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 drugs do have legitimate medical uses. For example, methamphetamine hydrochloride may be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Because methamphetamine can be illegally made from common household chemicals and over-the-counter cold products, the drug can be easily bought on the street. After a person 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.
Methamphetamine excites the brain and spinal cord. The instant effects are similar to those of cocaine. They include:
Due to the length of time it takes to break down in the system, methamphetamine’s effects can last up to 12 hours due to the length of time it takes for it to break down in the body. The general sense of well-being that methamphetamines produce is due to higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in charge of brain functions that control movement and emotions, such as pleasure and pain. The joy gives way to anxiety followed by fatigue. Users can fall asleep for 24-48 hours. This may result in a cycle in which users binge on the drug to make feelings of joy last longer.
Methamphetamines also cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, which can be fatal.
Physical and behavioral signs of meth abuse include:
Over time, frequent meth use affects the normal ability to feel pleasure. It can also produce other effects, such as:
In addition, methamphetamine users, especially younger people, may develop teeth that are blackened and rotted. This is commonly known as meth mouth. This is may happen due to the caustic effects of the items used to make meth. Also, the drug itself dries up saliva, which is the mouth’s natural cavity fighter.
Long-term meth abuse also leads to reduced brain and motor function. Long-term users often have problems with verbal learning skills and memory loss similar to that seen in Alzheimer disease. Motor damage may develop in the form of tremors and loss of agility that mimic symptoms of Parkinson disease.
Lasting cardiovascular damage from the stress of rapid, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and extremes in body temperature can occur with long-term abuse. Respiratory disorders may also result, as well as damage to the small blood vessels in the brain. Finally, those who handle the caustic chemicals used to make methamphetamines place themselves at risk for severe lung damage, organ failure, and even death.
There are many programs available to help people recover from methamphetamine addiction. Most programs involve one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and 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 assessed. In some cases, medications, like antidepressants, may be prescribed to help the person's recovery.
If you or someone you know is abusing meth, find a 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.
National Institute on Drug Abuse
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Mental Health Canada
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Last reviewed July 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 7/24/2015