Appalling Things Meth Does to Your Body

Meth can cause permanent damage to the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and your behavior. More on the real ways meth works here.

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ARTICLE SUMMARY: As a stimulant, meth speeds up every process in the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and core temperature all increase. Long-term effects can include permanent damage to the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and behavioral changes.



What Is Meth?

Addiction continues to be a growing problem in the United States. In 2014 alone, over 7 million Americans struggled with drug addiction. Many of these individuals have developed a dependency on methamphetamines, which can devastate a person’s physical and mental health. But what is meth made of?

Meth, or methamphetamine, is a central nervous stimulant that comes in pill, liquid and powder form. “Meth” is the street name for a class of stimulants commonly known as speed. Other street names for the smokable form of meth include ice, crystal or crank. Despite the clear-sounding names, meth comes in many colors, as fans of the hit TV show Breaking Bad no doubt remember from Walter White’s signature blue. Other colors include red, purple and brown.

The FDA classifies meth as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and limited medical applications. Drug companies manufacture prescription medicines with a chemical composition similar to street meth for the treatment of diseases such as attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. The vast majority of meth addicts do not abuse prescriptions. They purchase their stash on the street.

Early Warning Signs of Meth Abuse

Signs of meth abuse include extreme moodiness, anxiety, nervousness, excited/rapid talking, insomnia and repetitive behaviors such as constant playing with one’s hair. Moodiness and irritability can often dissolve into abusive and violent behavior. Because meth stimulates the central nervous system, it creates a high akin to that of an extreme adrenaline rush. However, unlike a natural adrenaline rush from going bungee jumping or skydiving, meth’s effects dissipate over time, leading the user to seek out more and more of the drug to maintain their high.

One factor complicating the use of meth, at least in the short term, is that the body metabolizes it relatively quickly. That not only fuels the addict’s desire for more meth, but also makes it possible for the beginning addict to hide their behavior from others. While drug screenings can detect methamphetamine metabolites in urine up to 72 hours after the last use, beginning users with less in their system may test negative for metabolites after as little as an hour after using. Those who have not yet descended into daily meth use may well pass pre-employment drug screenings that otherwise may encourage them to seek help sooner.

Short-Term Effects

Because meth stimulates the nervous system, one of the earliest short-term effects of meth use is persistent insomnia. Reports of meth users staying awake for days do not exaggerate. Sadly, while a sleepless night now and then will not do any permanent harm, constantly staying awake for days at a time contributes to psychosis, something to which the user is already susceptible.

Another short-term effect that first lures many female addicts to meth is its effect on eating habits. Meth users experience a marked decrease in appetite. For this reason, women, especially young women and teens, may begin using meth in a misguided attempt to assist with weight loss. While meth certainly can help reduce weight, the detrimental effects on the circulatory and nervous systems greatly outweigh any temporary benefit. Furthermore, for those already prone to eating disorders, meth may push them over the edge into full-blown anorexia.

As a stimulant, meth speeds up every process in the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and core temperature all increase. As a result, meth users may feel excessively warm even in a cool environment, or may sweat more than usual.

Permanent Damage

Meth is dangerous!

The chemicals involved in meth production remain extremely toxic long after the lab no longer exists, and can even contaminate groundwater. Dust and particulates from meth production can linger on surfaces and seriously sicken future residents of the property. Only a qualified team specially trained in decontaminating former labs should handle cleanup, which can get costly indeed.

Yes, Meth Does Destroy Teeth

Nearly everyone has seen before-and-after photos of meth users on the web, and one of the most noticeable changes is a lack of teeth among addicts. Meth alone doesn’t directly rot teeth — however, meth use does lead to poor oral hygiene habits. When these pair with the way meth decreases saliva production and often causes vomiting, bacteria and acids in the mouth run rampant, resulting in blackened, crumbling and missing teeth.

Inadequate saliva leads to gum disease, as the body can no longer sufficiently wash bacteria from the teeth and gums. That leads the gums to become loose, eventually resulting in tooth decay and tooth loss. Dentists even have a term for the destruction of teeth due to meth use: meth-mouth.

