Symptoms & Signs of Meth Use

The extreme physical toll of crystal methamphetamine has made it one of the most harrowing drugs to reach the American street drug market.

Crystal meth belongs to a large class of drugs: methamphetamines. While some methamphetamines have legitimate therapeutic value for conditions such as attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy (hence, a Schedule II classification under the Controlled Substances Act), crystal meth is an illicit drug produced in underground meth labs.

Street level crystal meth is typically the chemical known as d-methamphetamine HCI. Crystal meth, as its name connotes, is crystalline in form. The crystals can be crushed and consumed orally, smoked, snorted, or injected.

Physical Signs of Meth Abuse

An unfortunate reality of drug use is that others will often not realize it’s occurring until it reaches the abuse or addiction phase. Crystal meth has such a high addiction potential that it is relatively easy for a regular user to slip from use to abuse to addiction.

Physical signs of meth use will emerge whether the person is new to the drug or becoming increasingly dependent on it. The following are some of the physical signs or dangers associated with meth abuse:

  • A thinning, frail body
  • Facial acne or sores
  • Rotted teeth (“meth mouth”)
  • A droopy quality to the facial skin
  • Convulsions
  • Liver damage
  • Stroke
  • Lowered immunity/susceptibility to infectious disease
  • A dramatic increase in body temperature
  • Increased libido
  • Intense scratching
  • Death

The increased libido side effect necessitates further discussion because it can dispose a person who abuses meth to a host of sexually transmitted diseases. At the neurological level, meth can stimulate sexual arousal as well as increase the level of adrenaline that provides stamina for sexual interaction. When combined with the lower inhibitions associated with meth, those who abuse meth are likely to engage in sexual relations without using any protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Psychological Signs of Abuse

Meth is associated with a host of different psychological side effects. When meth is used, there is an initial feeling of euphoria due to this drug’s ability to increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is one of the main chemical messengers in the brain’s reward system. Drugs, such as meth, that activate the brain’s reward circuitry have a high potential for addiction in general.

But dopamine has functions in the brain other than pleasure alone. Dopamine is also involved in memory and learning ability. Ongoing meth abuse will continually flood the brain with dopamine, which over time, will create an imbalance in the brain’s natural dopamine levels and dopamine-involved operations. Consequently, in the long-term, those who abuse meth may experience memory problems, an inability to learn new motor skills and other tasks, and impaired visual memory.

Meth abuse can cause psychosis in some users. Features of meth-induced psychosis include delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, and irritability. Intense scratching is a physical side effect that is rooted, in some cases, in psychosis. Individuals who experience meth-induced psychosis may perceive bugs crawling all over their skin, and constant scratching and picking are ways to relieve this perceived affliction. As a result of the scratching and picking, skin abrasions and rashes will likely be develop.

Known as “tweaking,” individuals on meth may experience insomnia for 3-15 days. Tweaking may occur as part of a meth binge in which a person continues to use meth to chase the original high. Tweaking can cause psychological side effects, such as paranoia, irritability, and confusion. Tweaking can also lead to rapid eye movements that are easily visible when face to face with the person. In addition, a person who is tweaking may talk in a fast and jumbled manner as well as walk in a jerky motion.

Once in a state of tweaking, a person on meth may be prone to violence and other forms of criminal behavior.

Behavioral Signs of Abuse

Drug use, whether it’s meth or another addictive substance, has a way of rapidly transforming from a recreational option to a major life priority. When individuals make drug use a priority, it is generally only a matter of time before work, school, or relationship problems arise. Although in the initial stages of meth use individuals will take care to attempt to hide the abuse, a common side effect of addiction is that the person using no longer cares about what other people think because the drug use has become all important. This level of self-involvement with meth, to the exclusion of important relationships and obligations, is itself one of the strongest behavioral signs of addiction. Many concerned individuals will not want to approach individuals they suspect are using meth without having some evidence. As a result, family members and other stakeholders may decide to search for meth-related paraphernalia. In some cases, drugs may be found; in other cases, only the paraphernalia may be found. Although finding a drug would seem like the “smoking gun,” the paraphernalia alone is extremely compelling evidence that should not be ignored. Even though meth and paraphernalia are not time stamped, they are very likely to be a sign of present use.

A tipoff that meth abuse is occurring is the presence of the baggies dealers use to hold this drug. Dealers may use small, self-fastening baggies, but an even cheaper alternative is to cut a corner off a sandwich bag (resulting in a small, triangular baggie). These baggies will then typically be fastened with garbage twist ties that are cut short for the purpose.

The type of paraphernalia used depends on the method of administration. Again, meth may be taken by mouth, snorted, smoked, or injected. Smoking paraphernalia can include aluminum foil strips, torch lighters, short straws, hollowed-out pens, glass tubes (with or without a bulb at the end), or gutted light bulbs that are chipped or melted. Those who abuse meth may smoke it in a pipe or set the drug on the aluminum, use a lighter to heat it, and then suck the resulting smoke through a straw, hollowed-out pen, glass tube, or other cylindrical implement. These meth-involved instruments will often have burn residue on them. It is common for persons who use meth to roll the used aluminum slips into balls. Those who snort meth may have implements such as a straw, rolled bills, or a hollowed-out pen. Paraphernalia associated with intravenous use includes syringes, arm bands, and spoons (for heating and liquefying the meth).

Recovery Services


In view of the highly harmful and aggressive side effects of meth abuse, recovery in a structured treatment program is almost always the most prudent and effective course of action.

Recovery from even the most severe case of meth addiction is possible. The best practice is to contact an addiction specialist on staff at a treatment center that offers a full continuum of care services. Depending on the level of meth abuse or addiction, a counselor may recommend outpatient treatment (recovering individuals reside in their own residences) or an inpatient program (recovering individuals reside in the treatment facility).

Medical detox generally occurs in a hospital or specialized detox facility (which may be on site at a rehab center that offers the full spectrum of recovery services). Therapy is a cornerstone of drug recovery, and treatment centers generally offer individual and group sessions.

A recovery program with a 12-Step philosophy will complement its programming with the tenets of Narcotics Anonymous (which are akin to Alcoholics Anonymous). Supplemental treatment includes family therapy (where available) as well as alternative therapy approaches, such as art therapy, equine-assisted therapy, and adventure therapy. As addiction has roots in biology, psychology, and the family environment, involving family in therapy can effectively addresses any tensions that contributed to the initiation of the abuse or helped to fuel it. Alternative therapies may allow clients to open up via nontraditional and innovative methods.

Last Updated on September 7, 2022
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