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Methamphetamine, or meth, is a stimulant drug that typically appears in crystal powder form. Stimulants work on the central nervous system (CNS) to create feelings of higher energy, alertness and euphoria. Users may ingest, inject, snort, or smoke the drug. Sometimes it appears as a pill. Chemically similar to amphetamine, meth works in the same way as prescription drugs like Adderall. Common street names for meth include crystal, ice and speed.

How Meth Works

Meth works by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain, creating a fast and short-lived “high.” The drug’s effect creates a dangerous pattern for users in which they binge, remaining awake sometimes for days, and then crash.

Unlike amphetamine, methamphetamine is neurotoxic. It specifically affects dopamine neurons in the brain. This may cause changes in the brain’s dopamine delivery system and permanent changes in emotion and memory. It may also affect coordination.

The FDA has approved meth in some prescription drugs to treat nasal congestion, ADHD, and obesity. All prescription drugs that include meth have warnings about misuse. Anyone prescribed medication with the drug should be aware of the risks.  

Psychological Effects of Meth

The psychological effects of meth include dysphoria, euphoria, alertness, decreased fatigue, wakefulness and increased self-confidence. Users display sociability or aggressive behavior, and repetitive or obsessive behaviors. Regular meth users may experience a compulsion to line up or organize random objects. Meth has a high correlation with anxiety disorders, depression, amphetamine psychosis, suicide, and erratic violent behavior.

Physical Effects of Meth

Adverse physical effects are plentiful. These include hyperactivity, loss of appetite, excessive sweating, increased movement, dry mouth, teeth grinding, irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, high or low blood pressure, increased body temperature, diarrhea or constipation, dizziness, and tremors. There are many other potential negative side effects as well.

One severe long-term effect of using the drug is the increased prevalence of Parkinson’s disease. Other negative consequences of long-term use include extreme weight loss, intense itching, causing open sores on the skin, anxiety, confusion, sleep problems, erratic or violent behavior, and extreme, unreasonable paranoia resulting in a great distrust of others. Users may also experience hallucinations. Severe dental problems and tooth decay are typically associated with meth addiction, however these issues more to lifestyle choices of users than the actual drug.

Risks of Using Meth

Meth is a highly addictive, illegal, and dangerous drug to use, but it is also dangerous to produce as the ingredients are highly toxic and flammable. Production is typically called “cooking,” and the vapors that are released during the process can be extremely toxic and highly dangerous. Meth is a pervasive addiction affecting hundreds of thousands of Americans both directly and indirectly.

Users who are overdosing will present with many symptoms, including abnormal heart rhythm, high body temperature, violent outbursts, over-active or over-responsive reflexes, muscle aches, severe agitation, rapid breathing, tremor, urinary hesitancy, and an inability to pass urine. In extreme cases, high doses can result in symptoms such as adrenergic storm, psychosis, brain bleeds, circulatory collapse, dangerously high body temperature, pulmonary hypertension, kidney failure, rapid muscle breakdown, serotonin syndrome and brain damage. Death can also occur, especially following symptoms like coma or convulsions. One severe side effect called stereotypy (commonly known as tweaking) is often associated with meth abuse. Psychosis stemming from methamphetamine can be permanent in some cases.

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Meth Withdrawal Symptoms

Methamphetamine addiction can produce numerous withdrawal symptoms, ranging from severe depression to psychosis, in addition to intense drug cravings. Treating an overdose requires medical intervention and so does treating addiction. If you suspect someone you know or love is addicted to meth or using, some of the signs include:

  1. Skin picking or hair pulling
  2. Dilated pupils or rapid eye movements
  3. Decreased appetite or weight loss
  4. Insomnia and sleep difficulties
  5. Sudden violent outbursts
  6. Erratic behavior or mood swings
  7. Hallucinations
  8. Paranoia and extreme distrust of others
  9. Tweaking or pounding
  10. Changes in physical appearance (teeth, skin, hair)

The longer someone uses meth, the higher their tolerance can become. Their withdrawals will therefore become more severe, making recovery more difficult. Medical detox programs are extremely helpful for those with high physical dependence on meth. The sooner someone can receive treatment for addiction the more likely their long-term recovery will be.

To prevent further permanent damages to someone who uses meth, immediate intervention is important. Relapse is highly likely because of the associated emotional highs and deep lows of meth use, and cravings can be debilitating in everyday life. Since many meth users have underlying conditions, such as anxiety disorders, programs that offer treatment for dual diagnosis can have an immensely positive impact. Those suffering from addiction need support of family, friends, medical professionals, and psychiatric professionals to achieve lifelong recovery.  

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.