The Effects of Methamphetamine Addiction

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Methamphetamine offers users the promise of a stimulating “high” that brings feelings of euphoria, energy, and increased confidence. However, these pleasurable effects are often short-lived. Meth use can lead to abuse and addiction and can cause significant weight loss, skin sores, dental problems, memory loss, and psychosis.

However, you don’t have to live with ravages of meth addiction—it is never too late to quit. Treatment programs can help you find recovery and even begin to reverse some of the negative effects of the drug.


What Is Methamphetamine (Meth)?

bottle of methamphetamine spilling onto tableMethamphetamine, or meth, is an addictive drug that causes users to experience a pleasurable rush of euphoria and wakefulness.1 Meth belongs to a class of drugs known as stimulants and is chemically similar to amphetamines like Adderall.1 Using stimulants such as meth can cause increases in breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, as well as diminished appetite.1

As a Schedule II drug, methamphetamine is legal only through a non-refillable prescription written by a medical provider.2 When used on a prescription basis under the name Desoxyn, it is used in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and, in some cases, obesity.2 Prescriptions for methamphetamine are rare, as other drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta are much more common for ADHD management.

Meth may be used illicitly either by abusing prescription pills or by taking the drug in one or more of its other forms. Meth may be illegally manufactured in secret labs and sold as a white powder or bluish, white crystals. Street names for meth include crystal, ice, speed, crank, and chalk.1,2

Similar to other stimulants, meth is powerfully addictive and may result in severe physical and psychological problems.2 Addiction is likely to develop rapidly if the drug is used in such a way that it reaches the brain very quickly, such as smoking or injection.2 Fortunately, meth addiction is a treatable condition, and users may recover with proper treatment, commitment, and support.

Meth is powerfully addictive and may result in severe physical and psychological problems.

How Does It Affect the Brain?

Meth affects the brain in part by causing a rapid increase of the neurotransmitter dopamine.1,2 Dopamine is a natural chemical that regulates movement, motivation, reward, and pleasure. The increase in dopamine when using meth is responsible for the euphoric rush, or “high,” that users experience. While intoxicated, users may experience effects like:2-4

  • Intense feelings of pleasure.
  • Increased sociability and confidence.
  • Heightened awareness and attention.
  • Restlessness.
  • Increased energy.
  • Heightened libido.
  • Insomnia.
  • Suppressed appetite.
  • Faster breathing.
  • Rapid and irregular heart rate.
  • Increased body temperature.

The short-term effects of meth may feel as though they begin and fade rapidly.1,2 In fact, the methamphetamine high typically lasts about 6 to 8 hours.3 Users who don’t want their high to end often “binge” on the drug by taking a large amount without eating or sleeping for an extended period of time. This is also known as going on a “run.”2 Initially, the user feels euphoric, powerful, confident, and full of energy and so may repeatedly take more of the drug for several hours or even days.3,4 This can lead to a state called “tweaking.” (See below).

This is eventually followed by a “crash.” When the drug begins to wear off, the user may feel anxious, depressed, confused, and tired.

The effects of methamphetamine on the brain aren’t limited to the short term, however. Long-term use can affect the brain in numerous ways. Users may experience problems with thinking, mood instability, and even psychotic symptoms.2

What Is Tweaking?

Meth users may find themselves attempting to recreate their original high by continuously taking more meth. When they realize that they cannot get that high back, they become increasingly agitated. This is the state known as tweaking. Someone who is tweaking may be irritable and distrustful of others and may develop symptoms of psychosis, such as visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations.4 They may believe that they have bugs crawling on their skin, causing them to pick their skin until they develop sores and scabs.4

Tweaking is a volatile and dangerous state.

Feelings of anger and agitation from being unable to achieve the desired high can also make them prone to violence. Tweaking is a volatile and dangerous state; if someone you know is tweaking, use extreme caution in your dealings with them to avoid becoming a victim of violence.

Methods of Use

Since meth is available in several different forms, it may be used in a number of ways, including:1

  • Swallowing the pill form.
  • Inhaling or smoking it.
  • Snorting the powder form.
  • Injecting a solution of meth mixed with water or alcohol.

Snorting and injecting meth into the bloodstream causes the drug to travel to the brain rapidly.2 The quick pathway of the drug to the user’s brain causes an immediate rush of euphoria that may last a few minutes. Users who snort or inject meth are at high risk for addiction and physical and psychological health consequences.2 Injecting the drug and sharing needles can also significantly increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

Swallowing and snorting meth can cause a less intense (but still dangerous) high with a relatively slower onset of action.2 Snorting meth typically produces effects within 3-5 minutes, while swallowing meth will usually produce effects within 15 to 20 minutes.2 While users who snort or swallow meth may experience a less intense high than snorting or injecting the drug, any route of methamphetamine abuse can lead to addiction and potentially irreversible health problems.

