Methamphetamine has been around for about 100 years, but it took until the early 1990s for it to become widely available and popular. In 2006, the United Nations World Drug Report called meth the most abused hard drug on Earth. Find out what makes this drug so addictive, as well as physical signs of meth abuse in a loved one.
What Is Meth?
Methamphetamine, also referred to as crystal, ice, or simply meth is a powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system and produces euphoric side effects. Users also report increased energy, focus, confidence, sexual prowess, and feelings of desirability.
Meth comes in a few different forms. The most common is crystal, a pure, distilled form of the drug. It can be smoked, snorted, or injected and is highly potent.
Base is another form that’s white, yellow, or brown and is wet or oily. It’s normally swallowed or injected. While not as pure as crystal, it’s purer and more potent than speed.
Speed is the least pure form of meth. Unlike crystal or base, speed comes in the form of a white or yellow powder that can be injected, snorted, or swallowed. It’s commonly sold on the streets and includes a lot of additives that allow dealers to sell less product for more money.
What Makes Meth So Dangerous?
The main reason meth is dangerous is because of how addictive it is. As a stimulant, meth causes a huge release of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is naturally occurring and is essential for survival. While essential for learning, memory, and sleep (among other things), it’s most commonly known as the chemical that allows humans to feel pleasure from food or sex.
Pleasurable activities, such as having sex, may cause dopamine levels to increase 100 to 200 units. Drugs like cocaine cause levels to spike about 350 units—beyond normal, but not by much. Meth, on the other hand, causes dopamine to increase 1,200 units. That’s about 12 times what you get from a naturally occurring pleasurable activity.
This massive dopamine spike is what gives users a euphoric feeling like nothing they’ve ever experienced. When the drug wears off, users experience profound feelings of depression. Many continue taking the drug to avoid such feelings (and to chase the initial high). Some may stay up for days at a time as a result.
Both of these features—the extreme high and the terrible crash—make meth one of the most addictive illicit drugs on the market. As a result, many recreational users quickly turn into addicts.
Meth use takes a toll on the mind and body. Physical signs of meth use will emerge with repeated use, but can also appear in new users.
If you suspect meth abuse in a loved one, here are some physical signs to look out for.
1. Skin Sores
Sores are one of the most visible signs of meth abuse to look for. They vary in appearance based on what caused the sores, whether they’re infected, and the length of time they’ve been on a person’s body.
That being said, meth sores generally look like red dots, rashes, and cuts. On the face, meth sores can look like acne. Around the lips and inside the mouth, they resemble cold sores or canker sores. Elsewhere on the body, meth sores may look like chicken pox blisters that someone has scratched.
If a meth sore becomes infected, it can look like a bad blister with a black or brown center. In addition, the blister may swell and fill with pus. Left untreated, these blisters can spread infection to other parts of the body.
Methamphetamine abuse can lead to sores for a few reasons. The first is that meth use leads to hallucinations. Many people experience these hallucinations as bugs crawling on or in their skin (sometimes referred to as “meth mites” or “crank bugs”). As a consequence, users will try to remove the imaginary bugs by scratching at the skin with fingernails or sharp objects. Over time, this prolonged scratching leads to tears and wounds in the skin.
2. Dilated Pupils
Meth, like other amphetamines, is a stimulant drug. As such, it causes the same types of physical symptoms, albeit in a more severe way. One side effect of stimulants is increased pupil size. If your loved one is exhibiting larger-than-normal pupil size, meth abuse could be to blame.
3. Reduced Appetite
Just like other stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine, meth use often leads to a decrease in appetite. That’s because much of appetite is controlled by blood sugar levels and other cues. When the stomach is empty or the body needs food, the areas of the brain in charge of regulating appetite signal you to seek out food.
This process is interrupted when using meth. Meth throws off the brain’s normal dopamine levels, interfering with the way neurons in the brain communicate changes like hunger.
4. Weight Loss
A separate, but related, sign of meth use is weight loss. Weight loss occurs mainly because meth causes a decrease in appetite, but other factors that contribute as well.
The first is that people abusing meth may not prioritize eating. Because meth users try to avoid withdrawal symptoms at all costs, they tend to spend a lot of time, money, energy, and other resources obtaining the drug. As a result, tasks like eating and self-care are deprioritized.
