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  • Addiction & recovery

A Drug Called Ice

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David Schwartz, MD

November 19, 2021

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Ice or crystal meth is a pure and potent formulation of methamphetamine that comes as clear crystal chunks or shiny blue-white rocks. Ice is a synthetic central nervous system stimulant that releases high dopamine levels in the brain. Crystal meth is manufactured by mixing pseudoephedrine: a substance commonly used in cold medicines, or ephedrine: a medication for low blood pressure during hypotension, with various other base products, including common pharmaceutical substances and household chemicals. Ice has no legal use and is far more addictive and harmful than its powdered form. And it’s currently a popular party drug used by people of all demographics. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), around 1.6 million people reported using meth in 2016.

How Is Ice Used?

Ice is generally smoked through a small glass pipe, but it can also be injected, swallowed, or snorted. Smoking or injecting crystal meth produces an immediate, intense effect within 15-30 seconds. Snorting produces effects within 3-5 minutes, while oral intake takes 15-20 minutes to produce effects. The effects of crystal meth generally last for up to 24 hours.

Most people take crystal meth in a “binge and crash” pattern by taking multiple hits in succession. While others take the substance in a pattern called a “run” by giving up sleep and food for several days to take ice every few hours.

Ice Drug Effects

Ice produces various effects rapidly. These effects can vary from one person to another based on how much is taken, its purity, and polysubstance use. These effects may include:

  • Intoxication 
  • Increased sense of well-being and confidence
  • Increased alertness, talkativeness, and energy levels 
  • Reduced appetite 
  • Increased sex drive (libido)
  • Enlarged pupils 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Fast heart rate
  • Teeth grinding 
  • Faster breathing
  • Itching and scratching 

There is no safe level for crystal meth use. The use of any amount of ice always carries a risk. 

Ice Drug Side Effects

Long-term use of crystal methamphetamine can cause ice psychosis, characterized by hallucinations, paranoid delusions, and bizarre and violent behavior. Chronic use of ice is also associated with significant damage to the brain’s serotonin and dopamine nerve terminals and increasing the risk of nerve disorders such as Parkinson’s. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), brain imaging studies after chronic methamphetamine use reveal significant changes to the dopamine system in the brain while also compromising a person’s verbal learning and motor skills. 

Other risks of long-term crystal methamphetamine use include:

  • Severe tooth decay (meth mouth)
  • Extreme weight loss due to decreased appetite
  • Depression 
  • Heart, kidney, and lung problems 
  • Stroke 
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Poor sleep
  • Stiff muscles 
  • Regular colds or flu
  • Addiction and dependence 

How ice is used can also cause various health effects. For instance, snorting ice can cause nose bleeds, sinus problems, and damage to the insides of the nose, while injecting ice with unsterilized or shared injections can increase the risk of contracting blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B and C, HIV, blood poisoning, and tetanus. Injecting crystal meth can also result in blocked blood vessels, leading to inflamed blood vessels, abscesses, and serious damage to the liver, kidney, or heart. 

 

Crystal Meth Overdose 

Overdose is another possible health risk of taking crystal methamphetamine. Crystal meth overdose occurs when large doses of the substance are taken within a short period or when combined with other substances such as benzodiazepines or alcohol. 

Some of the symptoms of ice overdose include:

  • Chest pain 
  • Racing heart
  • Breathing difficulties 
  • Seizures or uncontrolled jerking 
  • Agitation 
  • Confusion 
  • Severe headache
  • Loss of consciousness 

Crystal meth overdose is a medical emergency that can cause heart attack, stroke, coma, or death if left untreated. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around 15% of all substance-related overdose deaths in 2017 involved methamphetamine. Thus, it is critical to seek immediate medical attention to prevent the situation from worsening. 

 

Crystal Meth Comedown 

The initial effects of crystal meth are immediately followed by a crash, also known as a comedown. As the dopamine levels drop below normal and the body’s energy depletes from overexertion, people experience various unpleasant symptoms after the initial effects wear off. Coming down from ice is different and less serious than withdrawal and is viewed more like a hangover that typically lasts for 1-2 days. However, the symptoms of a crystal meth comedown can be more severe than an alcohol hangover due to its effects on the body. 

Symptoms of ice comedown include:

  • Extreme exhaustion 
  • Aches and pains 
  • Confusion
  • Cravings 
  • Agitation 
  • Anxiety 
  • Headache (usually from dehydration) 

 

Crystal Meth Withdrawal

Crystal meth withdrawal occurs when an individual with addiction or physical dependence on the substance stops taking it abruptly. Symptoms of ice withdrawal can vary from one person to another based on duration and frequency of use, but they generally settle within a month. 

Symptoms of ice withdrawal include:

  • Intense cravings 
  • Increased appetite 
  • Confusion 
  • Irritability
  • Exhaustion 
  • Anxiety 
  • Restless sleep and nightmares 
  • Depression 
  • Paranoia 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Ice withdrawal can be a difficult process. Individuals are advised to seek the guidance of a healthcare professional to manage withdrawal and overcome crystal meth addiction and dependence. 

 

Ice and the Law

Laws concerning crystal methamphetamine can vary in both state and federal jurisdictions. However, ice is an illegal substance in the U.S. and worldwide, and people may face fines or lengthy prison sentences if involved in the following activities with meth:

  • Unlawful manufacturing 
  • Importing 
  • Exporting 
  • Possession 
  • Continuing criminal enterprise (CCE)
  • Intent to distribute 

Methamphetamine use is a criminal offense in the U.S. subject to removal of children and separation of families, incarceration, and other punitive measures. 

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