The Meth Mess: Drug's effect on the body can be deadly

The repeated use of meth can change a person’s physical appearance, and one of the more common ailments is “meth mouth,” a type of tooth decay that is common in chronic meth users. (AP Photo)
Posted: Jan. 15, 2014 8:59 am Updated: Jan. 26, 2015 1:55 pm
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Rick realizes that years of drug and alcohol abuse have damaged his body.

Methamphetamine was his last drug of choice, abusing it daily for three years. Rick, a Quincy man in his late 40s who asked that his real name not be used, says he doesn’t remember things the way he used to when he was younger. That might simply be a sign of old age setting in, but Rick made it a point to memorize “The Serenity Prayer.”

“I realize I’ve done some brain damage,” he said before perfectly reciting the prayer, which has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

It’s difficult to determine whether Rick’s drug use has affected his brain, but it definitely robbed him of several teeth on the left side of his mouth.

“I used to grit my teeth all the time when I was on meth,” he said.

Meth is so addictive that many people are hooked after the first time they try it. The quick, long-lasting high, coupled with the relatively inexpensive materials needed to make the drug, has made it a favorite of drug abusers.

“A lot of people get an extreme high with this,” said Dr. Richard Saalborn, medical director of the Blessing Hospital Emergency Center. “That high lasts 12 to 24 hours, sometimes just with single usage. A drug like cocaine may last 30, 45 minutes.”

It’s a high that meth users constantly chase.

“Once they start using it, their brain learns to release the chemical in that unnatural way,” said Gail Westerhoff, a former counselor at Great River Recovery Resources. “It’s a lot stronger than by doing exercise or shopping or having sex or something like that. They can’t get that good feeling any other way. Eventually, the brain doesn’t release those hormones on its own. It has to have the drug to do that.”

Meth use can lead to heart attacks, stroke, high body temperature or seizures. Pregnant women who use the drug could go into labor early. Long-term use of the drug can lead to violent behavior, feelings of anxiousness and paranoia, and mood changes.

It can change a person’s physical appearance, as well. The more common ailments are “meth mouth,” a type of tooth decay common in chronic meth users; “skin popping,” which are chronic skin lesions; and multiple skin excoriations that users constantly pick at.

Jessica, a former meth user from Quincy who asked that her real name not be used, said she felt the physical effects of the drug use.

Although most people lose weight when they take meth, Jessica said she experienced the opposite effect during her nearly two decades of meth use.

“I gained a lot of weight,” she said. “I wasn’t that skinny when I was using. I swelled up when I was using. I always got fat, and my face would swell up. I looked bad.”

Jessica’s mouth also suffered as a result of her meth use. She has lost many teeth and has to wear dentures.

“It’s not like we didn’t brush,” she said. “That stuff just eats the heck out of you.”

Kicking the meth habit isn’t as easy, experts said. Meth addicts need between 18 to 24 months of clean time to withdraw from the drug.

Saalborn said no medicine exists that can help meth users kick the habit.

“With heroin or marijuana, you can put them on drugs that make them very sick when they use it,” he said. “There isn’t that type of antidote for meth. The big thing is, when they get this extreme high, they have to keep going back to it.”

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