Methamphetamine is a powerful drug that can damage the brain and body in many ways. Fortunately, many side effects and symptoms are reversible through recovery.
Methamphetamine, often referred to as meth or crystal meth, is a powerful stimulant that directly affects the central nervous system. Initially used for depression and obesity treatment in the early 20th century, meth is currently intended to treat individuals suffering from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Although it is intended for medical use, meth is also frequently abused for recreational purposes. This is because the drug can create a state of euphoria, or “high,” that lasts for up to 12 hours. But what does meth do to the brain in both the short- and long-term?
Methamphetamine abuse creates a number of physical and psychological health risks and can lead to long-term brain damage. This overview covers how meth affects the brain, the side effects it creates and the symptoms related to meth addiction.
How Meth Gets You High
The brain creates neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that send messages to and from cells in the brain and body. Dopamine is known as the pleasure neurotransmitter. When triggered, dopamine sends pleasure signals to various parts of the body and brain and is then stored for later use. Meth impacts dopamine the most, though other neurotransmitters are also affectedl.
When a person uses meth, an excess of dopamine is released into the brain. This causes the person to feel an excess of pleasure, or a “high.” However, the dopamine released is not recycled and stored for later, which results in overstimulation of the brain.
When the high wears off, dopamine levels return to normal or lower and the person will experience a crash of unpleasant feelings. In order to replicate that high feeling and avoid the crash, the person may want to use more of the drug at higher doses.
Does Meth Cause Brain Damage?
Long-term meth addiction use can cause extensive damage to the body and brain, and some damage may be irreversible. Continued meth abuse can severely damage dopamine and serotonin neurons, affecting how a person feels, acts and thinks. Severe damage to these neurons could cause a user to experience symptoms of depression, paranoia and hallucinations.
Studies show that methamphetamine can cause brain issues like:
- Reduced mental flexibility
- Impaired decision-making
- Impaired verbal learning
- Reduced motor speed
- Structural changes associated with emotion and memory
Meth abuse can also affect cells in the brain called microglia, which are responsible for cleaning up damaged brain cells and fighting infection. Meth has been shown to increase the activity of microglia, leading to the destruction of healthy brain cells.
Fortunately, many of the effects of meth are known to be reversible. People who previously used meth have a return to normal brain cell activity within one to two years. Some changes may be permanent, however, especially if they are the result of a stroke.
Other Symptoms of Meth Abuse
There are many tell-tale signs that can indicate when someone is abusing a substance. In addition to the affects meth has on the brain, individuals struggling with methamphetamine addiction may have more distinct physical symptoms, specifically involving the skin. Over time, frequent meth abuse can destroy blood vessels, impacting the body’s ability to repair itself. In addition, meth abuse constricts blood flow to various parts of the body and can cause people to lose color and elasticity in their skin.
Severe meth addiction can also cause users to experience a tingling sensation called formication. This prickly sensation is often followed by “crank bugs” — hallucinations of bugs crawling under the skin — prompting users to incessantly pick at their skin to rid themselves of the “bugs.”
Since meth impacts the skin’s ability to heal itself, people addicted to the drug may suffer from open wounds, or “meth sores,” that take longer to heal. Chronic meth users can be covered with these sores, especially on their faces and arms.
Frequent meth abuse also affects the teeth, causing people to develop “meth mouth” symptoms. Meth dries out the salivary glands needed to break down acids from food and bacteria. As a result, these acids begin to eat away at tooth enamel and cause teeth to decay and fall out. Much of this damage is irreversible, but it greatly depends on the person and the severity of their addiction. Some may develop rotten teeth, while others may only suffer from mild cavities and inflamed gums.
Meth abuse symptoms vary from one person to the next. Although some symptoms are more severe due to chronic abuse, common symptoms can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased body temperature
- Weight loss
Treating Meth Addiction
If you or someone you love struggles with meth abuse, The Recovery Village is here to help. We take an evidence-based approach to addiction treatment and provide a full continuum of care, ranging from medical detox and residential programs to long-term aftercare. We have rehab facilities located throughout the country, each staffed by a multidisciplinary team of addiction experts. Contact one of our helpful representatives today to learn more about meth addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.
Anglin, M.D., et al. “History of the Methamphetamine Problem.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, June 2000. Accessed November 9, 2021.
Food and Drug Administration. “Methamphetamine Package Insert.” February 2015. Accessed November 9, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Are The Long-term Effects Of Methamphetamine Misuse?” October 2019. Accessed November 9, 2021.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.