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How Meth Affects Your Skin

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 23, 2021

Meth is a central nervous system stimulant that can have profound effects on a person’s skin. Meth causes the skin to appear gray and dry, and can cause conditions such as meth mites, MRSA, and cellulitis.

Meth user scratching skinMethamphetamine use has had some devastating effects on cities and towns across the United States in the last few decades. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) has reported that upwards of 1.6 million people in the United States have used methamphetamines in the past year. Along with this, 774,000 people have reported using meth within the last month.

These numbers are startling but unsurprising, given the nature of how meth affects its users. While a majority of meth users experience an initial rush in confidence, after repeated use the drug begins to wreak havoc on the mental, physical, and emotional health of its users. Methamphetamines have a whole host of different negative symptoms, but one of the most outwardly noticeable is how meth affects the skin of its users. There are a few different ways that meth can affect skin, all of which we will cover in this article. To better understand why and how methamphetamine use can affect the skin, it is important to understand what the drug is, how it’s used, and how it affects its users.

What Is Meth?

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant drug that hijacks the brain’s natural reward system and has profound effects on the central nervous system.Crystal methamphetamine, a particularly potent form of the drug, comes in a form that resembles glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. Other forms of the drug include grey rocks and powder. 

The brain’s release of a chemical called dopamine is responsible for feelings of contentment, joy, and satisfaction. Dopamine plays a very important role in the natural flow of your brain chemistry, and low levels of dopamine may cause negative effects on a person’s mood, motivation, and memory.

Methamphetamine hijacks the brain’s reward system by forcing it to release dopamine at an unnaturally high rate. Like many other stimulant drugs, meth forces the release of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, causing a number of extremely intense euphoric effects, increases in energy, and feelings of invulnerability.

This rush of dopamine is so intense that no natural experience can compare to the first time a person uses meth. This leads to a phenomenon known as “chasing the dragon” in which a user may continue to use, more regularly and in higher doses, in an attempt to capture the high of the first time they used.

Methamphetamine can be consumed in a number of different ways, each with their own unique set of associated dangers. People can take meth by

  • Smoking it in rock or powder form
  • Swallowing it in pill or capsule form
  • Insufflating, or snorting powder up the nostril
  • Injecting a powder that has been dissolved in water or alcohol

Meth And Skin Damage

Perhaps the most readily apparent sign of a meth user is a drastic shift in their physical appearance. Once a person starts using methamphetamine, it immediately causes the blood vessels of the body to constrict. Any constriction of blood vessels can be very harmful to every system of the body for a number of reasons.

Constriction of vessels decreases the flow of blood to all parts of the body, from the skin to the cardiovascular system. This, in turn, makes it so that less oxygen is being supplied to the essential tissues of the body. As individuals begin to use methamphetamines with increased regularity, blood vessels become weaker, leading to a whole host of health complications. Constricted blood vessels make the soft tissues of the body more susceptible to further damage.  This constriction, paired with the weakening of blood vessels over time, make it difficult for the body to repair any damage that has been done.
As a result, methamphetamine users will begin to notice stark differences in their physical appearance, particularly in their skin. The constriction of blood flow will naturally cause their skin to lose its healthy glow and elasticity. Meth users typically notice more wrinkles, skin sagging, and premature aging than non-users. Doctors often report that meth users may appear to be 10 to 15 years older than their actual age, based on the condition of their skin.

Formication Or “Bugs Under The Skin”

One extremely common side effect of meth use is a phenomenon known as formication. Stemming from the Latin root “formica,” meaning ant, formication refers to the psychological and physical sensation of bugs crawling underneath the skin of meth users. This phenomenon is also colloquially referred to as “meth mites.”

Meth mites are a type of tactile hallucination, creating a sensation of something that is not actually there. Someone under the influence of meth may actually believe that they are seeing these bugs as well as feeling them. This sensation of bugs under the skin can lead to the user picking and scratching at their flesh in order to get them out.

Skin picking can lead to a whole host of other issues including ulcers of the face, hands, arms, and legs. Formication and skin picking can also result in scabs that don’t properly heal, leading to scarring and an increased risk of infection. 

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Meth Mouth Sores

Lesions and sores can be caused by the actual act of using meth, not just from the side effects of meth use. When a person smokes meth, they do so with a butane torch and a blown glass bulb held up to their lips. The meth rocks or powders are melted by the torch, and the resulting smoke is inhaled by the user. 

