Methamphetamine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that produces a rush and feelings of energy and pleasure. The relative ease of creating the drug is why it is one of the most well-known illicit substances in the United States. Despite a small drop in meth use in the early 2000s, its availability has increased as the drug is imported illegally.
Addiction to meth can be debilitating, but there is hope for recovery. After quitting the drug, there is evidence that the brain can return to a normal state after a significant period of sobriety.
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Why is Meth Addictive?
Methamphetamine releases a large amount of dopamine in brain cells. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, meaning it sends messages of pleasure and reinforcement, so when someone takes meth, they feel good and try to seek those pleasurable feelings again.
Any consistent use of meth changes the decision-making centers of the brain. The first few times a person gets high, the decision is a conscious choice made in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. After that, the decision moves to the hindbrain — the area responsible for non-voluntary action, such as blinking and breathing.
Methamphetamine use can eventually become so reinforced that it is involuntary. It is possible for the brain to return to a normal state when methamphetamine use feels voluntary, but this often takes several years of sobriety.
Binges are common during methamphetamine use. During a binge, a person continues taking more and more of the drug, ignoring other bodily needs. They may repeatedly dose with methamphetamine in hopes of maintaining the initial, euphoric high. Repeated use will decrease each subsequent “high,” making it impossible to achieve the euphoria from the first time.
Meth Addiction Statistics
Meth is a highly dangerous and addictive substance. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 1.6 million people in the United States reported using methamphetamine.
On average, people start methamphetamine for the first time around the age of 23.
Meth is one of the top illicit drugs involved in emergency room visits. Overdose deaths from methamphetamine increased by 7.5 times between 2007 and 2017. Fifteen percent of all overdose deaths involved methamphetamine.
What Is Meth?
Methamphetamine, or meth for short, is a stimulant medication. Originally taken as a decongestant, antidepressant and weight loss aid, methamphetamine was once widely and legally available in tablet and injectable forms.
After wide popularity in the 1960s, meth was classified as a schedule II substance under the Controlled Substance Act in 1971. Schedule II substances have a recognized medical use, but a high potential for addiction and abuse. Prescription meth (brand name Desoxyn) is indicated to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obesity.
Resurging in the 1980s, meth became popular as a street drug. Methamphetamine has remained popular in these same circumstances up to this day. Today, the vast majority of methamphetamine distribution comes from illegal laboratories and imports.
A key ingredient in meth production is the over-the-counter (OTC) drug pseudoephedrine. The product is “cooked” in a “laboratory” — commonly trailers or remotely located residential homes — and made into a consumable form. Meth labs are notoriously dangerous because the byproducts of the drug’s creation process are toxic and explosive.
The two most common names for methamphetamine — meth and crystal meth — correspond respectively with its two popular forms: powder and rock.
Meth is a crystalline powder. It is most commonly white, though it can also be yellow, pink or brown. It is odorless, bitter and can be dissolved in liquid. It’s most commonly consumed via smoking, snorting or injection. In some cases, it is compressed into a pill.
Crystal meth is clear or blue and takes the shape of coarse crystals. These crystals are commonly said to resemble ice. The rock form of methamphetamine is usually smoked.
Many drug dealers “cut” methamphetamine with other substances to sell less of the actual drug for the same price and fetch a greater profit margin. These cutting substances may be common household powders such as salt, sugar and talcum powder.
In some cases, methamphetamine is cut with prescription medications, ranging from antidepressants to laxatives. These additives can enhance or alter the effect of the drug on a person’s system.
Signs & Symptoms of Meth Addiction
An addiction to meth can cause various side effects that depend on each person’s chemical makeup and the severity of the addiction. Meth addiction symptoms may include:
- Signs & symptoms of a meth addiction:
- Bad breath
- Dilated pupils
- Irregular breathing patterns
- Loss of interest or pleasure
- Low appetite
- Low or no motivation
- Memory problems
- Premature aging of the skin
- Rotting teeth
- Sudden weight loss
- Suicidal thoughts
- Trouble sleeping
Common Drug Combinations and Polysubstance Abuse
Methamphetamines are often cut with other powerful substances, and some people deliberately mix in additional drugs in order to elicit a particular physiological reaction. Methamphetamine interactions can be incredibly dangerous and even fatal.
Drug overdose can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
It’s common for meth to be mixed with:
- Meth & Alcohol:
The stimulant effects of methamphetamines can mask the sedative effects of alcohol and lead to someone drinking more than they typically would. Concurrent consumption can also lead to high blood pressure, increased psychosis and hallucinations, chronic liver damage, cancer and sudden death.
You might be interested in The Dangers of Mixing Meth and Alcohol.
- Meth & Opioids:
People often mix meth and opioids for a dangerous polydrug combination. Morphine is one of the most common opioids used for this combination. The combination produces a high far greater than either drug can generate on its own. This combination of drugs also increases the likelihood that an individual will overdose on opioids as the methamphetamine speeds up their circulatory system.
- Meth & Xanax:
Xanax is a medication that treats anxiety and panic. People using meth may combine it with Xanax to prevent uncomfortable side effects of meth like tremors, restlessness and panic. This drug combination is more addictive than either drug alone.
You might be interested in Xanax Addiction & Abuse.
- Meth & Suboxone:
Suboxone is an opioid that treats opioid dependence. When combined with meth, it reduces side effects and produces an effect similar to a combination of meth and opioids.
- Meth & Klonopin:
The generic for Klonopin is clonazepam, and it is in the same drug class as Xanax. Both drugs are benzodiazepines that can mask the side effects and withdrawal symptoms of meth.
