What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Crystal methamphetamine is a form of the drug that looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. It is chemically similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.

Other common names for methamphetamine include blue, crystal, ice, meth, and speed.

How do people use methamphetamine?

People can take methamphetamine by:

  • smoking
  • swallowing (pill)
  • snorting
  • injecting the powder that has been dissolved in water/alcohol

Because the “high” from the drug both starts and fades quickly, people often take repeated doses in a “binge and crash” pattern. In some cases, people take methamphetamine in a form of binging known as a “run,” giving up food and sleep while continuing to take the drug every few hours for up to several days.

How does methamphetamine affect the brain?

Methamphetamine increases the amount of the natural chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is involved in body movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. The drug’s ability to rapidly release high levels of dopamine in reward areas of the brain strongly reinforces drug-taking behavior, making the user want to repeat the experience.

Short-Term Effects

Taking even small amounts of methamphetamine can result in many of the same health effects as those of other stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines. These include:

  • increased wakefulness and physical activity
  • decreased appetite
  • faster breathing
  • rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
  • increased blood pressure and body temperature

How Do Manufacturers Make Methamphetamine?

Currently, most methamphetamine in the United States is produced by transactional criminal organizations (TCOs) in Mexico. This methamphetamine is highly pure, potent, and low in price. The drug can be easily made in small clandestine laboratories, with relatively inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medications. To curb this kind of production, the law requires pharmacies and other retail stores to keep a purchase record of products containing pseudoephedrine, and take steps to limit sales.

Methamphetamine production also involves a number of other very dangerous chemicals. Toxic effects from these chemicals can remain in the environment long after the lab has been shut down, causing a wide range of health problems for people living in the area. These chemicals can also result in deadly lab explosions and house fires.

What are other health effects of methamphetamine?

Long-Term Effects

People who inject methamphetamine are at increased risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. These diseases are transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids that can remain on drug equipment. Methamphetamine use can also alter judgment and decision-making leading to risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, which also increases risk for infection.

Methamphetamine use may worsen the progression of HIV/AIDS and its consequences. Studies indicate that HIV causes more injury to nerve cells and more cognitive problems in people who use methamphetamine than it does in people who have HIV and don’t use the drug.1 Cognitive problems are those involved with thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering.

Long-term methamphetamine use has many other negative consequences, including:

  • extreme weight loss
  • addiction
  • severe dental problems (“meth mouth”)
  • intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching
  • anxiety
  • changes in brain structure and function
  • confusion
  • memory loss
  • sleeping problems
  • violent behavior
  • paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
  • hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they aren’t

In addition, continued methamphetamine use causes changes in the brain’s dopamine system that are associated with reduced coordination and impaired verbal learning. In studies of people who used methamphetamine over the long term, severe changes also affected areas of the brain involved with emotion and memory.2 This may explain many of the emotional and cognitive problems seen in those who use methamphetamine.

Although some of these brain changes may reverse after being off the drug for a year or more, other changes may not recover even after a long period of time.3 A recent study even suggests that people who once used methamphetamine have an increased the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the nerves that affects movement.4

Are there health effects from exposure to secondhand methamphetamine smoke?

Researchers don’t yet know whether people breathing in secondhand methamphetamine smoke can get high or have other health effects. What they do know is that people can test positive for methamphetamine after exposure to secondhand smoke.5,6 More research is needed in this area.

Can a person overdose on methamphetamine?

Yes, a person can overdose on methamphetamine. An overdose occurs when the person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.

In 2017, about 15 percent of all drug overdose deaths involved the methamphetamine category, and 50 percent of those deaths also involved an opioid, with half of those cases related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. (CDC Wonder Multiple Causes of Death—see #42 on Meth RR.)  It is important to note that cheap, dangerous synthetic opioids are sometimes added to street methamphetamine without the user knowing

How can a methamphetamine overdose be treated?