Because smoking meth involves keeping a butane torch and a hot glass pipe pressed against the lips, burns and sores on the mouth are a common occurrence for users of meth. When the glass pipe is overheated, or the smoke itself is too hot, any part of the body that comes in contact with the substance or paraphernalia can be affected. The smoke itself and heat from the pipe can also cause burns and sores inside the mouth and on the tongue.

The Risks Of Intravenous Meth Use

While all methods of use are dangerous, intravenous meth use comes with additional risks.

If a person injects meth, they are at risk for contracting necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria). Other infections may also be contracted at the site of injection, especially if the area is not properly cleaned.

People who inject meth are at risk for developing MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). MRSA can be deadly if not properly treated. People who inject drugs are much more likely to come into contact with a serious staph infection like MRSA.

Meth affects people’s judgment. This drug can lead people to make risky decisions that affect their health. A person may choose to share or reuse needles, which can damage the skin and introduce disease into a person’s system.

How Meth Affects Personal Hygiene

Formication and the sensation of meth mites can lead to noticeable scarring on the face and other parts of the body. Meth can also have other undesirable effects on the skin due to lack of blood flow and circulatory constriction, as discussed above.

Because of the all-encompassing nature of methamphetamine addiction, meth users often neglect all other aspects of their life including work, relationships, and even personal hygiene. 

Cleanliness may cease to be a priority for someone in the throes of meth addiction and, in turn, they may live in an environment that is unhygienic. These types of environments can lead to higher rates of abscess and bacterial skin infection.

This lack of nutrients and buildup of bacteria can cause a person to experience new or worsened acne. Having acne may also cause a person on meth to pick at their skin even more.

This behavior can quickly result in a wound or abscess. These sores are considered points of entry into the bloodstream and could lead to potentially fatal infections such as sepsis.

Often, users of methamphetamines will go for days without eating, sleeping, or showering, as they are in the depths of addiction. Additionally, people who use methamphetamines intravenously may not properly clean the skin prior to injecting, leaving them open to bacteria entering the body. They may also choose to inject with unsterile equipment. As mentioned above, if the skin is unclean, the environment is unsterile, or the needle is not clean it creates a breeding ground for bacteria.

Meth And The Immune System

Meth use constricts the blood vessels of the circulatory system, in turn, limiting the blood flow and oxygen supply to the essential organs of the body. As mentioned above, a decrease in blood flow to systems of the body is the main culprit behind how meth affects the appearance and health of skin.

When the immune system is compromised, it makes it difficult for it to fight off infections from everyday bacteria and leads to a decrease in the ability of the body to heal itself. This leads to an increase in the presence of bacterial and viral infections in the body.

If a person is already in poor health, or struggles with pre-existing conditions, meth use will most likely make their condition even worse. 

Treatment For Meth Addiction At Regard Healthcare

More than 10 million people in the U.S. have experienced the devastating effects of meth.Although this drug can permanently alter a person’s skin — and overall health — it is possible to recover from meth addiction.

Once a person detoxes from meth, they are able to enter addiction treatment. Inpatient treatment centers provide holistic physical, mental, and emotional care through recovery therapies like counseling. Sober living skills, nutrition and wellness, and 12-step support may also be offered.

To learn more about how meth affects your skin, or to find a rehab center near you, reach out to one of our specialists today at (888) 341-4325.

What does meth do to your skin?

Using methamphetamines constricts the blood vessels of the body and leads to less oxygen getting to the skin. This causes the skin to become dry, oily, and appear to have aged prematurely. It also makes it more difficult for sores and lesions on the skin to heal.

Why do meth addicts have bad skin?

Bad skin in meth users happens for a number of reasons. Meth use constricts blood vessels, leading to less oxygen getting to the skin. This can cause a number of skin issues such as dryness, acne, and premature aging. Meth users also typically lack personal hygiene, leading to an increase in bacteria which in turn leads to skin infection and acne.

Why do meth addicts pick their skin?

Meth users pick at their skin due to a phenomenon known as formication, or the hallucination of bugs being under their skin. This sensation causes meth users to pick at their skin until bleeding and sores occur.

Centers for Disease Control - What is MRSA?

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Methamphetamine

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus - Methamphetamine overdose

U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health - Impact of methamphetamine on infection and immunity

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