While photos of meth addicts can be heartbreaking, parents, teachers, counselors and other adults who work with children and teens can use their knowledge of how meth decays teeth to discourage youth, particularly young girls, from trying the drug. After all, it does no good to have a slender body when one has a smile like a jack-o’-lantern.

Your Heart and Brain Blood Vessels Sustain Permanent Damage

While teeth may show the most visible signs of the external long-term damage meth addiction can wreak, other long-term effects of meth abuse cause even further harm. As a stimulant, meth puts enormous strain on the entire circulatory system. Blood vessels become damaged by continuous high blood pressure, damaging their walls, which leaves the addict at a far higher risk of stroke from a burst blood vessel in the brain.

Also, the strain on the heart leaves meth addicts highly susceptible to sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack. More fortunate addicts develop irregular heartbeats before an attack, leading them to seek medical help that can lead to addiction care. The risk of a sudden massive coronary event and death hangs over every meth addict, especially those who were already predisposed to coronary disease due to genetics or lifestyle.

Permanent Nerve Damage

Long-term meth addiction can also lead to permanent nerve damage. Meth affects the entire central nervous system. Also, meth impacts a primary brain chemical responsible for the ability to perceive pleasure: dopamine.

Meth users quickly develop a physical dependency upon the drug, and withdrawal from meth — either intentionally or from the inability to get a fix — can lead to dangerous convulsions. Misfires in the brain’s neurotransmitter system can also lead to stroke.

Even more insidiously, meth stimulates the brain’s dopamine receptors, leading them to require more and more meth to experience any sensation of pleasure. Tragically, even when meth addicts recover, the damage to their dopamine receptors remains intractable. That can lead to feelings of depression, apathy and chronic inability to experience pleasure. Not surprisingly, many addicts seek to alleviate these feelings of apathy and depression by returning to addiction.

Long-Term Behavioral Changes

Perhaps the most tragic long-term effect of meth addiction involves permanent personality and behavioral changes in the addicted individual. Because the addict remains in a continuously anxious, over-stimulated, “fight-or-flight” state, irritability, aggression and even violent behaviors often develop. Heavy meth usage leaves the addict feeling as if they must always fight off a grizzly bear or other threat.

Also, because meth destroys the brain’s pleasure centers, addicts often become manic, even psychotic, during times of heavy use. They may develop one obsession after another. Heavy meth users often also develop paranoid hallucinations, such as feeling that everyone is in a conspiracy against them or that bugs are eating them alive under their skin.

These changes often become irreversible. Tests performed on meth addicts one-year post-sobriety show issues with mental processing and concentration remain. Likewise, obsessions and paranoid delusions may persist permanently. Even when they get clean, many meth addicts must train themselves to use new coping behaviors to deal with their persistent delusions.

Getting Help

Overstating the dangers of continued meth abuse is impossible. If someone you love exhibits signs of meth addiction, professional intervention and treatment will likely be necessary. Many heavy meth users find help in the form of inpatient treatment programs that help minimize withdrawal symptoms while simultaneously preventing the addict from scoring a new fix.

Long term, many former addicts find help in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy, also called talk therapy, helps the addict recognize the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that led them to become addicted in the first place. Behavioral rewards instead of punishments help addicts retrain their brains to think and process difficult feelings more effectively and healthfully.

In addition, support groups abound for former addicts. They offer a safe and anonymous space for sharing feelings and coming to terms with one’s addictive behavior. Family therapy may also be helpful, particularly in households where intense interpersonal drama and abusive behaviors fueled the addict’s need for escape.

Your Questions

Do you have questions for Kate? Or, would you like to connect with someone to talk to?

Please know that our hotline is available 24-7. Addiction recovery specialists are ready to take your call and talk with you about meth or other drug issues.

Recovering from meth addiction is never easy, and sobriety might not entirely mitigate the effects of heavy meth use. However, while it may be out of reach to return to exactly who they were before, with treatment, addicts can remain sober and can go on to become contributing members of their community and society at large. With education and treatment, recovery is possible.

You are not alone!


About the author
Kate Harveston is a health researcher and journalist from Pennsylvania. Specific topics she really enjoys writing about include mental health, addiction, women's health, and the human condition. Outside of, you can find her at her blog,
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