The drug “bath salts” refers to synthetic cathinone, a lab-grown substance based on a naturally occurring chemical found in the khat plant. (Despite the name, bath salts are not misused Epsom salts.) Naturally occurring cathinone has a chemical structure similar to amphetamines and provides a similar, yet milder stimulant effect. Synthetic versions, however, are anything but mild. Side effects include intense visual and auditory hallucinations, rapid heart rate, raised temperature, and violent tendencies. The intensity of these effects has made bath salts one of the most dangerous street drugs available in the United States.
Most bath salts have one of two psychoactive chemicals: MDPV (also known as Methylenedioxypyrovalerone) or mephedrone. Both substances are federally banned, which has led to the development of multiple, slight variations. As a synthetic drug, bath salts have the potential to be far more potent than naturally occurring cathinone, which is one reason the drug is so dangerous. It is also highly addictive, causing intense cravings despite the drug’s unpleasant and potentially deadly, side-effects.
Recognizing bath salts
Bath salts come in powders, crystals or granules resembling Epsom salts. Manufacturers package the drug in foil, calling it “plant cleaner” or “phone screen cleaner” to skirt federal regulations that ban the primary compounds in synthetic cathinone. (Some packages are also labeled “not for human consumption” to provide legal cover.) Alarmingly, users can easily obtain the drugs online under names like Bliss, Cloud Nine, Vanilla Sky, and White Lightning.
Who is at risk of using bath salts?
Bath salt use spans all ages, demographics and backgrounds. Some studies show greatest use among men in their mid-to-late 20s, with the range spanning from teens to about age 40. The American Journal of Addictions determined in 2015 that 1% of high school seniors had used bath salts. Young users often prefer them to marijuana or other drugs because bath salts are easy to obtain and difficult to detect in standard drug tests.
Unfortunately, all recreational drug users are at risk, even if they do not seek bath salts. Dealers often mix synthetic cathinone with more expensive drugs, or in some cases, sell bath salts instead. In one high-profile example, New York City officials shut down a popular music festival after two deaths occurred due to bath salts. The users thought they had taken MDMA (itself an illicit drug). Teens and young adults who engage in any environment where recreational drugs are present should know that substances may be misrepresented and are rarely pure.
How bath salts affect the brain
Synthetic cathinone affects the body similarly to amphetamines, but it has a more powerful effect on the brain. Common side effects include intense paranoia, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations and panic attacks. The drug may also cause delirium that leads to violent behavior, excessive friendliness, and an increased sex drive. The onset of the high occurs about 15 minutes after consumption and typically lasts for 4-6 hours.
Users report an insatiable desire for more even as they experience intense withdrawal symptoms, including depression, anxiety, tremors, insomnia and paranoia. Synthetic cathinones also cause elevated heart rates, high blood pressure, dehydration and loss of skeletal muscle mass. Some users experience kidney failure, swelling of the brain, and liver damage. Snorting and injecting, rather than ingesting, bath salts intensifies its effects and may lead to death.
In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, researchers linked bath salts to approximately 23,000 emergency room visits in the United States. More than 16% of patients landed in critical condition or died from overdose.
Addiction to synthetic cathinones
Bath salts are highly addictive. Indeed, researchers have shown bath salts to be even more addictive than meth. Some users report physical dependence after a single day’s use, despite describing unpleasant and unwanted side effects. The intensity of the physical addiction makes unassisted recovery incredibly difficult and potentially dangerous. Users of bath salts develop an increasing tolerance to the drug the longer they use it, which can increase the threat of overdose during relapse. This is why professional, supportive treatment is so important.
While there are no medications to treat addiction to synthetic cathinones, comprehensive treatment that includes behavioral therapy, family involvement and aftercare has proven to be the most effective approach to treatment. A formal medical detox under the supervision of clinicians is often the first essential step. At Sprout, we take a highly personalized approach to treatment, starting with a personal assessment to develop the right treatment approach for you. Beyond detox, treatment may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), stress management programs, group therapy and family therapy.