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Recognizing a Meth Addict: Symptoms, Signs and Recovery

Methamphetamine (meth, crystal, chalk and ice) is an extremely addictive stimulant drug with chemical properties similar to amphetamine. Anyone who uses meth runs a high risk of becoming dependent on it. A white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder, meth is taken orally, smoked, snorted or dissolved in liquid (water or alcohol) and injected. Regardless of the method used, meth use is associated with an immediate intense euphoria, cravings, risky behavior, brain dysfunction and deficits in regulating self-control.1,2

Meth Stats and Facts

  • The number of current meth users ages 12 or older increased by 61% between 2010 and 2014, while the number of new users in the same age demographic and time period increased by 71%.3
  • In 2015, an estimated 897,000 people ages 12 or older were current users of meth. Of those, 13,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 and 128,000 young adults ages 18 to 25 were current meth users.4
  • The number of meth-related treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities increased to 130,033 in 2013, a 10.6% increase from 2012 admissions.3
  • Nationwide, 3% of students in grades 9 to 12 had used meth one or more times.5
  • The prevalence of students in grades 9 to 12 who ever used meth was 3.6% in males versus 2.3% in females (2.3%); 3.9% in black males versus 1.4% in black females and 5.6% in 12th-grade males versus 1.8% in 12th-grade female students.5
  • Recent research indicates 15.6% of pregnant women who seek substance abuse treatment do so for meth use.6

Meth Symptoms and Signs

If you find specific drug paraphernalia scattered about, this is a likely sign of meth use. Syringes are associated with heavy meth use. Look for crumpled aluminum foil with burn marks and straws or hollowed out ballpoint pens used to snort or smoke the drug. Other signs are spoons with burn marks used to melt the drug in water prior to injection, and small pieces of cotton or cigarette filters used to filter the solution.7

Perhaps the most infamous physical sign of meth use is an oral health condition known as “meth mouth.” Researchers surmise chronic meth use can lead to significantly less saliva production, associated dry mouth and bad breath, as well as extensive bruxism. This in turn leads to an increased risk of dental cavities, periodontal lesions and dental erosions. Recent research indicates 72% of meth users have dry mouth, 68% experience jaw clenching and 47% have temporomandibular joint pain.7,8

Heavy meth use can result in a physiological manifestation known as “meth or crank bugs,” which causes people to incessantly scratch or pick at their skin. Meth use increases body temperature and blood flow to the skin, resulting in excessive sweating. Perspiration contains an enzyme that increases blood flow to the skin. When sweat evaporates, this strips out sebaceous oil that normally protects the skin. The combination of dehydration, sweating and loss of sebaceous oil creates a sensation that feels like bugs crawling on or under the skin (called formication). In worst-case scenarios, abusers use scissors, knives and razor blades in an attempt to remove the fictitious bugs, creating festering sores and open wounds at risk of serious infection.9

Other Physical Symptoms

People who use meth can experience many other symptoms in addition to meth mouth and meth bugs.2

  • Increased blood pressure and breathing rate
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Loss of appetite and extreme weight loss
  • Sleeplessness
  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Uncontrollable jaw clenching
  • Respiratory abnormalities
  • Collapsed nasal cavity or nosebleeds
  • Microvascular hemorrhage
  • Eye damage and vision impairment
  • Reproductive health issues
  • Impaired sexual motivation and performance
  • Impaired immune system
  • Blood clots
  • Kidney disorders
  • Liver damage

Meth Recovery and Detox

It is not uncommon for chronic meth users to become homeless, lose their families, go bankrupt or wind up incarcerated. Depressed, filled with self-hatred, yet unable to quit using meth, many addicts become suicidal. Even if they do not act on the impulse to take their lives, these thoughts are devastating. Instead of getting treatment, too many chronic meth addicts resort to using more meth.

Meth addiction recovery includes pharmacological and psychosocial interventions and community-based prevention. According to research, the most promising pharmacological treatments are associated with administration of modafinil, bupropion and naltrexone.10 Psychosocial interventions are generally effective on a short-term basis and community-based prevention approaches have also shown some benefits. Most inpatient treatment programs utilize a combination of evidence-based strategies and therapies.

