In 2014, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, about 569,000 people were current users of methamphetamine – a highly addictive, illicit, stimulant drug. Typically, more than twice that number try meth yearly. People who abuse crystal meth display some of the most obvious physical symptoms of any drug users. Terms like meth mouth and crank sores have been used to describe some of the effects regular use of methamphetamines can cause to teeth and skin.
In addition, some of the less obvious physical effects of crystal meth use can be severe, resulting in illnesses and injuries that further damage a person’s physical appearance and ability to function physically. Recognizing these signs and their causes can help in recognizing when a person is addicted to methamphetamines.
What Is Crystal Meth?
Crystal meth is just like it sounds: a crystalized form of methamphetamine, a stimulant drug that causes the user to experience a state of euphoria, or extreme pleasure. In its crystal form, the drug is smoked or injected, which allows it to go quickly to the brain in high concentrations. This results in a fast onset of the high, which then only lasts for a few minutes.
According to WebMD, methamphetamine was first used as a legitimate prescription to promote alertness, positive mood, and appetite suppression. A version of it is still used, though rarely, to treat attention deficit disorders. However, the highly addictive nature of this drug results in many people developing a tolerance to it, which means that, as the body adjusts to the drug, more and more is needed produce the same level of effect.
How Crystal Meth Affects the Brain and Body
As described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, methamphetamine affects the brain by bonding to pleasure receptors, creating an elevated sense of wellbeing, heightened awareness, and energy, and a perceived decrease in the need for food or sleep. When smoked or injected, this pleasure comes on quickly, in what is described as a “rush” of euphoria.
The quick development of tolerance to meth seems to result from the fact that, as described by the journal Brain Research, continued use of the drug causes a reduction in the body’s natural production of the hormone responsible for feeling pleasure – dopamine – as well as a decrease in the number of those pleasure receptors, where dopamine can attach and work. In turn, this means that the person will become less able to feel natural pleasure over time, and more of the drug is needed to be able to feel good at all. This inability to feel pleasure is called anhedonia, and it creates intense cravings for the drug.
Physically, the drug results in increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and breathing. These, in turn, contribute to physical changes and sensations that, in a relatively short period of time, can result in dramatic changes in appearance.
The Face of Crystal Meth
The physical and psychological effects of meth described above produce a number of consequences that lead to visible physical changes in the person using meth, particularly for the skin and teeth. As reported by research through the television program Frontline, high blood pressure and heart rate, poor sleep and diet, tooth grinding, and psychological sensations of insects crawling under the skin all contribute to these changes.
This marked change in appearance can be one of the most telling signs that someone has been participating in regular meth use, as described below.
According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Dental Association, people who use meth are disproportionately likely to have severe tooth decay problems. Of the study subjects:
- 96 percent had cavities
- 58 percent had tooth decay that was untreated
- 31 percent had six or more missing teeth
This results in a mouth full of visibly rotting, crumbling, or blackened teeth; missing teeth; and the inflamed gums that indicate periodontal disease.
Physical and psychological symptoms that contribute to these changes include:
- High blood pressure and heart rate, which result in damage to blood vessels supporting the teeth
- Lack of saliva, which contributes to gum disease and allows food acids to eat away at teeth
- Cravings for sugary beverages that encourage tooth decay
- Bad nutrition that can cause weakening of teeth, making them more susceptible to damage
- Agitation that leads to teeth grinding
Lesions and Sores
Most people occasionally cut themselves accidentally, but for those using crystal meth, this can present a serious problem. Because meth destroys blood vessels and affects circulation, a small cut can heal much more slowly and scar much more readily.
A study published by the American Society for Microbiology states that meth affects the body’s ability to fight certain skin infections. This, in turn, can cause infections in wounds that the body cannot fight effectively, adding to the sores and scarring effects. The overall result is pocked, marred skin with open wounds that take a long time to heal.
This element of crystal meth abuse is made worse by some of the psychological symptoms of meth use, which are hallucinatory sensations described as the feeling of bugs crawling under the skin. These feelings cause many people who experience them to tear at their own skin, trying to stop the feeling, as described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The result is self-inflicted wounds that then won’t heal due to the factors described above.
Other Long-Term Physical Effects
The risk of taking crystal meth goes beyond these changes in appearance. Continued use over time can result in the following issues, according to another article from the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- Damage to cognitive function in the brain
- Liver and kidney infections
- Heart problems
These problems may become permanent, even after meth use is stopped. For all these reasons, finding a treatment center that is experienced in handling the problems associated with crystal meth abuse and addiction is imperative. Proper treatment can be the first step in repairing the severe physical damage that comes from long-term meth use.