Health Effects of Meth

Prolonged use of meth has severe psychological and physical effects on the user. In addition, individuals who produce meth and others who are exposed to meth lab sites or toxic waste products can suffer serious health consequences.

Psychological Effects

The major presenting problems for methamphetamine users are psychological:

  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal ideation

Paranoia can progress from mild suspiciousness to a well-developed paranoid delusional condition with auditory hallucinations that often make users clinically indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenics.

Usually, psychotic symptoms occur only during or following extended binges of meth use with long-term sleep deprivation. For some people, “delusional flashbacks” occur during extended periods of sobriety. The paranoia and irritability that result from chronic methamphetamine use can lead to domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, shootings, and knifings.

Chronic use can also lead to persistent symptoms of depression and anxiety. Suicide attempts can occur, especially when an individual is coming down from an extended period of use.

A significant negative consequence of prolonged methamphetamine use is that during the first four to six months after stopping use of the drug − and for some people, even longer − there is a profound inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia). Many recovering methamphetamine users say, “If this is how it’s going to feel to be sober for the rest of my life, I can’t live like this.” These feelings are among the most critical contributing factors to relapse, so it is important to educate clients that for most people, this condition improves with extended sobriety.

Physical Effects

Chronic use of methamphetamine changes the brain.

  • Parts of the brain develop a tolerance to the drug, leading users to take higher doses.
  • However, other parts of the brain become oversensitized to methamphetamine, so that with long-term use, even small amounts of the drug can produce delusions and hallucinations.
  • Methamphetamine also affects the brain by reducing mental flexibility and the ability to manipulate information, solve problems and think abstractly.
  • Recent brain imaging studies have revealed the actual structural damage that methamphetamine inflicts on the brain.

Regular methamphetamine use also can lead to numerous cardiovascular problems, including increased heart rate and blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.

  • Smoking methamphetamine can lead to pulmonary hypertension or edema, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and other lung ailments.
  • Acute methamphetamine intoxication or overdose can lead to severe hyperthermia and convulsions, renal failure, strokes, and heart attacks.

Injecting methamphetamine puts the drug (which is usually made in nonsterile conditions) and any impurities directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the body’s defense systems. This can lead to an infection of the heart or hepatitis C infection. The rate of hepatitis C virus among a recently studied sample of methamphetamine injectors was 43.8 percent.

In addition, methamphetamine injectors often develop severe infections at injection sites. Rates of HIV are relatively low among heterosexual methamphetamine users at this time. However, studies report high-risk sexual behaviors among samples of methamphetamine- using heterosexual men, women and rural residents, so those rates may increase. The drug-related sexual practices of men who have sex with men (MSM) and use methamphetamine place them at high risk for HIV.

  • Methamphetamine use affects the skin and the mouth.
  • Methamphetamine causes the skin to feel tingly due to blood vessel constriction. This can lead to vigorous scratching.
  • Chronic users frequently believe the tingling is caused by bugs crawling under their skin.
  • Compulsive scratching and even digging under the skin to remove the “meth bugs” often takes place at this stage and can seriously disfigure the skin and cause permanent damage.
  • “Meth mouth,” the rapid decay of teeth and gums, is caused by the acidic nature of the drug, lowered saliva production, methamphetamine-related cravings for sugary soft drinks, poor dental hygiene, and other methamphetamine effects.