Because methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or organ problems, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions, with the intent of:

  • restoring blood flow to the affected part of the brain (stroke)
  • restoring blood flow to the heart (heart attack)
  • treating the organ problems

Is methamphetamine addictive?

Yes, methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • severe depression
  • psychosis
  • intense drug cravings

How is methamphetamine addiction treated?

While research is underway, there are currently no government-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction. The good news is that methamphetamine misuse can be prevented and addiction to the drug can be treated with behavioral therapies. The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction so far are behavioral therapies, such as:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations likely to trigger drug use.
  • motivational incentives, which uses vouchers or small cash rewards to encourage patients to remain drug-free

Research also continues toward development of medicines and other new treatments for methamphetamine use, including vaccines, and noninvasive stimulation of the brain using magnetic fields. People can and do recover from methamphetamine addiction if they have ready access to effective treatments that address the multitude of medical and personal problems resulting from long-term use.

Points to Remember

  • Methamphetamine is usually a white, bitter-tasting powder or a pill. Crystal methamphetamine looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks.
  • Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine (a drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy).
  • People can take methamphetamine by smoking, swallowing, snorting, or injecting the drug.
  • Methamphetamine increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, which is involved in movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors.
  • Short-term health effects include increased wakefulness and physical activity, decreased appetite, and increased blood pressure and body temperature.
  • Long-term health effects include risk of addiction; risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis; severe dental problems (“meth mouth”); intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching; violent behavior; and paranoia.
  • Methamphetamine can be highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, fatigue, severe depression, psychosis, and intense drug cravings.
  • Researchers don’t yet know if people breathing in secondhand methamphetamine smoke can get high or suffer other health effects.
  • A person can overdose on methamphetamine. Because methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or organ problems, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions.
  • The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction so far are behavioral therapies. There are currently no government-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction.

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An Overview of Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine)

Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, is a stimulant drug similar in many ways to amphetamines, the second most popular class of illicit drugs after marijuana in the world. Meth was synthesized back in the 1880s and was widely used in the second world war by soldiers on both sides, who were provided with the drug by their governments as an aid to alertness. This led to the first wave of meth use when the public gained access to this government-issued drug.

Methamphetamine and amphetamine were commonly prescribed during the 1950s and 1960s for a range of medical conditions, including narcolepsy, depression, and obesity. People began using methamphetamine and amphetamine recreationally in the 1960s, along with many other drugs, although meth waned in popularity until the 1980s. It recently gained popularity after the synthesis of a smokeable form of crystallized methamphetamine (d-methamphetamine hydrochloride) or crystal meth.

Top 5 Things to Know About Crystal Meth

    1. Crystal meth goes by many different names and appears in different forms. You might hear it called ice, crystal, tina, speed (traditionally a name for amphetamine), crank, jib, shards, or gak. It can look like slightly transparent crystals; brownish granules; pink, beige, or white powder; or be pressed into tablets or capsules.
    2. Meth can be taken in many different ways. Most commonly, it is snorted, smoked in a pipe, or injected, but it can be taken orally, as a pill or capsule, or mixed into a drink.
    3. Meth has been used as a “party ‘n’ play” or PnP drug, particularly among a sub-group of gay men who sometimes use the drug rectally, which is sometimes known as “booty bumping.”
    4. People take meth for many different reasons. In addition to the rave or party connection, people use meth as a stimulant to stay awake or to lose weight. Street youth report taking meth to cope with life on the streets and to stay vigilant, any may consider it a more positive choice than heroin or crack.
    5. Meth has severe physical and mental consequences, especially if taken for extended periods of time. Despite myths in the media, treatment for meth use can be effective.

Health Risks and Things to Consider About Crystal Meth

Like other addictive substances and behaviors, meth can be used recreationally by some people who do not become addicted. However, the complex effects that the meth high has on people’s mental state and behavior mean that using meth always carries a risk. The longer you use meth, the worse it is likely to affect you, and the harder it is to quit and make a full recovery.

