Methamphetamine is used as a recreational drug. It has strong addictive properties which can cause dependence and put the user at risk of overdose and even death.  It destroys lives and families, and has many dramatic effects on your physical and mental health.

Help is available, even if you’ve relapsed several times. Call our helpline, and we will connect you with a knowledgeable and compassionate person ready to listen to your story and suggest a plan to get your life back.

Substance Overview: Meth

Legality

Illegal unless under prescription

Cost

Around $20 per hit

Annual deaths

7,000

Side effects

Damage to brain and heart, mood disturbances, paranoia, violent behavior

Also known as

blue, ice, biker’s coffee, batu, glass, crystal

What is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine, commonly called blue, ice, meth, poor man’s cocaine, glass, biker’s coffee, batu or crystal, is a powerful CNS (central nervous system) stimulant and is extremely addictive. It is one of the most commonly abused drugs around the world. Pharmaceutical methamphetamines are sometimes prescribed to treat ADHD or sleep conditions, but the majority of meth being abused is crystal meth.

Crystal meth is an illicit substance that is illegally manufactured using inexpensive and easily obtained chemicals and over the counter cold medications. The majority of meth being abused in the US is made in Mexico and trafficked into the US by cartels.

Crystal meth is a hard crystalline substance that is glasslike but can be converted to powder or liquid form. 1It is a derivative of amphetamines and produces a powerful and energetic high. Meth use can have devastating consequences like the loss of memory, psychotic behavior, heightened aggression, and malnourishment. Crystal meth is especially dangerous because it contains ingredients that are highly toxic.

Methamphetamine misuse can have devastating consequences like the loss of memory, psychotic behavior, heightened aggression, and malnourishment. It can not only affect an individual’s health adversely but also prove extremely detrimental for an entire community by introducing or increasing social ills like child abuse and unemployment.2

How is Methamphetamine used?

Meth provides a high that is much stronger than cocaine and lasts much longer. It can be smoked, snorted, injected, or taken orally. Meth is long-acting, and remains in the system for a much longer time than other stimulants. After 12 hours of taking meth, 50% of the drug remains in the bloodstream.

Street Value of Methamphetamine

• In 1995 in California an intervention was attempted to disrupt the market for meth by restricting the supply of precursors (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine). This led to a tripling in price and a fall in purity from 90% to 20%. However prices returned to normal within four months, and within 18 months hospital admissions from meth and purity of meth had returned to normal levels.3

• The price per gram of meth has been falling over time, while purity has been increasing. Meth users typically pay around $15–$25 per hit (0.25 grams) of meth.Prices of meth differ largely based on what region of the country you are in.

Health Effects of Methamphetamine

Meth is a factor in many short-term and long-term health effects, and is responsible for around 7,000 drug overdose deaths per year.

Short-Term Health Effects of Methamphetamine

Being a potent stimulant, methamphetamine induces a state of euphoria and is capable of producing effects like enhanced physical activity and alertness even when taken in small doses.

Other short term health effects are:

  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Rise in blood pressure and body temperature
  • Cardiovascular issues like increased heart rate and irregular heartbeat
  • Enhanced attention and lowering of fatigue
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Disturbance in sleep patterns

Short term effects of methamphetamine can cause immediate damage, most of which can be reversed. However persistent use can lead to lasting and irreversible damage to the body and brain.

Long-Term Health Effects of Methamphetamine

Chronic methamphetamine use can cause deleterious effects on overall health and some may even persist after one stops meth usage. These effects include:

  • Increase in blood pressure that can eventually cause strokes, heart attacks, or death
  • Irreparable damage to the brain and heart
  • Damage to the liver, lungs, and kidneys
  • Confusion, sleeplessness, and anxiety
  • Severe itching leading to skin wounds due to aggressive scratching
  • Meth mouth – the term used to describe serious dental issues caused due to meth abuse and is characterized by dry mouth, extensive dental decay, lockjaw, and extensive grinding and clenching of teeth.4
  • Mood disturbances, paranoia, violent or erratic behavior, and delusions.5
  • Development of psychosis with symptoms like auditory (hearing of voices that are not there), visual (seeing shadows or people that are not there), and tactile (feeling as if something is creeping under or on the skin) hallucinations.
  • Suicidal thoughts6
  • Loss of appetite resulting in weight loss
  • Increased risk of developing HIV or Hepatitis B infection due to non-sterile needles used to inject the drug.7 Meth abuse has also been reported to cause increased resistance towards antiretroviral medicines along with an increase in immune dysfunction.

Deaths from Methamphetamine

  • Overdose fatalities from meth increased from around 2,000  to 7,000 between 2011 and 2016
  • Methamphetamine is involved in 15% of drug overdose deaths in the United States (a large portion of which also involve opioid use) 8

Why is Methamphetamine Addictive?

