Methamphetamine is a widely abused recreational drug in the United States. Known for its highly stimulating and euphoric qualities, meth is one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs on the streets.

While methamphetamine use hit its peak in the 1990s, it was deemed the most abused substance on the planet in 2006. Some 26 million people around the world were reported to have been abusing meth at the time, and while rates have been dropping, it is still an ongoing problem. In fact, meth addiction treatment costs an average of $550 million each year in America.

While meth is known to be extremely addictive and damaging to the body, there is hope for recovery. With multiple treatment options available, individuals can restore their health and lead new lives free from addiction.

What Is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Known more commonly as “meth” or “crystal meth”, this drug owes its addictive quality to the intense high that it produces. Meth stimulates a huge production of dopamine, a pleasure chemical in the brain which generates feelings of euphoria. The high produced from meth is so intense that an individual can become addicted from the first hit.

Sometimes called “ice” or “glass”, meth comes in coarse crystals or shiny blue-white rocks. These are most commonly smoked through a small glass pipe, but they can also be snorted, swallowed, or injected. Meth is also often “cut” with other substances such as prescription medications like opioids or anti-depressants, making it even more dangerous due to the potential interactions.

Meth Addiction Statistics

Meth abuse is staggeringly high in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, 1.6 million adults aged 18 and older were reported to have used methamphetamines in the past year.

A further 52.9% were said to have a meth disorder, and 22.3% reported that they’d injected meth in the past year. Additionally, it is said that 85-90% of stimulant-related drug deaths involve methamphetamines.

The Origins of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine was first synthesized by a Japanese scientist in 1893. It went on to be used for conditions such as narcolepsy, weight loss, and asthma, as well as to keep soldiers awake during World War II.

Today, meth is used as an illicit recreational drug, but it is also less commonly prescribed for conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The active component in meth is ephedrine, derived from the ephedra plant, which was used medicinally in Chinese medicine for centuries. In 1919, scientists were able to streamline ephedrine and turn it into a crystalline form using phosphorous and iodine. This ability to synthesize the drug caused it to be more widely used in the coming years, eventually gaining popularity as a recreational drug.

It wasn’t long before drug cartels began acquiring mass amounts of ephedrine and manufacturing meth on a large scale. However, as meth abuse grew out of control in the 1980s, the United States government began to tighten the regulations around the sale and use of ephedrine. This led to the production of underground meth labs that soon turned to a cheaper precursor — pseudoephedrine — a compound found in common cold medicines.

Meth use exploded in the 1990s, but it has since declined in the last 10 years, owing partly to new regulations around precursors which are now only available behind the counter. Individual purchase of these medications is therefore limited, which has helped decrease some of the small-scale meth productions.

Meth Production

Meth has a reputation for its dangerous makeshift lab culture. While much of today’s meth is produced by larger transnational drug organizations, many individuals have found ways to make the drug, especially in abandoned or rural areas.

Meth makers synthesize the drug (known as cooking) by isolating pseudoephedrine and mixing it with the elements of reactive household products. Some of these products include drain cleaner, paint thinner, battery acid, red phosphorous, and freon.

Not only are these products cheap and easily obtainable, but they also produce toxic, flammable fumes when cooked. Unsurprisingly, this deadly combination has resulted in numerous chemicals explosions, which has given meth labs their hazardous reputation.

It is no surprise that people who cook meth put themselves at risk for severe health problems including asthma, insomnia, and tremors. Also, the residual chemicals left over from a meth cook are not only toxic to the people involded, but also the environment. It is for these reasons that meth labs are often inhospitable once they’ve been used.

On a larger scale, meth that is produced in Mexico and smuggled across borders is kept in a powder form and then shipped to conversion factories where it is transformed into crystals.

The Effects of Meth

The stimulating effect of meth is incredibly potent, which is why people can become addicted to it so quickly. When the drug is inhaled or injected, it produces a “rush” very similar to crack cocaine. Unsurprisingly, injecting produces the strongest high and the rush can last for as long as 30 minutes.

If meth is snorted, it produces euphoric sensations without the rush, but it is also very long lasting. Individuals who use meth can experience a sustained high that lasts for 8 to 24 hours, depending on how they’ve consumed it. People who use meth are also known to binge on the drug, often staying up for multiple days at a time.

Like many drugs, long-term meth use results in increased tolerance. Individuals thus require higher doses to reach the desired effects, which puts them at risk of an overdose. Meth’s widespread availability and low cost also make it susceptible to long-term abuse and addiction.

Below are some of the most common effects of meth use. The longer the drug is used, the more it damages the brain and central nervous system, which is why the effects get even more damaging over time.

Short-Term Effects

  • Elation
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased body temperature
  • Talkativeness
  • Alertness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased wakefulness

Long-Term Effects

  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Weight loss

Other Effects of Methamphetamine Use

Meth use can also produce other physical effects over time. Like cocaine, snorting meth can damage the nasal passage and lead to nosebleeds. Also, meth’s influence over the central nervous system means it can cause heart attacks, seizures, and strokes.

One of the reasons meth is so dangerous is because a large percentage of the drug remains unchanged in the body. While other drugs like cocaine are broken down almost immediately, meth stays in the brain for a long period, making it more physically damaging. This means that long-term meth use can cause significant damage to the brain and to the cells that produce dopamine and serotonin.

Not only can long-term use lead to ongoing depression, anxiety, and agitation, but it can also cause an inability to feel pleasure without the aid of the drug. At its worst, meth use can lead to a life-threatening overdose.

Drugs Used in Combination With Methamphetamine

Meth is often cut with other substances so that dealers can make more profit. However, people using meth will also combine it with other drugs to get a more intense high. These combinations can be dangerous and lead to more serious complications.

