Methamphetamine (meth) is an extremely addictive stimulant that is often used as an illicit, recreational drug. The powerful central nervous system drug was once used in medicine more frequently, and today it’s still used in weight-loss drugs because of its ability to suppress one’s appetite. In some cases, it can also be used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. It is chemically similar to amphetamines that are more commonly used to treat those ailments.
Today, meth is primarily used for its potent euphoric effects, but the drug can take a significant toll. While powerful stimulants can have detrimental psychological effects like psychosis, anxiety, and depression, they can also have a negative impact on your body. Learn more about how meth can affect your physical health.
Why Do People Use Meth?
A first-time meth user may experience a powerful sense of euphoria and empowerment. The drug’s pleasant effects may encourage one to use it again, though subsequent uses may not be as powerfully pleasant. Meth’s nature also encourages binge use. Its effects can last for hours, but the intense euphoria may only last a few minutes. You’ll still feel alert, focused, and stimulated after that, but you may also feel uncomfortable symptoms like paranoia, restlessness, and agitation.
In order to stave off the uncomfortable comedown period and continue the powerful euphoric effects, many people engage in a meth binge in which they take several doses in a row. This can lead to insomnia and days of sleeplessness. When a lack of sleep is mixed with a meth binge, you can increase your risk of experiencing something called stimulant psychosis. Stimulant psychosis is a set of symptoms that’s similar to what someone with schizophrenia might feel. Symptoms can include hallucinations and delusions.
Once you’ve developed a meth-related substance use problem, it’s very difficult to quit. Meth can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, including severe depression and fatigue. It can also make other sources of pleasure and reward feel dull so that only meth brings you a reliable sense of pleasure. However, meth addiction is treatable, and these feelings can improve.
Meth is a prevalent issue in the United States, and the physical toll it takes on people has contributed to public health problems in many areas. It’s one of the most frequently misused stimulants in the United States and may even be more frequently misused than opioids in some areas of the country. Meth use has increased over the past several years. While the opioid crisis is a serious concern, meth has continued to be a problem in many states, such as California, and some areas may experience more meth-related overdose deaths than are caused by powerful opioids like fentanyl.
In 2017, 1.6 million people reported that they used meth within the past year, and 774,000 said they used it within the past month. A 2021 report from the National Institutes of Health discovered even more concerning trends with a dramatic increase in methamphetamine overdoses across every demographic, especially among Native Indians and Alaskan Natives.
Indirect Effects on the Body
Many of the most disturbing physical effects usually associated with meth are actually indirect effects of the drug. In other words, the chemical does not cause them inherently, but it may lead to behaviors or actions that can cause them. Some of these indirect effects of meth are more a symptom of addiction that can also be seen in someone that’s addicted to different kinds of drugs, such as opioids or alcohol.
People who use meth for extended periods often have significant dental problems like tooth decay, lost teeth, blackened or stained teeth, and broken teeth. However, unlike sugar, meth doesn’t cause your teeth to decay directly. One study of 571 meth users found that almost all of them (96%) had some tooth decay, and around 6% had fewer than 10 teeth.
Several factors may contribute to poor dental health in people who use meth. One major factor is bruxism, a medical term for jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Some conditions and certain drugs, like meth, can cause bruxism unconsciously or involuntarily. Clenching can grind your teeth over and over. After months or years of meth use can wear away your enamel or chip away at your teeth. This can make your teeth more vulnerable to decay and infection.
Poor hygiene is another factor. Addiction hijacks the reward center of your brain and causes you to prioritize finding and taking meth over other important aspects of life. As you do, many of your daily tasks, your brain offers little chemical rewards. Even if a task feels boring or routine, you may have a low level of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals in your system that motivate you as you go about your day. Meth offers a powerful sense of immediate reward. When you become addicted, getting that huge reward takes up all your thoughts, and normal tasks like cleaning yourself and brushing your teeth are neglected.
Weight Loss and Malnutrition
Meth is used as a weight loss medication because it can suppress your appetite. Plus, the same effects of addiction that make you neglect to brush your teeth may also cause you to neglect a healthy diet. People who use meth for long periods may start to lose too much weight too quickly. Many people who enter addiction treatment present with issues related to malnutrition.
As a stimulant drug, meth can cause you to lose weight because of your lowered appetite and your focus on getting and using meth. Appetite and the reward of eating is an important function of your brain’s reward system. It encourages you to seek life-sustaining food by causing you to associate eating with pleasant feelings of reward. However, meth can suppress your appetite and the reward you get from other stimuli. Amphetamines that are used to treat ADHD can also cause you to lose weight for similar reasons.
Skin Issues, Rashes, Sores
Meth use is often associated with sores and scars on a person’s face, arms, and hands. This is one of the most alarming physical effects of meth, but it’s another indirect consequence of meth use. However, it’s unique to meth more than other symptoms of addiction. Powerful stimulants like meth can cause muscle twitching and small twitches called fasciculations. These twitches can feel like something touching or crawling on your skin.
When this is combined with stimulant psychosis and hallucinations, someone on meth may feel there are actual bugs crawling on their skin. This can cause people to compulsively scratch themselves, leading to abrasions and sores. Meth can also weaken your immune system, which can lead to infections that cause small cuts and scrapes to leave lasting scars.
Direct Physical Effects on the Body
While some of meth’s most disturbing bodily effects come from indirect causes, some of its direct causes can be deadly. Both long and short-term meth use can cause life-threatening effects in your body. Here are some of the ways meth can have a physical effect on your brain and body.
Meth can cause a physical change in your brain that leads to a psychological symptom. Meth floods the brain with dopamine by increasing the amount of dopamine that’s released and preventing your brain from reabsorbing and recycling the chemical. This dopamine bombardment can damage dopamine receptors, which can make it difficult for you to feel reward or pleasure. Damaged dopamine receptors can worsen dependence and addiction by making it so that only meth can produce feelings of pleasure. People who stop using meth often feel a symptom called anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. This can cause depression and thoughts of suicide.
Meth can cause serious cardiovascular problems, and some of them can damage your heart over time. Powerful stimulating effects can cause a rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, increase blood pressure, and even hypertension. Long-term meth use and binging can put a tremendous amount of stress on your heart. An increased heart rate with high blood pressure can lead to heart damage over time. However, even new users can experience heart damage. High doses of meth can cause your heart to become overworked. Heart failure is a common cause of death during an overdose.
Brain Damage and Strokes
The toll meth can take on your heart can also affect your brain. Increases blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and changes in your heart rate can affect how your blood flows in the body. If your brain doesn’t receive enough blood, you can have a stroke, which is when parts of your brain are damaged by a lake of oxygen. Meth can also be toxic and damaging to blood vessels, which can lead to ruptures. A rupture can cause a specific kind of stroke called a hemorrhagic stroke, which is when a blood vessel leaks so not enough blood reaches the brain.
Even in healthy young adults, meth can cause another kind of stroke called an ischemic stroke. This is caused by spasms that abruptly close blood vessels and prevent blood flow to the brain. Strokes can be fatal, but they can also cause long-lasting or permanent brain damage, coma, cognitive impairments, and physical impairments.