Although there are few physical symptoms accompanying meth withdrawal, the psychological side effects can be extremely uncomfortable and present a major barrier to recovery. Intense meth cravings coupled with deep psychological lows often cause relapse. Symptoms of meth withdrawal include:

  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue, and sleeping for days on end
  • Increased hunger
  • Intense cravings
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Paranoia
  • Severe depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

Getting clean after being a meth addict is a difficult process and one that few individuals can successfully undertake alone. The longer a person uses meth, the harder it is to tackle rehab, including overcoming high levels of meth depression. The best way to detox from meth is to do so at a licensed detox facility under constant medical supervision, without access to meth or any other intoxicating substances.

After a meth user goes through treatment, those who love and care for that person may breathe a sigh of relief. While it may appear that the nightmare is over and everything will go back to normal, the reality is that meth addiction is tough to conquer and many addicts relapse. Knowing potential signs of relapse can help those closest to the addict intervene and seek professional help.

Signs of Relapse

Skipping meetings — After a person has attended 12-step meetings for few weeks or months and stayed clean, they may assume the meetings are no longer necessary. This is a huge mistake and one of the first indications that one may be on the path toward relapse.

Hanging out with old friends who use — While it is tough to ditch old friends, this external trigger far too often causes a recovering drug addict to use again. When a recovering addict is tempted to call and hang out with drug-using pals, this impulse must be controlled because it could easily trigger a relapse.

Justifying “just one time” — Sometimes a meth addict in recovery believes that using meth just one time is acceptable. Many people think they can handle this, but using meth just once can set off the vicious addiction cycle, causing years of hard work to evaporate into thin air.

Using alcohol or other drugs — A recovering meth addict may think they can drink alcohol, smoke a joint, or pop a few painkillers, but this is simply substituting one drug for another. More often than not, an individual who resorts to this behavior gravitates to more frequent use of the substitute drug before relapsing to meth use.

During inpatient treatment, a client had access to professional help any time he or she experienced depression or anxiety. Hopefully, they learned and retained coping methods for dealing with emotions and triggers that lead to relapse. Once a person is in recovery from meth addiction, life poses a series of ongoing challenges. Dealing with the realities associated with a long-term meth-free life is difficult for most former meth addicts. The good news is that despite the damage and considerable challenges meth inflicted on an addict and his or her family and friends, it is possible to reclaim life after meth addiction.

  1. Drug Facts: Methamphetamine. National Institute on Drug Abuse website https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine Updated January 2014. Accessed December 10, 2016.
  2. Crystal Meth Abuse. Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/library/crystal-meth-abuse/ Accessed December 10, 2016
  3. 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. United States Drug Enforcement Administration website. https://www.dea.gov/resource-center/2016%20NDTA%20Summary.pdf Published December 6, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2016.
  4. Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. http://www.samhsa.gov/samhsa-data-outcomes-quality/major-data-collections/reports-detailed-tables-2015-NSDUH Updated November 7, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2016.
  5. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6523a7.htm Published June 10, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2016.
  6. Jumah NA. Rural, Pregnant, and Opioid Dependent: A Systematic Review. Subst Abuse. 2016 Jun 20;10(Suppl 1):35-41. doi: 10.4137/SART.S34547. eCollection 2016.
  7. How Do I Know if Someone Is Addicted to Meth? The Fix website. https://www.thefix.com/how-do-i-know-if-someone-addicted-meth Published September 2, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2016.
  8. Rommel N, Rohleder NH, Koerdt S, et al. Sympathomimetic effects of chronic methamphetamine abuse on oral health: a cross-sectional study. BMC Oral Health. 2016;16:59. doi:10.1186/s12903-016-0218-8.
  9. Bugs: Don’t Scratch That Phantom Itch! Drug Abuse website. http://drugabuse.com/ice-bugs-dont-scratch-that-phantom-itch/ Accessed December 10, 2016.
  10. Galbraith N. The methamphetamine problem: Commentary on … Psychiatric morbidity and socio-occupational dysfunction in residents of a drug rehabilitation centre. BJPsych Bulletin. 2015;39(5):218-220. doi:10.1192/pb.bp.115.050930.

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