“How Meth Destroys The Body.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/body/

“How Methamphetamine Destroys Your Face and Physical Appearance.” ABC13 Houston, KTRK-TV, 24 Feb. 2017, https://abc13.com/methamphetamine-meth-abuse-faces-of/1688177/

Hunt, Dana, et al. “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned.”  NCJRS.gov, NCJRS, Feb. 2006, www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/209730.pdf

Mann, Brian. “A Medical Treatment For Meth Addiction Proves Effective In New Study.” NPR, NPR, 14 Jan. 2021, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/01/14/956785847/a-medical-treatment-for-meth-addiction-proves-effective-in-new-trial 

“Meth and Heart Disease: A Deadly Crisis We Don't Fully Fathom, Report Says.” Www.heart.org, American Heart Association, Inc, 21 Aug. 2019, www.heart.org/en/news/2019/08/21/meth-and-heart-disease-a-deadly-crisis-we-dont-fully-fathom-report-says 

NIDA. "Methamphetamine DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16 May. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine

NIDA. "What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine misuse?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8 Sep. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-are-long-term-effects-methamphetamine-misuse 

NIDA. "What is methamphetamine?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 3 Jun. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-methamphetamine

NIDA. "What treatments are effective for people who misuse methamphetamine?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9 Apr. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-treatments-are-effective-people-who-misuse-methamphetamine 

 “Patterns and Characteristics of Methamphetamine Use Among Adults - United States, 2015–2018.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Mar. 2020, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912a1.htm

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