Crystal methamphetamine looks a little like shards of glass. It’s flashy and translucent, and it’s often sold at a remarkably low price. Users of crystal meth take in the drug by heating it and inhaling the noxious fumes that are released when the crystals reach a specific temperature. When the meth is working, the user feels powerful, confident, and incredibly attractive and desirable.
Deep inside the tissues of the body, however, meth takes a terrible toll. Over time, the long-term effects may become harder and harder for the person using to ignore.
Crystal Meth and the Brain
All forms of methamphetamine work by altering the brain’s dopamine system. This naturally occurring chemical is released by the brain in response to pleasurable sensations. It encourages the brain to remember that specific action and seek it out again and again. While all forms of meth cause these changes in dopamine, crystal methamphetamine in particular seems to be particularly adept at causing extreme spikes in dopamine levels, making the drug all the more pleasurable, and perhaps all the more addictive.1
As the brain becomes accustomed to the rush caused by crystal, the user needs higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same effects. Some users even resort to using a large amount of the drug during a short period of time in order to keep the pleasure flowing. People who binge in this way tend to experience more mental health problems, and social problems, when compared to people who do not. It’s quite possible that the drug causes so much damage during a binge, that users sustain a form of brain damage that makes it difficult to regulate emotions and think and interact normally.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse echoes this concern. In studies this organization has performed, researchers have found that chronic meth users have severe changes in the portions of the brain associated with emotion and memory.1 Evidence of these changes, shown in imaging studies, are startling and hard to overlook. This functional damage may explain why people who abuse meth seem unbalanced or deranged, even while they’re not intoxicated with meth.
While some forms of brain damage are easy to spot through changes in speech patterns and behavior, other forms of damage caused by crystal meth are seen in a person’s overall appearance.
Methamphetamine causes blood vessels in the body to shrink and constrict. As a result, the tissues supported by those blood vessels begin to shrivel and dry. Some people develop acne, as the moisture levels in the skin decrease, and their acne sores begin to fester and weep. Without adequate blood supply, those sores don’t heal adequately. People on crystal meth often feel as though their skin is crawling with bugs. This causes them to rip and tear at their skin leaving sores that don’t heal. These skin changes can make those who use meth seem much older than they really are.
Shrunken, dying blood vessels can also cause mouth problems, as gums pull away the teeth, leaving roots exposed. The acidity of meth also wears away at tooth enamel, and those on meth tend to grind their teeth. These factors can lead to a painful and debilitating condition known as “meth mouth.” In an article about the issue, the American Dental Association (ADA) reports that people with the condition tend to use these words when describing their teeth:
- Falling apart
The ADA reports that there is no hope of treatment for meth-damaged teeth, and the best course of action is to pull those teeth out.2 A lack of teeth can make eating difficult, and it can also make people look older than they really are.
People who abuse crystal meth may engage in dangerous sexual activities that could put them at risk for HIV/AIDS or hepatitis infections. The drug makes people feel attractive and sexually adventurous, and it reduces their ability to plan ahead and think about the future. As a result, people on meth may have unprotected sex with strangers while they’re under the influence.3
While many forms of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis can be successfully treated with medications, those medications work best when started early in the disease process. The longer the infection is left untreated, the less likely a full recovery is possible. People addicted to crystal meth often lead chaotic lives without regular medical care. This can make their infections all the harder to treat when they are discovered.
While it’s clear that abusing crystal meth over a long period of time can cause serious health problems, short-term use is also dangerous. Some of the short-term side effects of crystal meth use include:
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
- Dilation of pupils
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Bizarre, erratic, sometimes violent behavior
- Hallucinations, hyper-excitability, irritability
- Panic and psychosis
- Convulsions, seizures and death from high doses4
The changes caused in the brain during crystal meth use can trigger extreme paranoia, and can cause users to behave extremely violently. It’s not uncommon for people on meth to attack others, get into confrontations with police officers or otherwise engage in dangerous activities while they are under the influence of this drug or enduring a flashback of a previous incident.
Using crystal meth, even recreationally, can quickly lead to addiction. The drug is powerful, and the changes the drug causes in the brain can be persistent.
Recovery Is Possible
If you or a loved one struggle with crystal meth addiction, there is hope through treatment. In a structured program for addiction, you can learn about why the addiction developed and what can be done to break the cycle.
Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 “Methamphetamine.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA. Feb. 2017.
2 “Meth Mouth: How Methamphetamine Use Affects Dental Health.” Mouth Healthy TM, The American Dental Association. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.
3 “Gay and Bisexual Men’s Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 29 Feb. 2016.
4 “Watch Truth About Drugs Documentary Video & Learn About Substance Addiction. Get The Facts About Painkillers, Marijuana, Cocaine, Meth & Other Illegal Drugs.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.