Long-Term Consequences

Meth can have serious long-term consequences on the brain and body over time. Long-term meth use can lead to:1,2,3

  • Severe anxiety.
  • Confusion and distractibility.
  • Aggression and tendency toward violence.
  • Paranoia.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Chronic insomnia.
  • Skin sores.
  • Excessive weight loss.

man looking down with hands on mirror Chronic long-term meth use can also cause problems that may have permanent consequences:

  • Long-term meth use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.2,3 Meth users may develop a tolerance to the drug, finding themselves using the drug more frequently or in larger amounts to feel the same effects. They might also find after a period of regular use that they need to use meth to feel ok; this is what is known as dependence. Without meth, a dependent person will likely go into withdrawal—experiencing uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms if they try to cut back or stop use. They may also develop an addiction, a chronic condition that involves compulsive drug use in the face of all the mounting negative consequences that occur as a result.
  • Meth may negatively impact a person’s judgment and ability to make good decisions.1 While under the influence, users may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, which may increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Injecting meth can increase the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.1 Using meth also has the potential to worsen the cognitive symptoms of HIV/AIDS, resulting in problems with thinking, memory, and comprehension.
  • Meth use is associated with grave physical health problems. For example, using meth may increase the risk of stroke, and some studies indicate that meth users are more likely than non-meth users to develop Parkinson’s disease.2
  • Over time meth use can lead to tooth decay and loss, a condition referred to as “meth mouth”. 1,2 Dental problems may be caused by dry mouth and teeth grinding, as well as poor nutrition and a neglect of dental hygiene.
  • Meth use may result in cognitive deficits, such as memory loss and problems with thinking and motor skills.2,3
  • Using meth while pregnant can increase the risk for premature birth and separation of the placental lining from the uterus. Babies born to mothers who use meth may have low birth weight, as well as abnormalities of the brain and heart. Children of mothers who use meth while pregnant also may experience higher levels of stress and attention problems.2

Some of the long-term effects of meth use, including some cognitive impairments, may be reversible after a period of abstinence.2 Certain other consequences, however, such as those related to the contraction of infectious disease or major medical events like stroke, could have permanent health repercussions. Psychotic symptoms may last for up to months or years after a person quits using meth or, in some cases, may recur as intermittent flashbacks.4 Even after a former user recovers, stress can cause psychotic symptoms to return.

Warning Signs of Abuse and Addiction

Meth users who abuse the drug may develop what’s known as a stimulant use disorder—a diagnosis given by medical and mental health professionals to indicate that a person’s stimulant use is causing significant problems.5

Signs of a stimulant use disorder include at least 2 of the following:5

  • Using meth for longer periods of time or in larger amounts than intended.
  • Trying to quit or cut back, but being unable to do so.
  • Spending an enormous amount of time getting, using, or recovering from meth.
  • Getting strong cravings for meth.
  • Seeking out and using meth even as it results in worsening effects on your job, home life, or relationships.
  • Giving up social and recreational activities to use meth.
  • Repeatedly using meth in hazardous situations, e.g., before driving or operating dangerous machinery.
  • Continuing to use meth despite physical or psychological problems caused, or made worse, by meth use.
  • Requiring more of the drug to feel the same effects.
  • Suffering withdrawal symptoms after abruptly stopping or cutting back.

Family and friends often notice physical, psychological, and behavioral changes in their loved ones. They may notice that their loved one is:

  • In possession of various drug paraphernalia, such as empty bags, syringes, spoons, pipes, or straws.
  • Stealing money or selling important items to pay for meth.
  • Experiencing legal problems and drug-related arrests.
  • Showing changes in their appearance like severe weight loss, skin sores, and dental problems.2
  • Displaying signs of paranoia or distrust of others, hallucinations, anxiety, and aggression.2

Can You Overdose?

A meth overdose can result if a user has a toxic reaction after taking more meth than the body can handle. Meth users may experience two different types of overdoses:6

woman in bed up late portraying overdose on meth
  • An acute overdose can happen if a user unintentionally takes too much meth in a short time span. This can cause serious and even life-threatening problems.
  • A chronic overdose refers to the cumulative health effects that occur from prolonged use of meth.

An acute meth overdose produces a range of physical and psychological effects, which may include:1,2,5,6

  • Increased agitation.
  • Severe paranoia.
  • Chest pain.
  • Irregular heart rate or complete cessation of heartbeat.
  • Problems breathing.
  • Dangerously elevated body temperature.
  • Intense stomach pain.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart attack.
  • Organ damage.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Seizure.
  • Coma.

In some cases, a meth overdose may lead to permanent damage to the body and even death.2,6 The sooner that a meth overdose victim receives help, the higher the likelihood that they will recover. It is important to contact 911 immediately if you suspect a meth overdose.

