Although methamphetamine was originally derived from amphetamines to produce pharmaceutical, prescription medications like nasal decongestants, this drug has overwhelmingly been found to be addictive and harmful for many people. Typically called ice, crystal meth, or glass, meth is most widely manufactured as an illicit drug.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists meth as a Schedule II substance because it is used in some prescription stimulants, but this is extremely rare due to the drug’s risks. In fact, an epidemic of meth abuse and addiction swept the United States in the early 2000s, which led to the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA) of 2005, which increased penalties for manufacturing, selling, or possessing illicit meth.
Methamphetamine was introduced to the United States in the 1930s as a prescription medication. Abuse of the substance surged in the 1950s and 1960s when injection became the main method of consuming this potent stimulant. After a decline in popularity due to a surge in cocaine and crack cocaine abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, meth abuse returned in the 1990s with crystal meth, a form of the drug that was smoked to cause a very rapid high.
The rush from modern versions of methamphetamine will hit the brain within 5–30 minutes after it is ingested, depending on how pure the drug is, the method of abuse, and other factors like age, metabolism, and tolerance to the drug. The high from meth lasts a very long time, often 6–12 hours. The dopamine surge caused by meth can lead to a serious mental, emotional, and physical crash after it wears off, and this can lead to a multiday binge called tweaking.
Abusing meth is extremely harmful, and it brings serious short-term and long-term effects on the brain and body. Its abuse can quickly lead to addiction, overdose, and death.
The Rapid Progression of Short-Term Harm
Meth can quickly lead to compulsive behaviors associated with addiction because the drug hits the brain quickly, causes an intense euphoria and increases physical energy, and lasts for several hours. The dopamine rush causes serious mental changes, and the side effects from so much dopamine released into the brain can also cause physical harm.
- Psychological effects: The primary effect caused by methamphetamine is a surge of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that elevates mood, increases physical energy, and triggers the brain’s reward system, which can lead to compulsive behaviors. According to some studies, meth appears to have neurotoxic effects, meaning that the huge increase in dopamine and serotonin availability damages the receptor cells.When people try to stop taking the drug, withdrawal symptoms can be intense and uncomfortable, even after just a few doses. Short-term effects from the increased dopamine include:
- Energetic rush
- Unpredictable behaviors
- Increased sociability and talkativeness
- Performing repetitive but meaningless tasks
- Cravings for sugar or carbohydrates
- Repeated abuse of the drug due to compulsive behaviors
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- A psychotic break
- Depression when the drug wears off
Physical effects: Because of the extreme increase in dopamine, the body becomes affected, and changes in behavior can lead to physical side effects. Some of these short-term effects include:
- Sudden death from heart failure
- Dilated pupils
- Heavy sweating
- High body temperature
- Tremors or uncontrollable shaking
- Dry mouth
- Bad breath
- Clenching the jaw and grinding the teeth
- Increase in physical activity
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing rate
- Loss of appetite
Both the mental and physical short-term effects can cause immediate damage to the body and mind, but continuing to abuse meth can also lead to chronic health damage, which hurts overall quality of life.
Overdose on Methamphetamine
One of the most serious short-term problems with meth abuse is the risk of overdose, especially for people who binge the drug during a tweaking episode. Meth poisoning may lead to sudden death from a heart attack or stroke. The person may suddenly stop breathing, which can lead to rapid death. They may have a seizure, or they could suffer a psychotic episode that leads to a fatal accident.
If someone overdoses on meth, it is extremely important to call 911 so they can receive emergency medical attention.
Potentially Permanent Damage Due to Meth Abuse
Short-term effects may lead to immediate harm, but when they are continued on a long-term basis, they will cause serious, lasting damage to the brain and body.
- Physical effects: Meth abuse is associated with several physical illnesses and damage. One of the most infamous situations is meth mouth—a condition of rotting teeth caused by a combination of chronic dry mouth, lack of focus on regular oral hygiene, and greater consumption of sugary candy or soda. Meth mouth can also be caused by grinding the teeth as the jaw is clenched, leading to cracked teeth and gum damage.High blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature are all associated with damage to the heart and blood vessels, which can lead to heart attack, stroke, clogged arteries, angina, pulmonary embolism, and blood clots. These issues can also damage the kidneys and liver.Stimulant drugs like meth suppress the appetite while increasing physical energy, so people who abuse meth become malnourished from not eating. They may develop osteoporosis, gastrointestinal problems, joint pain, and muscle damage because they do not get enough nutrients, they lose weight quickly, and they do not get enough rest.Compulsive repetitive behaviors and hallucinations lead to a condition called formication. This involves specific hallucinations that bugs or insects are crawling on or underneath the skin. People who struggle with meth abuse may pick their skin repeatedly, which increases the risk of skin infections and damage.
- Psychological effects: Abusing meth for a long time can cause serious brain damage, which can lead to mood disorders, psychosis, dementia, and memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease has been associated with damage to the dopamine receptor neurons, so people who abuse meth are more likely to develop this dementia condition earlier in life. They are also at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. They are more likely to develop an anxiety or panic disorder, depression, or both.Meth abusers are more likely to develop psychosis, which may clear up with drug abuse treatment, but could become permanent. Psychosis often involves delusions, a break from reality, hallucinations, and aggression or fear reactions. The person may suffer from homicidal or suicidal thoughts.Sometimes, these effects clear up with time after detox and rehabilitation, but continuing to abuse meth means that this long-term harm is more likely to become permanent.
Addiction is a chronic disease, and people who abuse meth may develop this condition. Addiction causes compulsive behaviors around drugs like meth to stimulate the brain’s reward system and release dopamine and serotonin. This chronic illness contributes to the other long-term harms associated with methamphetamine.
Evidence-Based Treatment to Overcome Methamphetamine Addiction
Medically supervised detox and evidence-based rehabilitation for methamphetamine abuse are crucial. Some studies have found that, with 14 months of abstinence, much of the brain damage associated with meth abuse can be reversed. However, six months after total sobriety and treatment, damage had not cleared, so it is important for people who struggle with meth addiction to stay committed to long-term rehabilitation.
Some damage, like meth mouth, is not reversible, but can be treated by medical specialists. Eating a healthy diet and finding fun approaches to regular exercise can improve heart, lung, stomach, liver, and kidney health, and it can also help the person return to a healthy body mass. Complete abstinence from meth, support from friends and family, and ongoing aftercare through support groups and healthy lifestyle changes must all become part of the journey to recovery. Starting with an appropriate rehabilitation program will create the foundation for success.