What is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine, also known as meth, crystal, chalk, and ice, is a substance that is often sold illegally.1 It can be ingested in the form of a pill, smoked in a pipe, or injected with a needle.1 This white and odorless powder is a drug, or chemical not naturally produced in the body, that has a significant effect on the body when taken in small doses.1,2 Drugs often mimic chemicals that occur naturally in the body, and work to either intensify or inhibit the effects of these naturally occurring chemicals. Drugs injected intravenously, or through the veins, have the fastest effect. This is because the drug is carried through the bloodstream directly to the brain. However, a drug must have certain properties, such as being small in size, in order to effectively reach the brain and thus alter the body’s natural state.2
Methamphetamine is addictive because it produces instant euphoria that lasts for only a short period of time.1 This can lead a user to take the drug many times in order to maintain a “high.” Each time they take the drug, users need to increase their dosage in order to feel the same effect. This phenomenon is referred to as tolerance, which occurs when a drug is taken repeatedly and systematically decreases its overall effect on the body/brain.2
Effects on the Brain
Methamphetamine causes the amount of the dopamine in the brain to increase drastically. 1 Dopamine is a chemical that occurs naturally in the brain. Dopamine normally affects pleasure, movement, attention, and learning. It also reinforces the effects and cyclical abuse of drugs that people use, including methamphetamine.2 This reinforced abuse of meth and other drugs is due to the build up of tolerance. A user will feel a “high” when the drug reaches their brain, and because methamphetamine greatly increases the amount of dopamine in reward regions of the brain, the euphoric feeling that follows is highly addictive.1 Methamphetamine increases the amount of dopamine in the brain at four to eight times the normal level, causing the pleasure centers of the brain to be highly stimulated. It does this by blocking reuptake — normally dopamine is absorbed back into the body very quickly after producing its intended effect, but methamphetamine prevents this and, therefore, maintains an abnormally high amount of dopamine in the system.2 These prolonged alterations of normal brain chemistry often lead to unintended side effects, or effects that the drug has on the body in addition to the intended psychological effects. Repeated abuse of methamphetamine oftern changes a person's brain chemistry in a way that makes users incapable of naturally producing dopamine without the use of this drug. This effect, combined with the user's gradually decreasing sensitivity (or tolerance) to the drug itself, often leads a person to use meth in stronger and more frequent doses as time goes on.
Effects on the Body
Other than the euphoric effects experienced by users, methamphetamine can have severe side effects on the physiology of the body and brain. Chronic users may display symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and disordered mood. 1 Other health effects include prolonged wakefulness, increased movement, rapid breathing and heart beat, and high blood pressure. Users may also experience weight loss, dental problems, and sores on the skin caused by scratching. 1
Methamphetamine and Sex
Methamphetamine has a significant effect on the chemistry of the brain, and therefore can alter many aspects of one’s personality and cognition, including judgement, self control, and perception. Due to these changes, users may be more prone to practice unsafe sex as their judgement may be too impaired to remember to use a condom or to ask their partner if they are free of sexually transmitted infections. Users may share needles while injecting drugs, increasing their risk of contracting serologically (body fluids such as blood) transmitted diseases such as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) or Hepatitis B and C.1 Additionally, some addicts may feel the need to resort to desperate measures to obtain more drugs, including exchanging sexual favors for drugs or drug money.
Methamphetamine use alters the judgement of the user and, therefore, may lead to an increase in risky sexual behavior. These risky behaviors include anal sex without a condom or even knowingly engaging in unprotected sexual behavior with someone who has HIV.3 This may be due to desperation to attain drugs, a lack of regard for one’s own health, or a lack of knowledge about HIV transmission. Methamphetamine use may also increase one’s sex drive, leading to additional risky sex behaviors. One such behavior is referred to as a sex “marathon," during which users take advantage of the increased sex drive and delayed ejaculation that often occur as a result of methamphetamine use. Methamphetamine also alters bodily secretions, causing the genital skin to become dry and thus more easily lesioned during intercourse. HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids (such as semen, vaginal fluid, blood, and breast milk), and even small tears in the delicate tissue of the anal and genital skin can greatly increase the chances of transmitting contaminated bodily secretions.3 Methamphetamine has been used to increase the intensity of sexual intercourse, and is often used in bath houses and sex clubs. The prolonged erection that accompanies delayed ejaculation has also made methamphetamine a drug used in sex work.3 However, because methamphetamine can also prevent the user from achieving a full erection, sufferers of a condition known as “crystal dick” are often the receptive partners in situations of anal sex. In situations with two potentially insertive anal sex partners, an indivudual unable to achieve an erection will likely be receptive. The drug use that leads to this condition will likely have affected the skin in their mucous membranes, further endangering them by increasing their potential for getting potentially infected semen into their bloodstream. In combination with the desperation to get access to drugs, or the lack of concern about serological exchange, methamphetamine users, especially gay and bisexual men, have a greatly increased risk of contracting HIV.3
Methamphetamine and Pregnancy
The side effects that accompany methamphetamine use pose an increased risk to pregnant women, as the risky sexual behavior seen in users may cause STIs (sexually transmitted infections) to be transmitted to the developing fetus. Prenatal exposure to the drug itself may also affect an infant’s brain development. These infants may be born prematurely, have low birth weight, have heart defects, or be subject to other birth defects. These effects have even been seen in the children of one-time meth users. The drug is so toxic that infants who are exposed to methamphetamine while in the womb often exhibit more detrimental effects than those exposed to alcohol. The caudate nucleus, a brain area associated with essential cognitive functions such as learning, memory, movement, and motivation, is heavily affected by methamphetamine. Brain areas in children prenatally exposed to methamphetamine are smaller in size than unaffected children as well as those exposed to alcohol. Pregnancy complications, such as high blood pressure (also known as preeclampsia), may also be intensified with methamphetamine use. Cesarean sections are also more common in methamphetamine using mothers. These complications may arise from methamphetamine users’ lack of regard for their own self-care and resulting lack of prenatal precautions.4
Methamphetamine is a drug with highly addictive effects, such as increased libido and stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. Thus, users will go to extreme measures to procure the drug, placing themselves in danger of violence, risky sexual behavior, and the many side effects of methamphetamine itself. These risky behaviors pose a threat to the outbreak of HIV. Additionally, intravenous drug use exposes many individuals to blood-borne illnesses that they otherwise may not have come into contact with. A shift in disease incidence rates has revealed that HIV caused by drug use is becoming a problem in pregnant women. Methamphetamine is a highly potent substance, and it not only has detrimental effects on the user but also on developing infants, adding to the urgency of dealing with its increasing popularity as a “sex drug.”
- "Methamphetamine." DrugFacts. National Institute of Drug Abuse, Jan. 2014. Web. 14 May 2016.
- Carlson, Neil R. Psychopharmacology. Physiology of Behavior. 11th ed. USA: Pearson Education, 2013. 100-29. Print.
- Frosch, Dominick, BA, Steven Shoptaw, PhD, Alice Huber, PhD, Richard Rawson, PhD, and Walter Ling, MD. "Sexual HIV Risk among Gay and Bisexual Male Methamphetamine Abusers." Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 13.6 (1996): 483-86. Sciencedirect.com. Elsevier. Web. 16 May 2016.
- "Meth and Pregnancy." Meth and Pregnancy. Crystalmethaddiction.org, n.d. Web. 18 May 2016.
Last updated May 17, 2016.