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An Introduction to the Dangers of Meth Use
Between 2011 and 2018, the rate of meth overdose deaths multiplied five times over, according to 2021 research by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).1 Methamphetamine has a powerful effect on the mind, and its impact on our dopamine levels can prompt addiction after just one use. Once caught in the cycle of meth abuse, it can feel daunting trying to stop use altogether.
But what is causing this drastic rise in meth abuse, addiction, and overdose? To understand meth’s recent increase in popularity, we must explore methamphetamine’s effects and the extreme dangers of using this substance.
What is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that triggers a massive release of dopamine, a feeling people often describe as euphoric, energized, and alert. The dopamine release from meth use is far greater than what we experience naturally, making meth dangerously addictive.
The Controlled Substance Act classifies meth as a Schedule II substance due to its high potential for abuse and addiction and its rare medically approved use in treating ADHD and obesity.
Meth vs. Crystal Meth
There are two primary forms of methamphetamine: meth and crystal meth.
Methamphetamine can be prescribed for legal use in medically appropriate settings and comes as a pill. However, many choose to crush the pill into a fine white powder so it can be snorted. Generally, the peak effects of meth will be felt within a few hours and last about half a day.
Crystal meth is a more pure, distilled form of methamphetamine that resembles glass shards or rocks. Crystal meth is often made in a lab, contains higher potency, and is more addicting. Because it is purer, the peak effects of crystal meth can last several hours and take another few days to fully leave the system.
Aside from their appearance, the main distinction between crystal meth and meth is how people use them. Methamphetamine is typically snorted or ingested, while crystal meth is injected or smoked.
Meth Street Names
Street names for both meth and crystal meth include glass, crystal, speed, ice, chalk, crank, tweak.
How is Meth Used?
While meth use is only legally prescribed in pill form for oral consumption, people who abuse the drug often prefer snorting, smoking, or shooting up meth.
When swallowed, meth pills typically take effect within fifteen to thirty minutes and generate a pleasant, euphoric effect that can last between two to four hours. Crystal meth is mainly abused through smoking and shooting up while methamphetamine is abused via snorting and swallowing.
Many individuals opt for snorting meth because they feel the risk of contracting a disease may be lower than through injection. However, the risk of long-term sinus issues should also be considered. While slower than injection or smoking, people typically feel the effects of snorting meth within a few minutes.
Smoking is the most common way of abusing crystal meth. It delivers a much more potent and immediate high into the bloodstream, creating an intense rush. The instantaneous nature of the high that accompanies smoking crystal meth makes the risk for addiction incredibly high. Smoking meth can also contribute to a health condition called “meth mouth.”
Shooting Up Meth
Injecting meth is done by taking crystal meth in powder form, mixing it with a liquid, and injecting it directly into the bloodstream. Injecting meth produces a powerful and instantaneous rush, making it a powerful pathway to addiction. Shooting up meth carries the additional risk of potentially contaminated needles that can transmit Hepatitis C and HIV between individuals.
Signs of Meth Use
When someone becomes entrenched in a cycle of meth addiction, there are some signs of meth use to look out for.
Many individuals who smoke crystal meth for long periods find that they develop a condition called “meth mouth,” where their teeth decay and often require removal. Meth mouth results from a combination of poor oral hygiene and the slightly acidic nature of meth. As a result, someone’s teeth are often stained, black, rotting, crumbling, and cannot be salvaged. Sores around the mouth offer another identifiable sign of meth use.
What Does Meth Smell Like?
Many people describe meth as having a slightly sweet smell when smoked or used. However, a meth lab is more likely to smell strongly of chemicals such as ammonia or vinegar. Some individuals have even described the smell of meth labs like that of a hospital smell, cat urine, or rotten eggs.2
Meth Side Effects
While many people tend to focus on the “positive” meth side effects, both short-term and chronic meth use can lead to side effects that disrupt one’s quality of life. Meth side effects should not be taken lightly.
