- Addiction & recovery
What You Need to Know About Meth
David Schwartz, MD
November 12, 2021
Meth or methamphetamine is a highly potent, addictive stimulant manufactured by mixing various amphetamines and other chemical derivatives. It works by affecting the central nervous system (CNS) and is generally available as a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that can easily be dissolved in liquid. It also comes in a rock formation, known as ice or crystal meth, and is most often smoked, snorted, or injected.
Methamphetamine was developed in the early 20th century and was once widely and legally available in tablet and injectable forms as a decongestant and weight loss aid. However, as people started misusing this substance for its stimulant effects, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stopped and regulated it in 1970. Methamphetamine is currently classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, making it legally available only through a non-refillable prescription. Although rare, methamphetamine can be medically indicated for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and as short-term aid for weight loss, but even then, the prescribed doses are significantly lower than those typically misused.
What Is Crystal Meth?
Crystal meth is a formulation of meth that comes as a coarse rock, resembling ice or glass. It is a popular party drug that is most often manufactured in “meth labs” using various over-the-counter ingredients. Crystal meth is commonly smoked through a small glass pipe, although it can also be snorted or injected.
Crystal meth and regular meth are essentially the same. Both are central nervous system stimulants that cause intoxication and increased energy and alertness. However, crystal meth is purer than meth and, thus, is more potent and addictive. Its effects are also much more intense and last longer than regular meth, generally for up to 24 hours.
How Does Meth Affect the Brain?
Like amphetamines, meth works by increasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for regulating mood and feelings of reward and motivation. This function results in increased activity and talkativeness, decreased appetite, and an enhanced state of wellbeing or intoxication. The ability of meth to rapidly release high levels of dopamine strongly reinforces substance-seeking behavior and makes a person want to re-indulge in the experience. However, unlike amphetamines, more amounts of meth get into the brain, making it a more potent stimulant. It also has longer-lasting and harmful effects on the central nervous system.
Short-Term Effects of Meth
The effects of meth are usually felt within minutes when smoked or injected or in around 30 minutes when snorted or swallowed. The effects tend to last anywhere between 4-12 hours, depending on the amount of meth consumed. However, it is still possible for traces of meth to remain detectable in the body several days since its last use.
The effects of meth can be both physical and mental. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the short-term effects of methamphetamine include:
- Increased wakefulness and activity
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Increased blood pressure and body temperature
- Faster breathing
Long-Term Effects of Meth
Long-term methamphetamine use changes the brain’s dopamine system and results in impaired verbal learning and reduced coordination. Studies on chronic methamphetamine use have also revealed severe structural and functional changes to parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory. Although most of these neurological changes may reverse after abstinence from the substance for a year or more, some changes may be irreversible. A recent study even suggests that people with a history of meth use retain an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the nerves that impact movements.
Other health effects of long-term meth use include:
- Methamphetamine use disorder
- Extreme weight loss, leading to a drastic change in physical appearance
- Severe dental problems (meth mouth)
- Extreme itching, resulting in skin sores from scratching
- Memory loss
- Violent behavior
- Sleeping problems
- Liver, kidney, and lung damage
- High blood pressure, leading to heart attack, stroke, or even death
Chronic methamphetamine use can also trigger certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. Conversely, it is also possible for people to have started using meth as a means to cope with a mental health disorder.
Methamphetamine Use Disorder
The physical dependence on meth is another effect of long-term meth use. Methamphetamine use disorder develops rather quickly. As the intoxication from the substance is followed by an intense comedown, people tend to take frequent doses of the substance in a “binge and crash” pattern to feel better. Some even take meth in a binging pattern known as a “run” by giving up food and sleep to continuously take the substance every few hours for up to several days.
Individuals with methamphetamine use disorder will experience withdrawal symptoms upon quitting it abruptly. Some of the withdrawal symptoms of meth are:
- Severe depression
- Intense cravings
Due to the intensity of meth withdrawal symptoms, people are advised to detox under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
People can overdose on methamphetamine when large doses of the substance are taken within a short period or if the substance is combined with other substances such as alcohol or fentanyl. Methamphetamine overdose is a medical emergency that may result in serious consequences or death if left untreated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 85% of overdose deaths involved methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, either alone or in combination, from January to June 2019. Thus, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention if one faces the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Hypertension or hypotension
- Rapid, slow, or irregular heart rate
- Stomach pain
- Breathing troubles
- Altered mental state
- Coma or unresponsiveness
In the event of a methamphetamine overdose, you must call 911 or the National Poison Control Center immediately. Then, take the necessary steps to keep the person safe until the paramedics arrive.
Exposure to Second Hand Methamphetamine Smoke
It remains unknown whether people can get intoxicated or experience health risks by breathing second hand methamphetamine smoke. Most of what is known about passive exposure to meth comes from meth labs, with research indicating that meth production spreads toxins that can affect anyone in the vicinity. However, people can test positive for meth from exposure to secondhand smoke.
Although there are currently no FDA-approved medications to treat methamphetamine use disorder, behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy are widely utilized during treatment. Most people have successfully overcome their dependence on meth through effective treatments that address both the medical and psychological issues resulting from long-term meth use.
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