‘Speed’ Kills: The Effect of Methamphetamine on the Human Body


Methamphetamine, which is commonly referred to as “meth” or “speed,” is one of the most dangerous and most addictive recreational drugs. Meth’s effects cause a strain on the vital organs and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Meth can wreak considerable damage on the body:

  • Abuse of methamphetamines causes permanent brain damage, impairing the abilities to memorize, reason, and feel normal pleasures.
  • Addicts age very quickly, often becoming extremely thin, with pale complexions and a generally unhealthy appearance.
  • They experience teeth decay (“meth mouth”) and develop disfiguring skin sores from picking at imaginary insects that they come to believe are crawling all over them.
  • If a woman uses methamphetamine during pregnancy, she risks premature delivery and complications, and she puts her baby at risk for birth defects.

Methamphetamine is one of the few illegal drugs with equal numbers of female and male abusers. The reason is that females with eating disorders tend to abuse it – a problem that must be addressed in treatment.

Over time, methamphetamine wears down the addicts’ bodies and ruins their immune systems. Addicts simply push their bodies too long and too hard without allowing for rest, recuperation, and renewal.

These effects occur because methamphetamine abusers often “binge” on their drug, going a week or more without sleeping, becoming hyper-alert and out of control.

  • Individuals who abuse methamphetamines can experience extreme mood swings; become violent toward family, friends, and others; and lose their ability to make sound judgments.
  • Some act paranoid, anxious, and confused. They can experience psychotic symptoms that last for years, even after they have stopped using methamphetamine.
  • Methamphetamine abuse can markedly increase the risk of suicide, suicidal ideation, and psychosis in people who have underlying psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disease.

Symptoms of meth abuse include tremors, flailing arms and legs, convulsions, vomiting, rapid breathing, and diarrhea. If the person survives, he or she may have permanent kidney failure. Methamphetamine not only damages the bodies of people who abuse it, it can also cause death by overdose.

The Road to Meth Addiction

Some people develop an addiction to methamphetamine after experimenting with milder stimulants, such as those prescribed for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or for people with daytime sleepiness. They may believe that these stimulants enhance performance at work or school, or can help with efforts to lose weight. They like the feeling of heightened energy and awareness, increased ability to concentrate, and the loss of appetite. This may then lead them to “progress” into the abuse of stronger stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamines.

Once addicted to stimulants, many individuals find out that these drugs do not enhance their performance over the long term. These drugs cause addiction, and soon finding and using the drug becomes the abusers’ number one priority in life.

Methamphetamine addicts often lose their social lives as well as their jobs. Their children may suffer neglect and have to enter foster care. Methamphetamine addiction can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system, financial difficulties, and a host of other problems.

Dangers of Street Meth

Addicts sometimes can illegally obtain prescription versions of methamphetamine, most commonly Desoxyn®. Desoxyn® comes as small pink or white pills prescribed for weight loss, narcolepsy, and ADHD. Others buy Yaba pills, which are made in Thailand but available for purchase over the Internet. Yaba pills are a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine.

Methamphetamine is also widely available as a street drug, illegally made in kitchen distilleries from common household materials such as cold medications and decongestants. Since these street manufacturers often use lead acetate as a reagent, people who inject their product run the risk of lead poisoning.

Street methamphetamine usually appears as an off-white brownish powder, granulated crystals or clear chunks of “rock” crystals. Street names include ice, crystal, glass, LA glass or quartz.

Meth Addiction Treatment

Methamphetamine addicts rarely decide to enter drug addiction treatment on their own.

Many have previously tried to stop using their drug on their own, only to experience depression and fatigue. They are used to feeling energetic, euphoric, and empowered, even though these are artificial feelings produced by taking their drugs. Depending on the amounts they have been using and the length of time they have been taking methamphetamine, addicts can develop difficulties feeling pleasure in a natural way from everyday, non-drug-related activities. The drug they have been abusing can over-stimulate their brains’ reward systems, making it harder to experience satisfaction and joy.

Methamphetamine addicts need help not only for their physical addiction, but also for the psychological problems that their drug abuse might be masking or making worse. Many people who are addicted to methamphetamine mistakenly think that the drug is enhancing their lives, leading to delusional beliefs about the proficiency of their performance in school or at work.

When they stop using stimulants, many meth users experience the low self-esteem and the extreme lack of confidence that they were trying not to face by using drugs.

Without psychological interventions, methamphetamine users go back to using their drug. They have the highest relapse rate of all addicts, and for this reason, they need good long-term follow-up care after residential treatment.

Long-Term Recovery

Treatment begins with chemical withdrawal or detoxification, which usually lasts from two to four days. Withdrawal symptoms can include sadness, irritability, mood changes, and sleep problem – and unfortunately, there are currently no drugs to counteract these symptoms. After detoxification is complete, the person usually remains in residential treatment for several months.

Treatment usually includes group and individual counseling, family therapy, relapse prevention training, and relaxation techniques. Recovering meth addicts often need to learn to accept themselves and their own limitations through counseling.

Former methamphetamine addicts often have what therapists call “co-morbidities,” that is, other psychological problems that “travel” with their addiction. Common co-occurring conditions include ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression..

Once clients return home after completing their drug treatment for a meth addiction, they will often continue with counseling, support meetings, and other types of follow-up care. Depending upon factors that include the nature and severity of the individual’s addiction and the level of available support, this aftercare can last for several years.

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