Methamphetamine – commonly known as meth or crystal meth – is common drug of recreational misuse that poses a serious health risk to anyone who uses it. Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant derived from its chemical cousin, amphetamine.
Rates of addiction and misuse for methamphetamine are not as high as those of other common recreational drugs in the U.S. However, the health consequences and behaviors associated with the misuse and disordered use of amphetamine make it disproportionately dangerous, and a matter of concern for addiction professionals and a matter of urgency for anyone with a friend or loved one experiencing meth addiction.
Here are the latest statistics on meth misuse and addiction in the U.S. in 2018:
- About 1.9 million people aged 12 or older reported using methamphetamine in the past year.
- That’s 0.7% of the population in that age group.
- About 43,000 adolescents age 12-17 reported using methamphetamine in the past year.
- That 0.2% of the population in that age group.
- About 273,000 people age 18-25 reported using methamphetamine in the past year
- That’s 0.8% of the population in that age group.
- About 1.6 million adults age 26 or older reported using methamphetamine in the past year.
- That’s 0.7% of the population in that age group
Methamphetamine Use Disorder
- About 1.1 million people age 12 or older had a methamphetamine use disorder in the past year.
- That’s 0.4% of the population in that age group.
- About 18,000 adolescents age 12-17 had a methamphetamine use disorder in the past year.
- That’s 0.1% of the population in that age group.
- About 134,000 people age 18-25 in 2018 had a methamphetamine use disorder in the past year.
- That’s 0.4% of the population in that age group.
- About 899,000 people age 26 or older had a methamphetamine use disorder in the past year.
- That’s 0.4% of the population in that age group.
It’s true that the rate and prevalence of meth use and misuse do not rise to the level of rates and prevalence for alcohol, opioids, and cannabis. Nevertheless, meth addiction and misuse is an important issue to understand – it’s one of the top most commonly abused recreational drugs in the U.S.
A Quick History of Methamphetamine
German scientists created amphetamine in a laboratory in 1887. Shortly thereafter, in 1893, a group of Japanese scientists synthesized methamphetamine. Both groups of researchers discovered the compounds in an effort to manufacture an alternative to the alkaloid chemical found in the ephedra plant.
Most people know about ephedra from the widespread use of its derivatives, ephedrine, and pseudoephedrine. Physicians first prescribed ephedrine for weight loss and depression in the 1950s. It was available over the counter until 2004, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use due to a growing body of research indicating significant adverse effects on the human brain and body.
Pseudoephedrine is well-known because of its widespread use as a decongestant. It’s a common ingredient in many over the counter drugs used to treat runny nose, nasal congestion, and sinus headache. It works by narrowing blood vessels in the nasal passages, which become swollen and inflamed due to allergies, the common cold, or a typical sinus infection. People know about the drug because it’s effective: almost everyone has taken one of the several medications containing the chemical.
Methamphetamine, however, is completely different. First used as treatment for asthma in the 1930s, its use as a potent stimulant quickly eclipsed its use as a decongestant. In World War II, military personnel on all sides of the conflict used methamphetamine. Foot soldiers used it for energy before combat, and pilots and naval personnel used it to stay awake on long missions and duty watches.
After the war, recreational use of methamphetamine gradually increased until it became a common drug of recreational uses, misuse, and addiction in the U.S.
The Dangers of Methamphetamine Use
Methamphetamine is an odorless crystalline powder that can be swallowed, inhaled, or smoked. It’s also possible to prepare the powder for intravenous injection, similar to the way powdered heroin is prepared for injection. The effects of one dose of methamphetamine last from four to eight hours and include a decrease in appetite, an increase in energy, and a general sense or euphoria and wellbeing. Methamphetamine causes a surge of dopamine in the brain – about twelve times more than is released during any typical activity – but over time the drug destroys the cell surface receptors that bind to dopamine and regulate reuptake into brain cells. This causes methamphetamine users to develop a tolerance to the drug, meaning that over time, they need to take higher and higher doses to achieve the same euphoric effect.
Tolerance can quickly lead to physical and psychological dependence, which, in turn, can lead to a wide range of behaviors known as addiction or substance use disorder (SUD). Clinicians refer to methamphetamine addiction as a stimulant use disorder-amphetamine-type substance. This type of SUD has three classifications: mild, moderate, and severe.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to all three classifications as methamphetamine addiction, methamphetamine use disorder, or substance use disorder. It’s critical for everyone to understand that any recreational use of methamphetamine is dangerous. Short-term use can cause immediate negative side effects, while moderate- or long-term use leads to significant physical, psychological, and emotional damage.
The following bulleted lists include most, but not all, of the negative effects of methamphetamine use, misuse, and addiction.
