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Meth: The Long-Term Effects of Addiction

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In this article, we’ll break down some of the long-term effects that methamphetamine use has on the body and mind. Methamphetamine, or meth as it is commonly called, is a powerful synthetic stimulant that causes profound changes in the human body over time.  

Understanding the extent of these changes is useful both to gain greater insights into how meth affects the body, and to serve as a deterrent to prolonged use of methamphetamine.  It should be made clear from the outset that there are no positive changes on the body’s systems from long-term usage. Rather, prolonged meth use causes increasing deterioration of function in both the body and brain, eventually leading to complications that may not be reversible.  

When discussing the long-term effects of meth abuse, it is important to have a base of knowledge about what meth is, how it is manufactured, and how it interacts with the body.  Each of these factors influence the long-term effects of meth use on the body to varying degrees.  Meth is a form of amphetamine that was first synthesized in Japan during the early 20th century.  

Amphetamines are a type of stimulant, or upper, that increases body function, awareness, and limits the effects of fatigue and hunger on the body.  Meth is a more powerful form of the drug amphetamine.  When a person consumes meth, they experience a number of different effects that are tied to how the drug interacts with the body.  

When meth is consumed, the user experiences a very strong state of euphoria that can last up to 12 hours. This euphoria is the result of the action that meth has on both the production of dopamine and the receptors in the brain that interact with dopamine. Dopamine is the substance in the body that is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure. Meth results in extremely high levels of dopamine in the body, leading to the state of euphoria that users feel and repeatedly pursue.

The interaction of meth with the body is not limited to a neurochemical level. Modern meth is manufactured in a plethora of different ways, using a wide variety of different ingredients to achieve the end product.  In the past, meth was manufactured and synthesized using the drug ephedrine, a common ingredient in weight loss aids and cough and cold medicine.  

Since the surge in use of ephedrine as an aid in manufacturing meth, both the sale of ephedrine, and the products it can be contained in, have been heavily monitored and regulated.  This has pushed producers of meth to seek out alternative means of manufacturing their product.  Often, meth is produced using a variety of household chemicals.  Many of these chemicals are toxic or caustic.  

Additionally, meth can be produced using only rudimentary equipment and techniques, resulting in meth production labs having unsanitary conditions.  The method by which meth is consumed combined with both the chemical components used in the production of meth, and the unsanitary conditions that meth is produced under, leads to a wide variety of negative physiological effects that can be striking.  

Meth is generally consumed one of three ways; it is placed in a glass pipe and smoked, it is injected into a vein in a way similar to heroin, or it is snorted.  All three of these modalities of use have different repercussions on the body of the user, which we will explore further in subsequent paragraphs.  Let it suffice to say that although meth is produced in a “meth lab,” often it is done in dirty conditions using chemicals that allow the producer to manufacture the greatest amount of meth possible, for the lowest price, and in the shortest amount of time so as to avoid detection.

Physiological and Psychological Long-Term Effects

The most strikingly visible long-term effects of methamphetamine use are physiological.  Simply put, meth use over time devastates the body.  This devastation is not limited to one area of the body, but rather affects different parts of the human body in different ways and to varying degrees.  

As a whole, extended meth use compromises the body’s physiological structure and bodily systems as a whole.  In this section, we’ll outline some of the most significant effects that prolonged meth use has on the body.  Understand, however, that meth use affects each person differently.  While some addicts may experience all of these issues, others may only experience some of them to various degrees.  

Additionally, the extent of the damage on the body caused by meth is also related to what chemicals are used in the manufacturing of that specific type of meth, and the habit of the person taking it.  Because meth is manufactured in a variety of different ways using different chemicals, these chemicals may interact with a person’s body in differing ways than meth manufactured using a different set of chemicals.  

Put another way, how the specific type of meth that a person takes is manufactured has a significant impact on how it will affect their body over the long term.  Despite this, some effects of meth over a long period of time are simply the result of using abusing a stimulant for a long period of time.  

Dental Decay

Damage to the mouth and teeth of the user is one of the most visibly striking effects of long-term meth usage.  The exact cause of the damage is unknown.  Most experts believe it is due to a combination of smoking or snorting meth, which releases the caustic chemicals used in the manufacturing of the drug into the mouth, combined with the fact that meth use shrinks the blood vessels in the mouth, reducing the amount of saliva that is present and allowing the harsh acids of the mouth to eat away at the gums and enamel of the teeth.   

Although the dental decay caused by meth usage is considered a long-term effect, some users experience significant damage very quickly, sometimes within months or less than a year.  Smoking meth results in the deterioration of the enamel of the teeth, gums, esophagus, nasal passages, and bones of the face.   The result on the teeth is a rapid deterioration resulting in a rotted appearance.  

