What Are the Physical Effects of Crystal Meth?
Nearly 5 percent of American adults have at least tried the powerful stimulant drug methamphetamine once in their lives (as of the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. While a less potent version of the drug is available in an FDA-approved prescription form to treat hyperactivity and promote weight loss in significantly obese individuals, methamphetamine is primarily considered an illegal drug that is often manufactured in clandestine laboratories.
Crystal meth is a form of methamphetamine that resembles shards of glass or crystals. It is often called Tina, ice, or glass. Crystal meth is generally smoked in a glass pipe, although it may also be melted down and injected.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) publishes that crystal meth is often purer than the powdered form of methamphetamine, and it can produce a more intense “high” that may last up to 12 hours. Crystal meth is considered to be an extremely powerful drug, and its abuse can have devastating psychological, social, and physical side effects.
Crystal Meth Intoxication
Crystal meth is a stimulant, meaning that it speeds up respiration rates, blood pressure, and heart rate while raising body temperature and increasing wakefulness, energy levels and focus. It enhances pleasure by heightening the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine that is present in the brain at one time. Crystal meth also interacts with levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, more of the brain’s chemical messengers. When levels of dopamine and serotonin are increased exponentially by crystal meth, an intense rush of euphoria, or a powerful high, ensues.
A person is likely to be less hungry and able to stay awake for hours at a time. Inhibitions are decreased, and a person may become more excitable, talkative, and social. They are more likely to engage in dangerous situations and take bigger risks. Pupils become dilated and libido increases. Twitching, dry mouth, itchiness, irregular heart rate and palpitations, abdominal cramps, “super” strength, and a lack of coordination are additional physical side effects of crystal meth intoxication.
The Washington Post reports that people may take meth in order to stay awake and focused for long periods of time, such as those who work low-income, repetitive, or mind-numbing jobs, or those who need to work multiple jobs to stay afloat financially. It may also be abused as a weight loss stimulant, or recreationally as a “club” or “party” drug.
Meth is often taken in a binge pattern, meaning that individuals piggyback doses in order to prolong the high. The crash can be as intense as the high itself, and people may want to avoid the fatigue, increased appetite, drug cravings, and negative psychological side effects that can occur when crystal meth wears off.
Crystal meth is highly addictive. Health risks and consequences go up significantly with chronic or continued use.
Overdose and Other Possible Side Effects
Crystal meth can have disastrous and even lethal side effects in the case of a toxic buildup in the bloodstream, which can result in an overdose. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) publishes that in 2011, over 100,000 people in the United States received medical care in an emergency department (ED) for an adverse reaction involving abuse of methamphetamine. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports the following as potential symptoms and side effects of a methamphetamine overdose:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heart rate
- Heart attack
- Hyperthermia (high body temperature)
- Trouble breathing
- Intense stomach pain
- Kidney damage and failure
An overdose should be considered a medical emergency, and immediate professional help should be sought. Crystal meth intoxication and the ensuing crash can drastically affect moods, increasing aggressive behaviors and episodes of violence, and inducing severe depression, insomnia, and psychotic side effects, including hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. It can also potentially lead to accident, injury, and homicidal or suicidal behaviors.
Long-Term Physical Hazards of Crystal Meth Use
Regular use of crystal meth can damage the cardiovascular system and brain, and cause long-term physiological side effects. NIDA warns that meth use can increase the likelihood of contracting an infectious disease, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C, through sharing contaminated needles or unsafe sexual contact. Meth may also worsen the progression of HIV/AIDS.
Crystal meth can induce delusions, such as the feeling of bugs crawling on the skin, and people who abuse the drug may pick at their skin as a result, causing skin irritation, legions, abscesses, sores, and potentially skin infections. Burns on the hands and face as well as respiratory distress, chronic coughing, and lung infections are possible side effects of smoking meth on a regular basis. Scarring, collapsed veins, and infections are potential long-term consequences of injecting the drug.
As a stimulant drug, meth disrupts many of the autonomic functions of the central nervous system, which can result in irregularities of heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and body temperature. Damage to the heart from chronic meth exposure can lead to disease of the heart muscle, called cardiomyopathy, as well as an increased rate of premature coronary artery disease, cardiac infarction (heart attack from reduced blood flow to the heart), and sudden cardiac death, the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) publishes.
Another physical effect of perpetuated methamphetamine abuse is damage to the mouth and teeth, often termed “meth mouth.” Meth exposure can destroy the enamel of teeth and lead to tooth decay and tooth loss over time. Anorexia, malnutrition, and severe weight loss are additional hazards of long-term meth use as the stimulant drug suppresses appetite.
Brain Damage from Crystal Meth
Damage to the brain can be extensive with regular meth use, causing memory loss, trouble feeling pleasure, psychosis, and symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, which impacts the nervous system and affects movement, often causing involuntary tremors and twitching. The International Review of Neurobiology reports that the high temperatures induced by regular meth exposure can lead to brain hyperthermia, leakage across the blood-brain barrier, and brain edema (fluid accumulation).
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns that regular use of meth can damage as much as half of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain and potentially even more of the nerve containing serotonin. Severe depression, decreased ability to regulate emotions and feel pleasure, and many other psychological side effects are the result of low levels of serotonin and/or dopamine, which may lead to self-harming and suicidal tendencies and behaviors. Some of the damage to the brain is reversible with abstinence while some may be permanent.
When someone abuses crystal meth continuously, a tolerance will likely form, which will mean that they will need to increase the amount of meth taken with each dose to keep feeling the desired effects. Chronic crystal meth use creates dependence on the drug. Withdrawal symptoms, like sleep disturbances, fatigue, irritability, depression, disorientation, and apathy, are common when it wears off, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association(NHTSA) publishes. Intense drug cravings are also common with discontinuation of crystal meth, and coupled with difficult withdrawal symptoms, they can lead to a loss of control over meth abuse, which is one of the hallmarks of addiction.