Dangers of Shooting Meth
Recreational needle drug use of any kind is risky. However, injecting meth has its own specific set of dangers and harmful long-term health effects. This page will break down many of the risks and health problems associated with shooting meth as well as a few of the potential physical signs of shooting up.
Health Risks of Intravenous Crystal Meth Use
Intravenous injection, or “shooting up,” is a process by which a substance is introduced directly into the bloodstream via a needle and syringe. Meth is commonly found in rock or powder form, requiring the drug to be dissolved in water or alcohol first prior to being injected.1 When methamphetamine is injected directly into the bloodstream, its intense effects are felt nearly instantly.2
According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), about 18% of people admitted for treatment of amphetamine-type stimulant use disorder report getting high via intravenous injection.3
Dangers of shooting up meth include:
- The highest potential to lead to chronic patterns of abuse compared to other methods because of the way the drug is delivered directly to the bloodstream and rapidly transported into the brain.4
- Abscesses and other localized skin infection due to non-sterilized equipment, unsafe injection technique, and the contaminants often found in illicit substances.5
- Endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart chambers and valves). The use of improperly sterilized needles also increases the risk of bacterial infection of these delicate tissues. Endocarditis can be fatal when left untreated.5
- Contracting infectious diseases like HIV or Hepatitis B and C. Additionally, research shows that injecting meth can also exacerbate HIV/AIDS disease progression after the virus has been contracted.1
- Liver and kidney disease.6
- Wound botulism. Botulism is a life-threatening illness caused by a type of bacteria commonly found in soil (Clostridium botulinum) contaminating a wound or otherwise being introduced to tissues in the body where it then produces a nerve toxin, which can result in muscular paralysis, difficulty breathing, and death.7
- Increased risk of overdose. People who use methamphetamine via non-injection routes such as smoking, snorting, or swallowing pills may be at relatively lower risk of fatal overdose involving crystal meth. Intravenous injection makes it difficult for people to gauge exactly how much of the substance they are administering at once.5
Signs of Shooting Crystal Meth
While only close medical examination or the person themselves can confirm with certainty whether or not someone has been shooting meth, there are many behavioral changes, symptoms, and physical signs of shooting up to look out for if you suspect someone has been injecting methamphetamine.
While not specific to just needle use, some of the adverse effects of methamphetamine abuse include:1,8
- Decreased appetite, malnutrition, and unhealthy weight loss.
- Problematic changes in behavior such as aggression or violence.
- Psychotic features such as paranoia and hallucinations.
- Restlessness and body tremors.
- Cardiovascular changes such as hypertension and abnormal heart rhythm.
- Increased body temperature, skin flushing, and itching.
- Chronic and severe dental health issues (i.e., “meth mouth”).
Signs of Intravenous Drug Use
But how can you tell if someone is shooting up drugs? Potential signs of needle drug use include:5,7
- The presence of syringes, spoons, lighters, and items used for tourniquets or “tying off” could be indicative of needle drug use.
- Scarring, collapsed veins, or “track marks”. The result of puncture wounds inflicted by frequently shooting up. Round or oval shaped scars in a vascular distribution often last for years after ceasing intravenous drug use.
- Non-sterile injection practices and the introduction of pathogens (e.g., bacteria, fungi) can lead to localized skin infection and painful abscess formation.
How Meth Affects the Brain and Body
Methamphetamine rapidly increases the amount of active dopamine—a naturally occurring brain chemical associated with motivation and reward. The euphoric high of methamphetamine, which is accompanied by a large release of dopamine in key reward areas in the brain, reinforces repeated use of the drug, making it highly addictive.1
People who inject meth report feeling an intense “rush” that lasts several minutes, though residual effects of the high can last 12 hours or longer.6 Snorting or swallowing the drug yields a relatively slower onset and less intense euphoria.2 Because the initial high of the drug wears off relatively quickly, people often go on a “run,” repeatedly taking the drug for up to several days at a time, often neglecting to sleep or eat.1
Physical Effects of Meth
The use of crystal meth can have devastating short-term and long-term effects on the brain and body. Physical effects include: 8,9,10
- Skin sores from injecting meth or constant scratching.
- Tooth decay and loss of teeth (sometimes called “meth mouth”), caused by grinding teeth, poor dental hygiene, and poor nutrition.
- Weight loss.
- Cardiovascular problems including:
- High blood pressure.
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat.
- Endocarditis (inflammation of the interior layer of the heart).
- Heart attack.
There is also a significant risk of fatal overdose associated with abusing crystal meth. In 2017, the CDC reported that 15% of all drug overdose deaths involved methamphetamine, while half of those cases also involved an opioid. Illicit sources of methamphetamine is sometimes cut with cheap, deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which serves to increase methamphetamine-related opioid risks.1
Effects of Meth on the Brain
Brain imaging reveals that prolonged methamphetamine use can lead to changes in parts of the brain that coincide “with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning.” Studies confirm that meth-addicted individuals suffer from memory loss, emotional problems, and decreased cognitive abilities.9
Research performed on primates revealed that meth changes the structures within the brain associated with decision-making and the ability to suppress counterproductive habitual behaviors. Such structural and functional brain changes could help to explain why meth addiction is particularly hard to treat and why relapse rates are high in early recovery.9
Methamphetamine use can also have an indirect toxic effect on neurons—specifically by overstimulating microglia: cells that normally support brain health by fighting infection and clearing injured or damaged neurons.9
Treatment for Crystal Meth Abuse
While stimulant abuse—and shooting meth in particular—can have a wide range of deadly effects and is rife with long-term physical and mental health issues, there is hope for people hoping to overcome their addiction. Though some meth-induced brain changes are quite long lasting, some of the aforementioned adverse health effects of chronic methamphetamine misuse have been demonstrated to improve with sustained abstinence (several months to years.9
While there is no universal approach to treating stimulant addiction, certain practices have proven effective. Effective treatment approaches may involve:11,12
- A period of supervised detoxification. Though the physical symptoms of stimulant withdrawal rarely pose immediate health risks, some of the pronounced mental health symptoms can be dangerous. Keeping a person safe and comfortable during this early stage of recovery helps prepare them for additional rehabilitation work.
- Behavioral therapy. There are several forms of behavioral therapy that have been effectively used in treating stimulant use disorders:
- Treatment often begins with motivational interviewing—a process that helps patients observe how methamphetamine impedes their goals and relationships, confront their insecurities, and overcome any ambivalence toward recovery.
- Contingency management, which works by rewarding patients that exhibit positive behaviors, such as attending meetings, taking their prescribed medication, and testing negative on urine toxicology checks.
- Community reinforcement. There are many facets to this approach, including relationship counseling, job skills training, recreational activities, and other techniques that develop a new, positive social network.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a form of counseling that works by getting a patient to understand their problems, learn how to avoid obstacles that hinder their sobriety, target unhealthy patterns, and develop positive behaviors for achieving long-term sobriety.
- While there are currently no medications specifically approved for treating methamphetamine addiction,1 there is ongoing research conducted in the hope of identifying novel pharmacologic or other medical interventions to assist in managing stimulant use disorders. In the meantime, providing access to effective behavioral health interventions and addressing any co-occurring medical, mental health, and social issues provides much benefit to those in recovery.11
- Sustained aftercare. Recovery continues after a patient completes rehabilitation treatment. Effective programs encourage patients to join support groups, maintain contact with peers in recovery, and stay focused on sobriety.11
- Group therapy.
- Family therapy.
- Recreational, art, and music therapy.
- Spiritual and faith-based therapy.
- Dialectical behavior therapy, which is especially effective in treating individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder.13
- Pain management therapy.
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