Methamphetamine Withdrawal and Detox

A person in withdrawal may experience uncomfortable mental and physical health symptoms that may persist over several weeks (or longer, depending on the individual). Meth withdrawal symptoms may include:2,7

  • Depressed mood.
  • Anxiety.
  • Agitation.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Low energy.
  • Slowed or sluggish movement.
  • Need for long amounts of sleep.
  • Vivid, upsetting dreams.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Strong cravings for meth.

Meth users undergoing withdrawal may benefit from participating in a detoxification program where they get the safe and supportive environment they need.

The majority of meth withdrawal symptoms typically last 1 week, but some symptoms, including increased appetite and excessive sleep, may continue for an additional 2 weeks.7 While meth withdrawal is not known to be physically dangerous, the symptoms may be painful. The mental symptoms of withdrawal, including depression and anxiety, can also have adverse effects. Some meth users may experience severe depression and suicidal ideation during withdrawal. If not properly treated, suicidal ideation can lead to dangerous behaviors with possibly irreversible consequences. Withdrawal may also be more severe among people who have been using the drug for long periods of time.

Cravings or urges to use meth during withdrawal can increase the risk of relapse. Meth users undergoing withdrawal may benefit from participating in a detoxification program where they get the safe and supportive environment they need to complete the process without returning to use. Medications may be used in some cases to mitigate symptoms.

What Kinds of Treatment Help Meth Addiction?

Meth addiction is not a life sentence. With the right care, you can experience a life without drugs. Once you’ve completed detox, there are several different types of treatment programs you can choose from:
woman looks out window while listening to therapist portraying meth treatment

  • Inpatient treatment programs provide an intense level of support that includes drug-free housing, daily therapy sessions, and recovery group meetings. Some programs also offer other amenities, such as exercise programs, meditation, and equine therapy.
  • Outpatient treatment programs offer one or more weekly therapy groups. While these types of programs do not offer 24-hour support or drug-free housing, participants are held accountable to stay sober by taking random drug tests and consistently attending therapy sessions.
  • Psychotherapy may be offered as group, individual, or family sessions one or more times per week. Meth users who completed an inpatient or outpatient treatment program and have been abstinent for an extended period of time may choose to continue with psychotherapy for continued support.

Treatment programs not only differ in the intensity of their care, but also their therapeutic approach:8

  • The Matrix Model is an effective treatment that helps stimulant users reach and maintain abstinence. This approach involves education on addiction and relapse, supportive therapy, and an introduction to recovery meetings. The therapist acts as both a coach and teacher, and the relationship between participant and therapist is important to help promote positive behavior change. In addition to reducing drug and alcohol use, the Matrix Model can help improve participants’ psychological health and well-being.
  • Contingency management (CM) is a type of treatment approach that is based on the principle that behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. Participants are offered rewards for recovery-related behaviors, such as negative drug tests, abstinence, and attending recovery meetings. CM is effective at helping stimulant users stay abstinent and remain in treatment.
  • 12-step facilitation therapy helps familiarize and engage participants with 12-step recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (see below). This type of treatment’s main goals include helping participants accept that addiction is a chronic disease and becoming actively involved in 12-step programs.

In addition to treatment programs, recovery groups are also available:

  • 12-step groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Crystal Meth Anonymous, offer a supportive environment to connect with other people experiencing similar addictions. Members are encouraged to find a sponsor, which is someone who has been in the program for some time and can provide guidance through the 12 steps. The steps include recognizing one’s powerlessness over addiction, surrendering to a higher power, and making amends for past mistakes.
  • SMART Recovery is a self-empowering addiction recovery group that is continually adapting its program based on developments in science and research. Meetings are educational and supportive and teach useful tools for developing and maintaining motivation, coping with urges to use, managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and finding lifestyle balance.

Taking the First Step Toward Recovery

Meth addiction is a serious condition that can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. Getting the necessary treatment can kick-start the recovery process and guide you as you work to build a drug-free life. By providing education and support, treatment can help you quit using meth and address both the issues that contributed to your drug use and the problems caused by it.


References:

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). DrugFacts: Methamphetamine.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Research report series: Methamphetamine.
  3. Elkashef, A., Vocci, F., Hanson, G., White, J., Wickes, W., & Tiihonen, J. (2008). Pharmacotherapy of methamphetamine addiction: An update. Substance Abuse29(3), 31-49.
  4. Buxton, J. A., & Dove, N. A. (2008). The burden and management of crystal meth use. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 178(12), 1537-1539.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). MedlinePlus, Methamphetamine overdose.
  7. McGregor, C., Srisurapanont, M., Jittiwutikarn, J., Laobhripatr, S., Wongtan, T., & White, J. M. (2005). The nature, time course and severity of methamphetamine withdrawal. Addiction100(9), 1320-1329.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide.
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