Commonly known as meth, crystal, speed, and ice, methamphetamine is a drug that can be taken orally, injected, snorted, or smoked. While best known as an illegal drug, methamphetamine and other closely related substances do have legitimate medical uses. For example, methamphetamine hydrochloride (Desoxyn) is used to treat attention deficit disorder.
But, most methamphetamine users probably do not have a prescription for methamphetamine nor do they take it to treat certain conditions. Since methamphetamine can be illegally manufactured from common household chemicals and over-the-counter cold products, the drug can be easily bought on the street. Once someone starts using methamphetamine, the risk for abuse is high. Tolerance to the drug is developed quickly, which triggers the person to increase their use of the drug to gain a feeling of euphoria.
Short-term Effects: From High to Low
As a potent psychomotor stimulant that works directly on the brain and spinal cord, the immediate effects of methamphetamines are similar to those of cocaine. They include:
- Sense of well-being
- Increased alertness/wakefulness
- Increased stamina
- Decreased appetite
- Increased sexual arousal
Due to its slow release into the bloodstream, methamphetamine’s effects can last up to twelve hours. The general sense of well-being that methamphetamines produce is due to higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for brain functions that control movement and emotions, such as pleasure and pain. The euphoria, however, soon gives way to a phase of high agitation and a subsequent “crash” when users can fall asleep for 24-48 hours. This phenomenon may result in a binge and crash cycle in which users binge on the drug to prolong the euphoria.
Methamphetamines also cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. These properties can have fatal results in those who overdose. Without intervention, death may result from extremely high body temperature, convulsions, and cardiovascular collapse.
Signs of Abuse
Physical and behavioral signs of continued meth abuse include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Dilated pupils
- Dry or itchy skin
- Impaired speech
- Tooth grinding
- Shortness of breath
- Incessant talking
- Pulling of hair or skin
- Disinterest in normal activities
- Severe depression
In addition, methamphetamine users, especially younger people, may develop “meth mouth,” in which teeth are blackened and rotted. This is may happen because younger users are more susceptible to the corrosive effects of some ingredients used to synthesize meth. Also, the drug itself dries up saliva, which is the mouth’s natural cavity fighter.
Long-term Health Consequences
Over time, frequent meth use interferes with the normal ability to feel pleasure. Methamphetamine dependence can also produce other undesirable psychological effects, such as:
- Aggressive, violent behavior
- Tremors and/or convulsions
- Hallucinations (visual and auditory)
- Paranoia (including the perception of insects crawling on the skin)
- Schizophrenia-like psychosis
Additionally, long-term meth abuse leads to diminished brain and motor function due to a decrease in dopamine function. Long-term users often exhibit problems with verbal learning skills and significant memory loss similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Motor damage may develop in the form of tremors and loss of agility that mimic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
In addition, long-term users suffer from irreversible cardiovascular damage as a result of the stress exerted by rapid, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and extremes in body temperature. Respiratory disorders may also result, as well as damage to the small blood vessels in the brain. Finally, those who handle the corrosive chemicals used to make methamphetamines place themselves at risk for severe lung damage, organ failure, and even death.
There are many treatment programs available to help people recover from methamphetamine addiction. Most programs involve one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and participation in a 12-step program. Family and close friends may also be involved. At the early stages of treatment, the person's physical and mental health are evaluated. In some cases, medicines, like antidepressants, may be prescribed to help the person's recovery.
If you or someone you know is abusing meth, find a treatment program that specializes in methamphetamine addiction. Websites like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer online tools to locate services in your area.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 11/2011 -
- Update Date: 11/07/2011 -