21 May Methamphetamine Use and Vasculitis
Vasculitis is the general medical term for inflammation inside the body’s blood vessels. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies the blood vessels as a source of danger and attacks them. Vasculitis can appear almost anywhere in the body, and produces levels of damage that range in severity from minor and/or temporary to chronic and/or life-threatening. Use of the street drug methamphetamine can produce changes in blood vessel health that lead to the onset of vasculitis. In turn, meth users with vasculitis have increased risks for dying from severe health problems such as a stroke or an artery condition called aortic dissection.
The immune system produces inflammation inside the body’s blood vessels by sending certain cells and chemicals to a given site within an artery or vein. Normally, these immune system components attack foreign invaders in the bloodstream, break them down and eliminate them. However, in people with vasculitis, the immune system mistakenly identifies the blood vessels walls as “intruders” and attacks them in the same way they would attack an invading microorganism. No one knows precisely why this mistake occurs, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. However, in some cases, people who experience an internal attack on their blood vessels have health problems that include a current or recently resolved infection, or an autoimmune condition such as scleroderma, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions may predispose affected individuals to the development of vasculitis. In addition, some people develop vasculitis in the aftermath of exposure to certain medications or drugs.
Specific types of vasculitis typically appear in specific types of blood vessels, the American College of Rheumatology reports. For instance, vasculitis that appears in the body’s main artery (called the aorta) or large branches of that artery goes by names that include giant cell arteritis and isolated aortitis. Types of vasculitis found in smaller arteries go by names that include Kawasaki disease, Churg-Strauss syndrome, and polyarteritis nodosa. Types of vasculitis that can occur in arteries or veins include relapsing polychondritis and Behcet’s syndrome. Vasculitis caused by drug or medication exposure commonly appears in small arteries located in various parts of the body.
As noted previously, some forms of vasculitis last only temporarily or appear without causing any serious problems, while other forms of the condition cause chronic problems or set the stage for life-threatening changes in normal health. If the inflammation in a vasculitis-affected artery significantly narrows the interior of that artery, it can produce a restriction in blood flow that contributes to a damaging loss of oxygen in the tissues fed by the artery.
If such an oxygen loss occurs in one of the heart’s arteries, it can trigger a heart attack; if it occurs within the brain, it can trigger a stroke. A vasculitis-related stroke can also occur if damage in an affected artery produces local conditions that favor the formation of a blood clot. In addition, vasculitis-related damage can lead to weakening of an artery wall and the formation of a dangerous ballooning or bulging in that wall known as an aneurysm. If this process occurs in the aorta, it can result in a highly dangerous tearing in this artery called an aortic dissection.
The Effects of Methamphetamine Use
Methamphetamine use can support the onset of vasculitis in several different ways. First, the presence of methamphetamine in the bloodstream can directly irritate blood vessel walls, and thereby trigger a response from the immune system that leads to the development of significant inflammation-related damage. In many cases, methamphetamine also contains additives or adulterants that add to the drug’s irritating effects on the blood vessels and further encourage an inflammation-producing immune system response.
In addition, methamphetamine can promote vasculitis through its ability to increase the body’s supply of a chemical called norepinephrine, which helps control the interior diameter of both arteries and veins. When norepinephrine levels rise, they produce a blood vessel narrowing that can simultaneously restrict blood flow and increase the amount of pressure exerted on various arteries. On top of these potential contributions to vasculitis, chronic methamphetamine use can lead to a weakening of the immune system that makes it easier for a variety of infectious microorganisms to gain a foothold. As noted previously, the presence of an active infection can sometimes play a role in vasculitis development.
People who use methamphetamine have increased risks for both strokes and heart attacks, the University of Montana reports. According to a study published in 2007 in the Journal of Cardiac Surgery, methamphetamine use is also a clear risk factor for the development of an aortic dissection. While the underlying causes of these conditions may vary from case to case, the presence of meth-related vasculitis likely plays a role in a considerable number of these potentially fatal health complications.
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