Often, long-term users of meth will be missing a significant number of teeth, and wear on the remaining teeth will be pronounced and visible.  The teeth of long-term meth users appear yellow and blackish, often described as a rotted appearance, and popularly known as “meth mouth.”  Rotting of the teeth as the result of meth usage has a downside that continues far past when someone stops using meth; often, teeth severely damaged as a result of meth use are not salvageable and must be permanently removed.

Skin and Appearance

Prolonged meth use over time also has a severe negative impact on the skin and overall appearance of the user.  Meth use affects the skin in much the same way that it affects the teeth.  Meth use causes the blood vessels throughout the body to constrict, limiting the flow of blood to the skin.  Normal, healthy blood flow to the skin allows damaged tissue to repair itself regularly.  

With long-term meth users, the skin is not able to repair itself on a regular basis, causing the skin to heal slower and lose its elasticity and healthy appearance.  The lack of regular blood flow caused by meth usage, and the subsequent lack of healing in the skin, also results in the presence of acne and sores.  When under the influence of the drug, many meth users feel that bugs are crawling under the skin, a condition is known as formication, or more commonly called “meth mites,” causing them to scratch at their skin and open new sores or reopen existing sores.   

The presence of open sores for long period of time, combined with generally bad hygiene and a reduced immune system capacity, creates a situation ripe for infection.  All of these factors that affect the skin combine to make the meth user appear years, and sometimes decades, older than they really are.  

A second long-term effect for meth use on the appearance of an individual is related to the stimulant properties of meth itself.  Meth is a powerful stimulant that will dramatically suppress the appetite of the individual taking it.  Over the short term, meth users will often lose a large amount of weight.  Long-term meth users will continue to lose weight, beginning to take on a gaunt, frail appearance.  

At a glance, a long-term meth user is apparent due to their unhealthy weight levels.  The suppression of the appetite results not only in marked weight loss, but also in a state of prolonged poor nutrition, which can have a serious health impact on the user.

Organ Damage

Prolonged meth use has been linked to damaged internal organs, such as the lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver.  Of these, liver failure or cirrhosis of the liver as a result of prolonged meth usage is the best understood.  Liver failure caused by meth use is believed to be the result of either the accumulation of toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing or cutting of meth, or from a buildup of ammonia within the liver during the time that the drug is active in the system.  

The buildup of ammonia causes liver function to decrease, resulting in damage to the liver over time.  Meth can cause damage to the kidneys through the way that it elevates the body temperature of the user.  Elevated body temperature, combined with dehydration, can result in kidney failure which is fatal.   Meth can damage the heart through a combination of constricting blood vessels, which makes it more likely that a blood clot will form, and by elevating the heart rate of the individual which increases the strain placed on the heart.   

Lastly, damage to the lungs caused by meth is believed to be the result of smoking the drug.  When smoked, the toxic chemicals that are used to manufacture meth are combusted and inhaled, whereupon they enter the tissue of the lungs.  Inhaling the toxic medley of chemicals that are commonly found in meth results in significant damage to lung tissue and decreases lung function over time.

Effects on the Brain and Central Nervous System

Meth use side effects on the brain and central nervous system are perhaps the most long-lasting and detrimental to the continued health of the addict. It is an unfortunate fact that many of the negative changes in the brain caused by extended meth use continue long after a person has quit taking meth, with some of the effects being permanent.   

One of the most significant changes that meth has on the brain is by changing the way our body interacts with dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in our bodies responsible for producing feelings of pleasure.  Taking meth results in a buildup of dopamine in the brain, peaking at extremely high levels as meth limits the ability of the body to reabsorb dopamine.  

Over time, however, meth has been shown to destroy the nerve terminals and neuron cell bodies.  The destruction of these nerve terminals and neuron cell bodies results in a decreased ability in long-term meth users to feel pleasure.

Long-term meth usage also has other negative outcomes on neurological health. Prolonged meth usage can lead to damage to the midbrain, occipital lobe, and frontal lobe.  Each of these areas of the brain regulates different functions, and each is critical to functioning normally.  The frontal lobe is responsible for our ability to plan and reason, with damage to this area resulting in a difficulty to think out the consequences of actions and make appropriate decisions.  

Damage to the frontal lobe is also responsible for many of the violent outbursts that characterize meth addicts. An additional sign of meth addiction includes the increased likelihood of irritability, nervousness, anxiousness, and depression. Lastly, the occipital lobe is the area of our brains responsible for processing visual information. Damage to the occipital lobe can result in intensely realistic hallucinations.

Damage to the brain and central nervous system caused by prolonged meth use has been linked to a variety of continued health complications long after the formal recovery process has been completed.  Most notably, long-term meth users have been shown to be at greater risk levels for being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Many long-term meth users may also suffer from muscle spasms. Lastly, many long-term meth users suffer from extended bouts with mental health problems, such as severe anxiety and depression, long after they have stopped taking the drug.

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