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Increased respiration
- Increased temperature and blood pressure
- Decreased appetite
- Increased restlessness and wakefulness
- Severe dental issues known as meth mouth
- Skin sores resulting from intense itching
- Extreme weight loss
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Hallucinations, paranoia
- Psychotic symptoms which can persist for months or years beyond last use
- Lung, liver, and kidney issues
- Premature osteoporosis
- Changes in brain structure and function
- Confusion, anxiety
- Memory loss
- Increased risk of developing HIV or Hep C (both from unhygienic needles and poor decision making that can prompt unprotected sex)
- May experience increased risk for Parkinson’s disease3
Psychosis is a state in which our thoughts become distorted in such a way that we lose contact with external reality. In this state, we may experience, see, and hear things that are not there.
Many people struggling with meth addiction also find they experience the symptoms of a meth-induced psychosis, characterized by hallucinations and paranoia that someone’s out to get them. While this experience sounds frightening, it is not rare. A 2018 review of studies found that 36.5% of those who use meth experienced meth psychosis.4
Withdrawal from meth addiction and abuse can include:
- Severe depression
- Meth psychosis
- Anhedonia (loss of ability to feel pleasure)
- Intense cravings
While not life-threatening in the same way as withdrawal from opioid addiction, meth withdrawal can feel scary and isolating. If you are planning to go cold turkey, just remember – you do not have to do it alone.
Meth overdose can occur in two ways: acute and chronic overdose. Acute meth overdose occurs when an individual takes too much meth over a given period and experiences dangerous side effects.
- Liver or kidney disease
- Heart Attack
A chronic meth overdose reflects the side effects of long-term use. The signs of a chronic meth overdose parallel the short and long-term side effects of meth use, contributing to a slow deterioration of our body’s wellness and ability to function.
Why is Meth Overdose Death on the Rise?
The CDC found the rate of deaths for psychostimulants with abuse potential like methamphetamine increased five-fold between 2012 and 2018.5 Additional information from the CDC in 2017 found that 15% of all drug overdose deaths involved the same drug category involving methamphetamine.6 In 2021, the Drug Awareness Warning Network (DAWN) found that meth abuse accounted for 33.7% of all substance abuse-related emergency department hospital visits over an eighteen-month span.7
It’s fair to say that meth abuse and drug overdose deaths are on the rise. High rates of poverty, decreased access to education, limited accessibility and discrimination in health services, additional factors relating to racial and ethnic disparities – all contribute to growing inequities in the populations carrying the brunt of a meth overdose.
NIDA found that while meth overdoses increased five-fold across the board, those numbers skyrocketed for American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Both populations quadrupled their number of meth-related deaths, sharply contrasting with both their male and female counterparts from other backgrounds.
Polysubstance Abuse Driving Overdose Death
Meth also impacts polysubstance abuse, where an individual abuses two or more drugs in tandem. Many combine meth with alcohol, Xanax, and morphine, which help suppress some of meth’s negative side effects and generate a far greater high.
Mixing meth or cocaine with opioids like morphine (called a “speedball”) has become a favorite for those seeking a stronger high. Unfortunately, polysubstance abuse makes it easier to develop an opioid addiction and increases the risk of opioid deaths. Like meth, opioid deaths have been climbing in recent years, partially due to individuals creating drug concoctions and cocktails.
Treatment for Meth Addiction
Treatment for meth addiction begins with detoxing. While there are currently no medications federally approved to help move through detox, having a team of licensed, supportive, and experienced medical providers to ward off more negative side effects of withdrawal can help.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a powerful tool used to help individuals develop their emotional coping skills and rewire their habits. CBT is considered by many as one of the most impactful methods of working through meth addiction, as it gives people greater awareness and control over their thoughts, triggers, and actions.
Comprehensive Addiction Treatment
Comprehensive addiction treatment involves identifying the specific challenges and experiences faced by the individual so the clinician can create a customized and comprehensive treatment plan. It is critical to know as much as possible about the patient so care providers can make their treatment plan as specifically impactful as possible.
12-Step programs like those in Narcotics Anonymous provide great solace and support to many people embracing sober living. 12-Step programs are typically peer-run and focus on providing support as individuals accept powerlessness over their addiction and learn to embrace life without their addiction.
Relapse Prevention Therapy
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
While currently, there are no federally approved medication-assisted treatments for meth addiction, new findings suggest this might soon change. Research published in 2021 found that the combination of oral bupropion and injectable naltrexone was safe and effective in treating meth use disorder.8