Alcohol

The danger of meth is that its stimulating effects can mask the more sedative properties of alcohol. This can cause someone to drink more alcohol than they intend, leading to physical health issues such as liver damage, high blood pressure, psychosis, and sudden death.

Xanax

One of the most common side effects of extended meth use is anxiety. This leads people to take anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax. However, because the two drugs are antagonistic, this causes the heart to simultaneously speed up and slow down. The result of this up and down effect is heart arrhythmias which can potentially lead to heart failure.

Opioids

Opioids like morphine are often mixed with meth to produce what is known as a “speedball”. The combination of meth and opioids results in a more intense high than can be achieved individually by either drug.

However, like the Xanax effect, these drugs produce opposing effects in the body, making it a potentially lethal combination. Speedballs are also more likely to lead to overdoses and it puts people at greater risk of injury or harm as their response times are greatly hindered.

Ecstasy

Ecstasy is a drug that is widely used on the party scene, and is often combined with meth to enhance the high. One of the consequences of mixing these two drugs is the potential for the body to overheat. If the body reaches 105F (41C), it will begin to shut down and cause potential organ failure.

Signs & Symptoms of Methamphetamine Addiction

The signs and symptoms of meth addiction vary from person to person, depending on the method and how long they’ve used it. However, there are physical, psychological, behavioral, and social signs to watch out for.

Physical Signs

Meth is a stimulant, so the physical signs of addiction are synonymous with substances that cause alertness, euphoria, and excessive movement. People who use meth regularly may exhibit some of these symptoms even when the drug has worn off, which is a clear sign of addiction.

  • Increased heart rate and body temperature
  • Flushed skin
  • Itchiness
  • Burns, particularly on the lips or fingers
  • Rotting teeth
  • Skin Sores
  • Dilated pupils
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Hyperactivity
  • Uncontrollable and erratic twitching
  • Damage to the mouth, teeth, and gums
  • Weight loss
  • Bruised or scabbed skin
  • Physical tolerance and withdrawal

Psychological Signs

Individuals who regularly abuse this drug will exhibit psychological signs of dependence, as well as intense emotional changes if the drug has worn off. Because of the severe highs and lows that are caused by such a stimulating drug, individuals will often experience mood issues and irritability. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Intense mood swings
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness
  • Agitation and aggression
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to make effective decisions
  • Exacerbation of any existing mental health conditions

Behavioral Signs

Many of the behavioral signs of meth addiction are also evident with other drug dependencies. Any sudden changes in behavior can indicate a problem and include:

  • Picking obsessively at one’s hair or skin (known as meth bugs)
  • Continuous use despite the negative effects
  • Spending a great deal of time using, obtaining, or recovering from meth
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or social activities
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of meth
  • Failing to meet personal responsibilities
  • Loss of interest (or deterioration in) personal hygiene and physical appearance
  • Lying to friends, colleagues, or loved ones about their meth use
  • Being incapable of controlling their meth use
  • Increasing deliberate social isolation
  • Failing to control meth use despite trying to stop
  • Finding that they only associate with other people who use meth
  • Owning syringes, needles, and other drug paraphernalia related to meth

Other Dangerous Signs

Aside from the signs above, there are other telling symptoms of meth addiction. One of these is called “tweaking”, which consists of a period of about 3 to 15 days where a person has persistent anxiety and insomnia.

Tweaking typically occurs at the end of a drug binge when a person is no longer able to achieve the original rush or high. Tweaking can also cause psychological side-effects that include irritability, paranoia, confusion, hallucinations, and a desperate need to use again. Tweaking can also lead to more severe behaviors such as violence or aggression.

Another dangerous sign of meth addiction is the “crash phase” when the body is deprived of dopamine. This leads to extreme exhaustion for 1 to 3 days and is characterized by intense cravings, depression, and long periods of sleep.

Long-Term Consequences of Meth Use

Of all the street drugs, meth has some of the most damaging long-term effects on health. Part of the reason is that meth significantly changes the structure of the brain and decreases the production of important neurotransmitters.

Meth is also associated with neuronal death in the central nervous system, the loss of which can sometimes never be recovered. The death of these neurons affects key areas of the nervous system related to memory, cognition, attention, and learning. Meth also causes damage to the blood vessels, organs, and skin, so it’s important to seek help before it’s too late.

The physical consequences of long-term meth use include, but are not limited to:

  • Respiratory issues
  • Heart disease
  • Liver failure
  • Teeth damage
  • Arrhythmias
  • Kidney failure
  • Malnutrition
  • Premature aging
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive issues
  • Skin infection
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • Sudden cardiac death

The long-term psychological consequences of meth use include:

  • Impaired cognition
  • Memory loss
  • Paranoia
  • Delusions
  • Depression
  • Anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure)
  • Aggression
  • Psychosis

Another important thing to look out for is a potential meth overdose. Every individual is at risk of an overdose, even if they are experienced at taking the drug. Key signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Agitation
  • Rapid or slow heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Extremely high or low blood pressure
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Seizure
  • Coma

Methamphetamine Addiction Resources

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com

About the Author

Jenn Tomomitsu, PhD

Jenn is a Canadian writer and poet with a background in psychology, sociology, and natural health. She is the founder of The Master in You, a mental wellness site that provides information about the role that thoughts and emotions play in our physical and emotional health. Jenn is passionate about inner growth and the power of the mind-body connection, and this informs her writing and research on addiction treatment. On Rehabaid, Jenn aims to write accessible, informative content and provide resources that can help people make empowered and informed decisions about their recovery.

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