Table of Contents
What is Meth
Methamphetamine – also known as meth, crank, speed, tweak, crystal, ice, shards, chalk, and biker’s coffee – is a stimulant currently classified as a Schedule II drug by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).1
As a sign of meth use is a Schedule II drug, methamphetamine and related forms are federally approved for use by medical professionals but can be dangerously addictive. Methamphetamine is rarely found in a clinical setting, its use is limited mainly to ADHD and weight loss.
Statistics on Meth Use in the United States
According to data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 2 million people ages 12 and up use meth in any given year. SAMHSA also estimates that about 500 people try meth for the first time every day.2
Alongside colleagues, researcher Beth Han MD, Ph.D., MPH of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that between 2012 and 2018, the rate of overdose-related deaths increased five-fold.3
They additionally found the greatest rate of meth use (⅘ of current users) among people between the ages of 25-54 years old. These rates further differed depending on ethnicity, with American Indian and Alaskan Natives experiencing the highest increase in rates of meth addiction in the past few years.3
Side Effects of Meth
Similar to cocaine, “positive” meth side effects typically include sensations of euphoria, energy, and alertness.
When a person ingests meth, a portion gets quickly absorbed by the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, meth stimulates the release of dopamine (a neurochemical involved in regulating motivation, movement, and reinforcing reward pathways in our brains) in large amounts, generating heightened experiences of pleasure and euphoria.
The initial euphoric stage of methamphetamine lasts from 5-30 minutes. When swallowed in pill form, users typically experience peak concentration within 2-4 hours. When smoked, snorted, or injected, peak effects occur within minutes. Methamphetamine’s effects can last up to 14 hours, depending on the individual.4
The trouble comes after the initial high. Our brains do not normally produce such high dopamine levels, so returning to normal production levels can lead to intense cravings that drive the individual to continue using.
The negative and well-known signs of meth use come in the aftermath of the high.
Short-Term Side Effects
- Increased blood pressure and temperature
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Increased respiration
- Decreased appetite
- Increased wakefulness and alertness
- Increased movement and physical activity
Long-Term Side Effects
- Severe dental problems (aka “Meth Mouth”)
- Intense itching which leads to scratching that results in skin sores
- Liver, kidney, and lung issues
- Premature osteoporosis
- Extreme weight loss
- Changes in brain function and structure
- Memory loss
- Issues with sleep
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Psychotic symptoms which may persist months or years later
- Increased risk of contracting HIV or Hep B and C (both from unhygienic needles and impulsive decision-making that can lead to unprotected sex)
- May experience an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease5
As mentioned above, long-term meth side effects include changes to brain structure and function.6 Some of these alterations reverse over time, but many are irreparable, resulting in long-term reduced coordination, impaired verbal learning, and changes in emotion and memory.
The Dangers of Meth Use
Signs of Meth Addiction
Methamphetamine is highly addictive, leading to intense cravings and drug-seeking behavior during and after withdrawal.
Accompanying the long-term meth side effects above, an addiction to meth results in meth symptoms, including:
- Increased tolerance and need for higher amounts to achieve the desired effect
- Decreased pleasure from activities you once enjoyed
- An increasing obsession with procuring more meth
- Errors and poor quality of work at the office or school
- Isolation from family and friends
- Experiencing withdrawal when you attempt to decrease the use
- Wanting to reduce or stop using, but being unable to
Signs of a Meth Overdose
Due to its incredibly addictive nature, meth overdoses are extremely common and very dangerous. In 2017 alone, meth overdoses accounted for 15% of drug overdose deaths.7
It is very easy to accidentally overdose, as the “positive” effects and signs of meth use often begin decreasing even as high levels remain in your body waiting to be processed by your liver.
Because meth symptoms include increased breathing and a faster or irregular heart rate, those who use and experience a meth overdose are at heightened risk of:
- Heart attack
- Liver or Kidney Disease
How Long Does Meth Stay in the Body?
Remember that, while meth’s desired effects come and go within the first 14 hours after use, that does not mean there is no longer any meth in your system. Unfortunately, many find that they accidentally overdose simply by taking more meth to achieve the previous high, even as their liver is still processing the substance left from the last use.
Meth has a half-life of 10 hours, meaning that it takes about 10 hours to reduce the amount of methamphetamine in your system by half. Upon ingestion, a portion immediately enters the bloodstream and triggers the release of dopamine. After its consumption, meth is processed and broken down into amphetamine by the kidneys, where it’s later excreted in one’s urine.
Meth Detection Tests
- Urine: Urine tests typically can detect meth use between 1-4 days after last consumption. However, meth may be detectable up to a week after last use in heavy chronic users.
- Blood: Blood tests are generally able to detect meth use 1-3 days after last use.
- Saliva: Saliva tests can detect meth use 1-4 days after last use.
- Hair: Depending on the type of test, meth can be detected in hair samples for up to 90 days after your last use.
- False Positives: Because methamphetamine shares a similar structure to federally-approved drugs, you should mention any medications you’re currently taking if you are taking a detection test. Most drug detection kits test for families of drugs which can include legal medications. To avoid false positives, make sure the test administrator uses a meth-specific test or is aware of possible contraindications.
Medications that can incur false positives are antidepressants, Ephedra, Metformin, OTC medications, Ritalin, and Trandate.9
Meth Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal from meth use can be challenging. Because there are no current medications approved to assist in combating meth addiction, the idea of enduring meth withdrawal can feel isolating and scary.
Meth withdrawal symptoms typically include:
- Intense drug cravings
- Severe depression
- Anhedonia (loss of ability to feel pleasure)
If you’ve decided to halt your meth use, we highly suggest contacting a health provider who can monitor your vitals and help you through the process of going cold turkey.
Treatment Options for Meth Addiction
Detox is ultimately the first step in healing from meth addiction. As described above, detoxing from meth can be scary. However, meth detox is not physically dangerous like withdrawal from alcohol, sedatives, or opioids, which can result in death. However, because of the emotional and mental components of meth addiction, it is highly valuable to have supervision during meth detox, as some people are prone to seizures in addition to the potential of suicidal ideation, anhedonia, and overdose after relapsing.
Therapies for Meth Addiction
Research suggests the most effective treatment for methamphetamine addiction centers on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people rewire habits and learn coping mechanisms to calmly move through challenging situations that previously triggered drug use.
Medication-Assisted Treatment for Meth
While there are medications currently approved for treating opioid and alcohol addiction, there currently are no federally approved medications for meth addiction.
However, a recent 2021 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that “A combination of two medications, injectable naltrexone and oral bupropion, was safe and effective in treating adults with moderate or severe methamphetamine use disorder in a double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase III clinical trial.”10 These findings indicate that there may soon be the possibility for medication-assisted treatment to help those struggling with meth abuse overcome their addiction and stay on the path to recovery.