Methamphetamine’s powerful effects are largely related to the drug’s effect on dopamine supplies in the brain. Dopamine is released when a person engages in activities that give pleasure or are vital for a person’s survival like eating food or having sex, and is closely related to addiction.

Over time, drugs that cause the release of large amounts of dopamine create addiction pathways in the brain that make it more difficult to stop using the drug. Meth causes the release of very large amounts of dopamine, making it more addictive than other stimulants like cocaine. The user experiences this increase in dopamine as pleasure, euphoria, high amounts of energy, increased sexual drive, and boosted mood.

Over time, repeated use of a drug like meth that causes large amounts of dopamine to release leads to the brain working to conserve dopamine by releasing less when the drug is used. The desensitization of dopamine receptors results in the rapid onset of tolerance. Because of a tolerance, many users increase their dose of meth to experience the same effects, but this only accelerates the addictive process.

Signs of Methamphetamine Addiction

The immediate onset of euphoria, commonly called ‘rush’, is the most common reason for meth addiction.

As meth users unknowingly shift their prime focus in life to achieving ‘rush’, they tend to lose interest in things that they used to like earlier. Loss of interest in their job can affect their performance leading to unemployment. They lose the urge to sleep or eat and this can last for a couple of hours and may extend to a few days following meth consumption.

After a long period of sleeplessness, ranging from 3 to 15 days, the user enters into a stage called tweaking and the symptoms of this stage are:

  • Exhibiting an extreme level of frustration
  • Unpredictable and, at times, violent behavior
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Fast eye movements
  • Shaky voice
  • Quick and jerky movements
  • Obvious loss of weight due to loss of appetite
  • Redness of eyes

A person in the stage of tweaking is potentially dangerous and needs to be dealt with using extreme caution. Their short temper and unpredictable decisions can prove to be extremely detrimental for themselves and those around them.

Another important sign of addiction is the desire to hide your addiction from your loved ones. Meth users may show social withdrawal and isolate themselves from family and friends.

Withdrawal from Methamphetamine

Meth withdrawal is uncomfortable and begins right away when the individual is no longer using. It will take time for withdrawal symptoms due to the body and neurological changes that have occurred during use.

According to research, meth withdrawal can be divided into two phases: acute and subacute. The acute withdrawals occur first (within 24 hours), are quite severe and can last for about a week. 9 Symptoms of acute withdrawal include extreme fatigue, increased appetite and mood changes including anxiety, irritability or sadness. In some cases, people may also experience psychosis.

The next phase is less severe and can extend over a few weeks. It has been observed that the withdrawal is worse in users who have been on meth for longer periods. This phase includes mainly psychological symptoms which include moodiness, irritability, and anxiety. Studies show that withdrawal symptoms disappear completely within 2 weeks to 20 days of meth use cessation. 10

When the withdrawal symptoms persist for months, it is referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). The signs and symptoms of meth withdrawal are as follows:

  • Anxiety: During meth withdrawal anxiety is one of the most common symptoms experienced. Studies reveal that around 30% of individuals using meth have experienced anxiety disorders.11
  • Depression: Feeling low or remaining in a depressed mood is quite common during withdrawal. This does not typically last beyond the third week of cessation.
  • Sleepiness and fatigue: Meth use causes hyperactivity and, therefore, withdrawal of meth makes the user extremely inactive, drowsy, and tired. Around the 5th day, sleepiness hits its peak which means a person may sleep up to 11 hours a day.
  • Cravings for methamphetamine: The user can experience an increase or reappearance of meth cravings during the withdrawal phase.
  • Increased appetite: During the withdrawal phase meth users can become voracious eaters.
  • Psychosis: Delusions and hallucinations, the symptoms of psychosis, can occur during meth withdrawal.

Methamphetamine addiction in the United States

Meth addiction continues to be a serious issue in the United States. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, methamphetamine falls in the category of Schedule II stimulants, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and addiction. It is only prescribed to people with legitimate issues like narcolepsy or ADHD.

Initially introduced as a prescription drug in the 1930s, meth abuse peaked in the 1950s and 1960s during which time the drug was injected. Its popularity then declined in the next couple of decades as cocaine became more prevalent. By the 1990s, meth returned in the form of crystal meth (a form of meth that is smoked) and swept across the U.S. as an epidemic. This led to the enactment of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA) of 2005 to curtail the illicit manufacture, sale, or possession of methamphetamine.

In the year 2017, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 1.6 million people in the United States were using meth.12

Meth use is most prevalent in the western and midwestern states where it is perceived as the greatest drug threat by police.

Methamphetamine Overdose

A meth overdose is a medical emergency that occurs due to the intake of an excessive amount of meth. As the body fails to neutralize the excess dose, the user experiences deleterious side effects. If the user is not treated in time, a meth overdose can lead to death.

