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Meth Sores: Managing & Recognizing Skin Effects of Meth

Meth sores are primarily caused by the awful and unfortunately common symptom of feeling like insects are crawling under one’s skin that can result from repeated meth use. It’s important to recognize when someone is developing these sores, as they signal a serious problem with methamphetamine. They are likely to get worse over time if the underlying addiction is not treated. 

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How Do Meth Sores Happen?

Methamphetamine use can have several neurological and behavioral consequences, and many people who regularly engage in meth use develop skin sores.[1] This appears to be in large part because a common symptom of meth use is the feeling that insects are crawling under the skin. Because of this, users often pick and scratch their skin to get rid of these imagined insects.[1] 

Meth use also reduces the healthy flow of blood, which lessens the body’s ability to properly heal wounds.[2] When cuts and sores occur, whether because of picking at imagined insects or by other means, they will heal more slowly and are more likely to get infected.[3]  

The ways in which meth compromises the immune system make a person more susceptible to a variety of health issues that might affect the skin, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.[4]

Meth use is also associated with bad acne and occasionally serious burns near the face.[3] Meth-related acne is typically caused by a combination of declining hygiene, toxins leaving through the skin’s pores, and poor blood flow. The burns can be a result of touching overheated meth pipes as well as breathing in smoke that is too hot.[5] 

How Long Does It Take to Get Meth Sores?

The time it takes for meth sores to develop will depend on the frequency of use. Sores and scarring are often the result of repeated irritation and injury. The more frequently a person uses methamphetamine and the more they scratch and pick at their skin, the more likely they are to develop serious sores and other problems with their skin. 

Again, experts think meth sores are most strongly associated with the delusion that insects are crawling under the skin. This isn’t a symptom associated with short-term meth use. This suggests one would likely have to engage in meth use at least semi-regularly before sores are likely to develop. 

What Do Meth Sores Look Like?

Meth sores generally look like fairly bright red scabs of varying size and severity. They also might show signs of infection and healing improperly. If they are given time to heal, they may eventually fade to a lighter red and eventually heal fully, though scarring is possible. 

These sores can be anywhere. Many people associate them with the arms and face because that’s often where they’re most prominent. The overall appearance and health of the skin, as noted earlier, might be further worsened by acne and burns resulting from a person’s repeated meth use. 

The Meth Project famously showed how faces can dramatically change after repeated meth use. With a relatively short period of consistent use, people can become virtually unrecognizable due to the damage caused by meth.[6]  

Do They Go Away on Their Own?

Fundamentally, sores need their root cause to disappear and time to heal in order to go away. If a person repeatedly picks at their wounds, as people who are chronic users of meth often do as a result of the delusions their drug use causes, the sores aren’t going to go away. In fact, they’re likely to worsen over time.

Because meth use also affects the immune system and the body’s ability to heal, sores are less likely to heal properly even if a person stops picking at their skin. If repeatedly developing sores in the same spot, picking at a wound before it heals, or experiencing a reduced ability to heal, scarring becomes more likely. This means that some meth user’s sores and other injuries may leave permanent marks, even if it’s likely they can become much less severe if they can reduce their meth use and stop actively damaging their skin.  

How to Get Rid of Meth Sores

Getting rid of meth sores is a somewhat unique problem in addiction medicine because it requires tackling the problem at both the level of the actual wound itself and the addiction that led to that wound and will continue to cause a person to pick at their skin. 

Regarding the actual wound, a sore needs to stop being picked at and irritated for it to heal. While scabs can itch, and meth use can cause the understandably distressing feeling of insects being under the skin, scabbing over wounds is an important step in the body’s healing process.[7] 

If a sore seems to be especially severe or doesn’t seem to heal properly, see a doctor. They can likely help to reduce itchiness and can treat an infection if one is present.

Regarding addiction, the recommended treatment for meth addiction is a combination of meth detox and behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.[8,9] To get started with treatment, contact an addiction treatment professional. They can help you form a plan based on your needs and the severity of your addiction, helping to give you the best chance of long-term recovery.

Updated March 20, 2024
Resources
  1. What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine misuse? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published January 12, 2022 Accessed February 21, 2024.
  2. Oksana Polesskaya, Silva J, Sanfilippo CM, et al. Methamphetamine causes sustained depression in cerebral blood flow. Brain Research. 2011;1373:91-100.
  3. Deconstructing the damage. The Meth Project. Accessed February 21, 2024.
  4. Salamanca SA, Sorrentino EE, Nosanchuk JD, Martinez LR. Impact of methamphetamine on infection and immunity. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2015;8:445.
  5. Danks RR, Wibbenmeyer L, Faucher LD, et al. Methamphetamine-associated burn injuries: A retrospective analysis. 2004;25(5):425-429.
  6. Faces of meth & what meth does: Before & after pictures. The Meth Project. Accessed February 21, 2024.
  7. Gonzalez AC de O, Costa TF, Andrade Z de A, Medrado ARAP. Wound healing – A literature review. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. 2016;91(5):614-620.
  8. What treatments are effective for people who misuse methamphetamine? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published April 13, 2021 Accessed February 21, 2024.
  9. Moszczynska A. Current and emerging treatments for methamphetamine-use disorder. Current Neuropharmacology. 2021;19(12).
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