Long-Term Effects of Meth

Crystal meth and other types of methamphetamine have a devastating impact on the body. Repeated use of the drug can cause major physical changes that accumulate over time. Some effects take years to heal, and others can be permanent.
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Most long-term effects of methamphetamine develop during weeks or months of regular meth use. Unlike the damage caused by chronic abuse of other drugs, such as alcohol, the long-term effects of meth don’t take years to develop.

Using meth once can cause cravings that drive repeated use. Smoking, snorting or shooting the drug for multiple days can lead to meth withdrawal symptoms and addiction. Once people develop a meth addiction, they’re at risk of developing a variety of health problems.

Dr. Kevin Wandler of Advanced Recovery Systems describes the long-term impact meth has on the body.

Short-term side effects of meth, such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and increased body temperature, usually fade when meth leaves the body. However, the long-term effects don’t go away as quickly. Some effects of meth continue for years after last use.

“There’s not a lot of long-term data on the people who use meth for decades,” Dr. Edward Bednarczyk of the University at Buffalo told DrugRehab.com. “They tend not to make it that long. Repeated meth use has an additive effect on the organs. So you see things where people start getting heart attacks and things like that much younger than they’d be expected to.”

A meth overdose can cause permanent damage. But a person doesn’t have to overdose to develop lifelong problems. Months of meth use can change a person’s body forever.

Mental Health

Meth causes euphoria by changing the balance of chemicals in the brain that regulate mood. These chemicals, including dopamine, affect how the brain functions.

With repeated meth use, the brain’s chemical balance becomes disrupted. As a result, many people experience mental health problems.

Long-term mental health effects of meth include:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations

“The death rate is exceedingly high with meth,” Bednarczyk said. “Part of the problem is when you’re trying to stop using meth. People feel really slowed down. They feel depressed. They start having feelings of wanting to commit suicide. That’s how a lot of people end their lives as they try to come off the meth — by suicide.”

Psychosis is another most common side effect of meth use. According to the Methamphetamine and Other Illicit Drug Education Project from the University of Arizona, symptoms of meth psychosis include seeing hallucinations, hearing voices and harming yourself.

Organ Damage

In addition to the drug’s effects on mental health, meth damages several organs in the body. It can cause long-term damage to the brain, heart, liver, lungs and skin. The drug’s effects on the brain and heart are usually the most significant.

Brain Damage

A person doesn’t have to use meth for weeks or months to develop long-term brain damage. A meth overdose can cause strokes, or interruptions to the blood and oxygen supply to the brain. Without blood, cells in the brain die within minutes. Strokes caused by meth can be deadly or cause permanent health problems.

Repeated use of meth also changes the structure of the brain. These changes cause coordination, learning and speech problems, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Regular exposure to the drug also causes the brain’s natural defense system to attack healthy brain cells.

“The weird thing caused by meth is Parkinson’s disease,” Bednarczyk said. “In Parkinson’s disease, your body stops making dopamine. The symptoms include a really bad tremor. It makes it hard to function. You have a hard time walking. If you use meth in your teens and twenties, you don’t instantly get Parkinson’s disease.

“When you get a bit older, if you stop using and you make it to your sixties or so, we start seeing Parkinson’s disease or symptoms of Parkinson’s decades earlier than we would normally expect to see in people.”

Multiple studies have linked meth use to Parkinson’s disease. Other studies have found that changes to white matter in the brain can occur, but they are uncommon. White matter helps different parts of the brain communicate.

Heart Problems

Heart problems are common among people who use meth. Research has found that regular methamphetamine use may be linked to blood vessel spasms, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, death of muscle tissue and the formation of fibrous tissue in the heart.

“The other thing that methamphetamine is capable of doing is producing irregular heartbeats,” Bednarczyk said. “You’ll have people who are exercising on meth, and they just drop dead. And what happens is their heart develops this irregular rhythm because chemicals in meth also have functions and roles in the heart and other places in the body.”

People who use meth have reported chest pain, abnormal heartbeats and shortness of breath. Heart attacks, sudden death and aortic dissection have also occurred. Aortic dissection is a tear in a large artery next to the heart.

Coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathy are also common among people who use meth. Coronary heart disease occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries next to the heart. Cardiomyopathy refers to several types of heart disease that cause the heart to enlarge or become rigid.

Meth can make several types of pre-existing heart conditions worse. Other health problems, such as infectious diseases, can also worsen organ damage caused by meth use.

Infectious Diseases

Using methamphetamine increases a person’s risk of contracting infectious diseases. Crystal meth impairs judgement and self-control. It also increases libido, or the desire to have sex. People who use meth are more likely to participate in unsafe behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or sharing contaminated needles.

Meth increases the risk of getting the following diseases:

  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C

Chronic meth use also damages the immune system. This makes the body more vulnerable to the effects of infectious diseases. For example, a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that meth use weakens the immune system and speeds up the development of AIDS after contracting HIV.

Changes to Appearance

The most recognizable signs of meth use are changes to a person’s appearance. Oral health and skin problems are so prevalent among meth users that slang terms such as meth mouth and meth sores have become well known.

Appearance changes caused by long-term meth use include:

  • Thinning or patchy hair
  • Dry or cracked skin
  • Skin sores
  • Tooth decay
  • Gum disease
  • Weight loss

Some changes, such as skin sores or patchy hair, can be caused by short-term use of meth. But these symptoms tend to worsen over time if a person continues to use the drug regularly.

Long-Term Effects of Meth After Quitting

People can recover from certain long-term effects of meth when they quit using the drug. Other effects may be permanent or take years to recover from.

Recovery from the mental health effects of meth vary. Some people recover from major depressive or psychotic symptoms within weeks of abstinence. Others continue to experience lingering symptoms for years. People who recover from meth psychosis may experience recurring psychotic symptoms during stressful or traumatic situations.

Some types of organ damage, such as the effects of a stroke or heart attack, can’t be cured. However, studies have found that the brain recovers from some types of brain injuries within two years of abstinence from meth.

“There are effects that are really irreversible,” Bednarczyk said. “You really do damage to the dopamine regulating parts of the brain. Some of it’s reversible. It’s not all permanent, but there are a lot of aspects of the damage that are irreversible. People end up feeling kind of chronically tired, chronically sleepy and chronically depressed.”

Tooth decay and gum disease can be treated, but the mouth will never be the same after using crystal meth. Meth sores may heal but leave scars. In some situations, hair may return. However, incessant hair picking or pulling may prevent the hair from growing back in some places.

The longer that people use meth, the more likely they are to develop serious, long-lasting health problems. Most people addicted to crystal meth require residential rehab and years of aftercare support to recover. Without meth addiction treatment, the long-term effects of meth can be deadly.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.

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