Research indicates that the prime reason for deaths related to meth overdose is heatstroke, which in turn, causes multiple organ failure.13 During an overdose of methamphetamine, there is a steep hike in blood pressure that may cause a hemorrhage or liver failure.

The risk of overdose is much higher when methamphetamines are taken in combination with other drugs, especially opioid drugs. Half of all meth overdoses include the use of an opioid. 14Even when not taken with other drugs, people who buy meth illicitly are always at risk of receiving a tainted, adulterated, or more potent dose that can lead to overdose.

Signs of Meth Overdose

A large exposure to meth may result in the following being present:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Hypertension of hypotension
  • Hyperthermia
  • Chest pain
  • Agitated behavior
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Seizures
  • Fast heartbeat or very slow heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis

Recovery from a meth overdose depends on how quickly the user was brought in for professional medical care. Chances of survival are higher in cases of immediate medical attention. Once the emergency is dealt with successfully, substance abuse treatment and therapy should follow.

Treatment for Meth Overdose

If you suspect a meth overdose, call 911 right away. While waiting for the team of emergency medical professionals to arrive, stay with the person at all times. In the case of a seizure, tilt their head to one side to prevent choking.

Emergency medical treatment will typically involve the following:

  • Decontamination through the administration of oral activated charcoal
  • Poison and drug screening
  • Intravenous administration of fluids to manage raised blood pressure and relieve side effects like nausea
  • Medications to control specific internal complications like cardiovascular problems or weakened kidney function.

Treating Methamphetamine Addiction

There is no definitive set of drugs that have been formulated to treat meth addiction, however there are some that can help in alleviating withdrawal symptoms like tremors, depression, and anxiety.

If a person has been using meth for a very long time, it means that the dose of methamphetamine is higher and that their detox will be difficult and withdrawal symptoms will be high as well.

A comprehensive treatment program for meth addiction consists of medical detox and behavioral therapies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends a minimum of 90 days of participation in substance abuse/addiction treatment programs to achieve the best results.

Meth Detox

Detoxification is the process through which the body flushes out harmful materials, which takes around 50 hours. During the process of detox, one may experience increased hunger, tiredness, anxiety, or depression. This is part of the body and brain recovering and learning to rebalance itself without the drug.

One can choose to stay at home to complete the detox phase. However, doing it in a medical facility meant for detox and addiction therapy is ideal as it may be easier to relapse in the home environment. Moreover, any complication during withdrawal can be taken care of by trained health professionals in a medical facility.

Behavioral Therapy

Methamphetamine is highly addictive and can lead to intense drug cravings and relapse if you fail to be vigilant throughout the treatment period. That is why addiction treatment is ongoing and works best in collaboration with medication management to control changes in mood and neural pathways.

According to studies conducted by NIDA, behavioral therapy has been shown to provide long-lasting results in treating meth addiction. The two types of behavioral therapy are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Individual and group sessions using CBT help people struggling with addiction learn ways to deal with urges, unhelpful thoughts, and control behaviors even when they have urges. Research suggests that improvement can be observed after only a few sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.15
  • Contingency management: This involves the use of motivational incentives such as reward systems like gift vouchers or other compensation for negative drug screenings. Contingency management encourages treatment compliance and motivates individuals to stay meth-free through incentives.

Similar approaches include 12-step support groups through which a person can find peers who have gone through the similar experiences. 16 Support groups are meant to provide hope and encouragement to the participants so that they feel that they are not alone in their struggle and help normalize their experiences.

Calling a Meth Hotline: What to Expect

Meth withdrawal causes anxiety, depression, lethargy, and an increase in meth cravings. The longer the period of meth use, the longer and tougher the withdrawal process.  Many people quit, and then go back to using because of the intense symptoms of withdrawal. Sadly, with every failed attempt to quit, you may feel more and more powerless against the drug.

Through our meth hotline you can learn more about meth detox centers, treatment facilities, and specialized counselors. In fact, we can put you in touch with the most appropriate care based on your situation. Even if you are not sure you are ready to stop using, calling a hotline can help you learn more about your options when you are ready to make a change, and can also remind you that you are not alone.

Last updated: October 1, 2020

About the author

Hailey Shafir
Hailey Shafir, M.Ed., LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS

Hailey Shafir is a licensed addiction specialist and mental health counselor. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a master of education in clinical mental health counseling in 2012, and has developed deep expertise in the areas of mental health, behavioral addictions and substance abuse. She is passionate about using this knowledge to raise awareness, provide clear and accurate information, and to improve the quality of treatment for these disorders.

Hailey is an LCMHCS (license number: S9539) under the North Carolina Board of Mental Health Counselors, and an LCAS (ID: LCAS-21333) and CSS (ID: CCS-20721) under the North Carolina Addictions Specialist Professional Practice Board.

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