Another reason meth abuse leads to weight loss is because the drug often causes an increase in the number of calories burned. Like other stimulants, meth increases heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, wakefulness, and body temperature. All of these processes require energy, so people using meth may burn calories at a faster rate than those who aren’t using the drug.
The third reason meth use contributes to weight loss is due to the loss of muscle. Users lose muscle mass because when they eat less, their body feeds off of the calories stored in fat. If a person loses a significant amount of fat and continues not to eat, their body will start using muscle and stored protein to fuel the body. Over time, the muscles waste away and weight loss occurs.
5. Body Odor
Meth use can sometimes lead to strong body odor in some users so this is definitely a sign to look out for if you suspect a loved one of abusing meth.
Body odor may occur for a couple of reasons. The first is due to the chemicals used to produce meth. When combined, these ingredients create an odor similar to that of ammonia, vinegar, paint, rotten eggs, or cat urine. These odors can come out in the vapors emitted from smoking meth or in the sweat of meth users.
Another explanation for body odor is that meth users often have poor hygiene when using the drug. They may stay awake for days at a time, engage in vigorous physical activity, and not bathe or brush their teeth during that time.
As with other stimulants, meth attacks the central nervous system. This leads to increased energy, wakefulness, and insomnia. The third symptom is particularly pronounced in meth users. Not only is meth significantly stronger than other stimulants, but its addictive properties cause users to seek out more and more of the drug, even if that means staying up for days.
7. Extreme Mood Swings
Meth causes users to experience dramatic mood swings. One minute they could be on top of the world, another they could feel anxious or angry. Usually these feelings are brought on by paranoia, leading to delusions of persecution or danger. As a result, they may blame those around them for these feelings or become convinced that others intend to harm them.
After the intense high, many meth users experience a long-lasting depression. They may stop engaging in normal daily activities like bathing, cleaning, or spending time with friends.
8. Increased Libido
At a neurological level, meth stimulates sexual arousal by releasing chemicals like dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of well-being and desirability. Meth can also increase the level of adrenaline, giving users more stamina for sexual activity.
These same chemicals also lower inhibitions and impair judgment. Both of these may make users more likely to engage in high-risk unprotected sex, something that makes users susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases.
Hepatitis B, C, and HIV are of particular concern for this population because many take the drug intravenously and share needles.
9. Premature Aging
One common symptom of meth abuse is that of premature aging. This happens because meth causes blood vessels to constrict, thereby cutting off the steady flow of blood to the body. Heavy, prolonged meth abuse can weaken and destroy these vessels. As a result, tissues are more prone to damage and the body is unable to repair itself. Skin loses its elasticity and luster, making users look as though they’ve aged decades in only a few short years.
10. Meth Mouth
Meth mouth is one of the most recognizable symptoms of meth abuse. It’s characterized by broken, discolored, and rotting teeth. While the exact reasons behind meth mouth remain unknown, there are several compelling explanations.
One is that the drug causes the salivary glands to dry out, which allows acids in the mouth to eat away at the tooth enamel and gums, causing weak spots that are susceptible to cavities.
These cavities are made worse by commonly observed behaviors in meth users including teeth grinding, a diet of sugary foods and drinks, and a lack of oral hygiene like brushing and flossing
Meth use also causes users’ blood vessels to shrink, something that limits the steady supply of blood the mouth needs in order to stay healthy. With repeated shrinking, these vessels die and oral tissues decay.
Some reports also attribute tooth decay to the corrosive effects of the chemicals in the drug such as anhydrous ammonia (like those in fertilizers), red phosphorus (found on matchboxes), and lithium (found in batteries). These chemicals, when smoked or snorted, might erode the tooth’s protective enamel coating.
La Fuente Can Help With Meth Abuse
Finding out that a loved one is abusing meth is incredibly difficult. Meth is a scary drug and facing a family member who you suspect of abuse may seem like an impossible task. There’s no denying that the road ahead will be challenging, but the fact that you’re here, educating yourself is a huge step in the right direction.
If you need help figuring out what the next steps are, please feel free to reach out to us. Our Los Angeles treatment center specializes in treating meth addiction. We offer medically-supervised detox in addition to a full rehab program.
Our program uses medications to minimize withdrawal symptoms, as well as behavioral therapies to help patients examine why their meth use started and help them learn coping skills to avoid relapse in the future.
To learn more about our LGBTQ-affirmative meth treatment program, fill out the form below. A staff member will contact you within 24 hours to help you decide if La Fuente is right for you.