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Commonly 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 substances do have legitimate medical uses. For example, methamphetamine hydrochloride is used to treat attention deficit disorder.
Because methamphetamine can be illegally manufactured 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.
Short-term Effects: From High to Low
Methamphetamine stimulates the brain and spinal cord. The immediate effects are similar to those of cocaine. They include:
- Feelings of great happiness
- Sense of well-being
- Increased alertness/wakefulness
- Increased stamina
- Decreased appetite
- Increased sexual arousal
Due to its slow release into the bloodstream, methamphetamine’s effects can last up to twelve hours. The general sense of well-being that methamphetamines produce is due to higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for brain functions that control movement and emotions, such as pleasure and pain. The euphoria 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 happiness last longer.
Methamphetamines also cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Death may result.
Signs of Abuse
Physical and behavioral signs of continued meth abuse include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Dilated pupils
- Dry or itchy skin
- Impaired speech
- Tooth grinding
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of breath
- Constant talking
- Lack of interest in normal activities
- Severe depression
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 corrosive effects of the ingredients used to make meth. Also, the drug itself dries up saliva, which is the mouth’s natural cavity fighter.
Long-term Health Consequences
Over time, frequent meth use interferes with the normal ability to feel pleasure. It can also produce other effects, such as:
- Aggressive, violent behavior
- Tremors and/or convulsions
- Seeing and hearing things that are not there
- The false belief that people or things are trying to harm you
- Schizophrenia-like psychosis
Long-term meth abuse also leads to reduced brain and motor function. Long-term users often have problems with verbal learning skills and significant memory loss similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Motor damage may develop in the form of tremors and loss of agility that mimic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
In addition, long-term users suffer from irreversible cardiovascular damage from the stress of rapid, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and extremes in body temperature. Respiratory disorders may also result, as well as damage to the small blood vessels in the brain. Finally, those who handle the corrosive chemicals used to make methamphetamines place themselves at risk for severe lung damage, organ failure, and even death.
There are many treatment programs available to help people recover from methamphetamine addiction. Most programs involve one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and participation in 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 evaluated. 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 treatment 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 Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
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- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 10/2013
- Update Date: 10/30/2013