- Meth & Ecstasy:
Chemically similar to both a stimulant and a hallucinogen, ecstasy, also known as MDMA or “molly,” gives a person energy, pleasure and a distorted sense of place and time. When combined with meth, it can increase the likelihood of a person overheating. At a certain temperature, the body begins to shut down, which can be fatal.
You might be interested in Ecstasy/MDMA Addiction & Abuse.
- Meth & Viagra:
Both Viagra and methamphetamines are associated with risky sexual behavior. The combination does not cause an interaction by itself, but Viagra allows for prolonged and dangerous intercourse sessions that may be desired by those taking methamphetamine. The combination is associated with increased HIV infection.
The Dangers of a Meth Addiction
Over time and heavy use of methamphetamine, the body reduces the number of dopamine receptors on the surface of cells. Once the body reduces receptors, even if dopamine returns to normal, brain cells cannot sense it. Therefore, they will be unable to feel normal levels of pleasure. Addiction develops at this stage when a person keeps taking meth to function and feel normal.
- Short-term side effects:
- Decreased appetite
- Energy and decreased tiredness
- Euphoria and rush
- Fast and irregular heartbeat
- Fast breathing
- High body temperature
- Increased attention
- Wakefulness and increased energy
- Weight loss
- Long-term side effects:
- Damage to the heart and blood vessels
- Delusions, or believing things that are not true
- Hallucinations, or seeing and hearing things that are not there
- Memory trouble
- “Meth mouth,” or tooth decay and mouth sores
- Skin infections from picking and scratching
Perhaps the most well-known side effect of the drug is “meth mouth.” Meth mouth involves severe tooth decay, tooth loss, tooth fracture, acid erosion and a number of other problems of the teeth and gums.
Other FAQs About Meth
- Who abuses meth?
Meth is popular all over the United States. Some people use meth to give themselves more energy and make them more productive. It is also popular as a party drug at raves and clubs. Rural areas may be particularly prone to meth addiction because meth labs are easier to run in more remote locations. A lower police presence in spread-out areas may contribute to an increased production of meth.
- What is meth made of and the dangers associated with each ingredient?
The common ingredients of meth —along with where they’re found and their associated dangers— include:
- Acetone is found in nail polish remover and paint thinner. It’s extremely flammable.
- Anhydrous Ammonia is found in fertilizer and some cleaners. Mixing it with other chemicals creates a toxic gas.
- Ephedrine/Pseudoephedrine is found in some cold medicines and diet pills. It can harm the respiratory system, nervous system, and heart in large quantities.
- Hydrochloric Acid is used to make plastic. It is so corrosive that it can remove rust from steel and is capable of eating away flesh.
- Lithium is found in batteries. It burns the skin, is highly explosive, and reacts violently with water.
- Red phosphorus is found on matchboxes, in road flares, and in other explosives. It is highly flammable.
- Toluene is found in brake fluid. It is so corrosive it can dissolve rubber.
- Sodium Hydroxide or lye is used to dissolve roadkill. It is corrosive and can also burn skin or cause blindness.
- Sulfuric Acid is found in drain cleaner or toilet cleaner. It is corrosive and can also burn the skin.
- What does meth look like?
In most cases, methamphetamine is in the form of a crystalline white powder. The powder has no odor, it tastes bitter, and it dissolves in water easily. There may be other colors as well including brown, pink, or yellow-gray. Crystal meth, on the other hand, comes as clear crystals that look like ice.
- How does meth affect the brain?
Methamphetamine affects a number of the brain’s neurotransmitters, but the most affected is dopamine or the pleasure neurotransmitter. When triggered, dopamine sends pleasure signals to various parts of the body and brain and is then stored for later use. When a person uses meth, an excess of dopamine is released into the brain causing users to feel an excess of pleasure or a high. Unlike normal brain functionality, the dopamine released is not recycled and stored for later, which in turn overstimulates the brain. Instead, it remains in the body until the high is replaced with the crash of unpleasant feelings. In order to replicate that feeling and avoid the crash, users will want more of the drug at higher doses.
- How long does meth stay in your system?
The half-life of meth is relatively long and can range from 10 to 12 hours for most people. In other words, during those 10 to 12 hours, 50 percent of the meth that was ingested would be out of your system. Based on the half-life, meth may show up in your body for nearly three days following the most recent use. How meth is administered can affect the half-life and how long meth stays in your body.
- How do I know if someone is on crystal meth?
People on meth typically exhibit certain physical signs. If you’re wondering how to tell if someone is on crystal meth or is abusing crystal meth, symptoms of this drug can include being very awake or physically active and a reduced appetite. Behavioral signs include being very alert or physically active, reduced appetite and weight loss, outbursts or mood swings, and paranoia or hallucinations. Some of the more visible signs of meth use can include dilated pupils, extreme tooth decay, skin sores, exaggerated mannerisms, and rapid breathing.
DEA Diversion Control Division. “Methamphetamine.” July 2019. Accessed September 27. 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “DrugFacts: MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly).” Revised June 2018. Accessed September 27. 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “DrugFacts: Methamphetamine.” Revised May 2019. Accessed September 27. 2019.
Fisher, D.G.; Reynolds, G.L.; Napper, L.E. “Use of crystal methamphetamine, Viagra, and sexual behavior.” Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases, 2010. Accessed September 27. 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “What is the Scope of Methamphetamine Abuse in the United States?” April 2019. Accessed September 27. 2019.
Trujillo, Keith A.; Smith, Monique; Guaderama, Melissa. “Powerful behavioral interactions between methamphetamine and morphine.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 2011. Accessed September 27. 2019.
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