If you have been using meth to lose weight, it is worth noting that long-term meth use tends to take its toll on users’ appearance, often aging people prematurely and leading to irreversible dental problems, sometimes known as “meth mouth.” Talk to your doctor about safer ways of losing weight that will make you look better, not worse, and—most importantly—not put your health at risk.

In addition, meth is not an effective way to study. Although some students may use meth to stay up late studying, it can cause long-term mental health problems—a threat, most importantly, to cognitive health, but also to one’s desire to get better grades. Brain scans have confirmed the long-term damage done by meth. If you believe you have attention problems, and meth helps you to focus, your doctor can prescribe safer, more effective medications to help with this or help you identify other, non-drug strategies that may help.

Some people find that meth improves their mood, but this is a temporary effect. When you come down, you are likely to feel worse than ever. Your doctor can give you much safer, more effective medications for depression and other mental health problems. You might also find that the psychological treatments for meth addiction are just as helpful for problems with depression and anxiety.

Finally, if you have been using meth as part of a social scene—whether it is a club, “party ‘n play,” or another social group, think about whether you would prefer to spend your time on other activities or with other people. Some people use drugs for a long time, simply because those around them do, but there are always alternatives.

Meth may seem exciting at first. But as the excitement wears off, like other addictions, meth use can be hard to quit and bring about health risks that are too serious to ignore.

Next Steps

Meth is a dangerous drug to take. So, while quitting is advised, it can be accompanied by a variety of physical and psychiatric symptoms. If possible, it is best to come off the drug with medical supervision.

Once you are through meth withdrawal, treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy can be helpful for overcoming meth addiction. If you have other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis—all of which can be substance-induced—it is important to get treatment for these conditions as well. And if you have social difficulties, such as trouble finding and keeping decent housing, there are programs designed especially to help with these kinds of problems for those who are in recovery from drug problems. If you don’t have contact with social services, try calling your local crisis line for help with accessing these services.


Know the Risks of Meth

Methamphetamine (meth) is a powerful, highly addictive drug that causes devastating health effects, and sometimes death, even on the first try.

Meth is easy to get addicted to and hard to recover from. Meth is a dangerous, synthetic, stimulant drug often used in combination with other substances that can be smoked, injected, snorted, or taken orally. Someone using meth may experience a temporary sense of heightened euphoria, alertness, and energy. But using meth changes how the brain works and speeds up the body’s systems to dangerous, and sometimes lethal, levels—increasing heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiratory rate. Chronic meth users also experience anxiety, confusion, insomnia, paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions.

Methamphetamine Match Video Thumbnail

Video: Meth Match

Watch what happens when you give meth a try.

» Watch the Video

 

The Rise of Meth Use in the United States

The number of fatal overdoses involving meth has more than tripled (PDF | 336 KB) between 2011 and 2016, according to the CDC. Use is also on the rise between 2016-2018 for most age groups. In 2018, more than 106,000 adults aged 26 or older used meth—a 43 percent increase over the previous year.

Short-term Effects of Meth

Even taking small amounts of meth, or just trying it once, can cause harmful health effects, including:

  • Increased blood pressure and body temperature
  • Faster breathing
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Loss of appetite, disturbed sleep patterns, or nausea
  • Bizarre, erratic, aggressive, irritable, or violent behavior

Long-term Health Risks of Meth

Chronic meth use leads to many damaging, long-term health effects, even when users stop taking meth, including:

  • Permanent damage to the heart and brain
  • High blood pressure leading to heart attacks, strokes, and death
  • Liver, kidney, and lung damage
  • Anxiety, confusion, or insomnia
  • Paranoia, hallucinations, mood disturbances, delusions, or violent behavior (psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after quitting meth)
  • Intense itching, causing skin sores from scratching
  • Severe dental problems (“meth mouth”)

Need Help?

With the right treatment plan, recovery is possible. If you, or someone you know, needs help with a substance use disorder, including meth use, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889, or use SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to get help.

References and Relevant Resources


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