Consequences of Methamphetamine Use
- Cardiac Issues (Heart)
- Chest pain
- Myocardial Infarction
- Coronary artery disease
- Neurologic Issues (Brain)
- Cerebral vasculitis
- Hyperkinetic movement
- Neurocognitive impairment
- Psychiatric Issues (Emotional/Psychological)
- Poor quality of life
- Additional Physiological Issues
- Skin ulcerations
- Dermatologic infections
- Dental caries
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Pulmonary edema
- Fetal growth restriction
- Increased risk of hepatitis C and HIV
Although the recreational use of methamphetamine is not as prevalent as that of other substances of misuse such as alcohol, opioids, and cannabis, the negative effects of methamphetamine use and misuse make it dangerous, and in some cases, life threatening.
Now we’ll discuss the signs and symptoms of meth addiction.
Meth Addiction: What to Watch For
While using methamphetamine only once can be risky, methamphetamine addiction doesn’t happen instantly. That’s a myth, based on media hype and misinformation. Most people who experiment with methamphetamine don’t develop an addiction, but those who do face serious physical, psychological, and social problems. Meth addiction affects every facet of life, from work, to school, to family – that’s why it’s important to know how meth addiction might look in a friend or loved one.
The signs of methamphetamine addiction – those that come with a sudden or prolonged increase in meth use – vary widely from person to person. Within this variety, however, there are three broad categories of symptoms: behavioral, physical, and emotional. We list the signs and symptoms associated with these categories below.
Meth Addiction: Signs and Symptoms
- Behavioral symptoms of meth addiction may include:
- Preoccupation with obtaining and using meth
- Hiding meth use
- Lying about meth use
- Twitching/facial tics
- Rapid, darting eye movement
- Isolating or withdrawing from friends and family
- Impaired work or school performance
- Relationship problems
- Decrease in personal hygiene
- Impulsive, risky behavior
- Aggressive behavior
- Excess energy
- Constant, rapid talking
- Violent behavior
- Impaired cognitive function
- Memory problems
- Erratic sleep patterns
- Sudden unexplained weight loss
- Physical symptoms of meth addiction may include:
- Shaking and trembling
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Intense cravings
- Rotting teeth
- Skin lesions/sores
- The emotional symptoms of meth addiction may include:
- Mood swings
In addition to these common signs of meth addiction, long-term use of methamphetamine can lead to rhabdomyolysis, a condition which causes a breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue and leads to a release of muscle fiber – called myoglobin – into the bloodstream. Rhabdomyolysis can lead to permanent kidney damage. Finally, long-term methamphetamine users often fail to eat regularly, resulting in malnutrition. In combination, these consequences of meh use lead to general malaise, illness, and a chronic inability to heal from illness or injury.
In most cases, it’s not difficult to deduce someone is addicted to meth. The behavioral and emotional signs are often clear to friends and loved ones of the person misusing the drug, while the physical signs make it clear to others familiar with the condition.
Methamphetamine withdrawal – while uncomfortable – is more challenging psychologically than it is physically. When a person with a methamphetamine use disorder stops taking the drug, the levels of dopamine in the brain drop quickly. Because long-term methamphetamine use compromises the dopamine reuptake process, anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure – sets in quickly. In some cases, it can take up to two years for the dopamine system in the brain to normalize.
The severity of methamphetamine withdrawal varies according to many different factors, including:
- The duration and amount of use
- Age: the older the user, the more difficult the withdrawal
- Overall mental and physical health before methamphetamine misuse began
- The potency/purity of the drug used
Methamphetamine withdrawal typically occurs in two phases:
- Phase One. Known as the acute phase, this typically lasts a week to ten days, and begins about 24 hours after last use.
- Phase Two. Known as the subacute phase, this typically lasts another two weeks, but may continue for as long as five weeks after last use.
Withdrawal symptoms are similar in both phases. The difference between the phases lies in the intensity and the severity of the subjective experience. In Phase One, symptoms are intense and difficult to endure. After about a week, Phase Two begins, and symptom intensity and severity gradually decline. In cases of mild methamphetamine addiction, withdrawal symptoms may disappear completely by the end of the second, subacute phase. In cases of severe addiction, withdrawal symptoms may last longer than the typical three-week withdrawal period described above.
Methamphetamine Withdrawal Symptoms
- Body aches and pains
The intensity of the symptoms – especially psychosis, depression, and paranoia – is more severe the longer the individual has been addicted to the drug. This makes abstinence challenging for long-term users, and that’s why relapse is common. However, research shows the best way to achieve sustained sobriety after methamphetamine addiction is through professional treatment at and specialized addiction treatment center.
Evidence-Based Treatment for Methamphetamine Addiction
The most effective treatment for methamphetamine use disorder follows an integrated treatment model. Integrated treatment addresses the entire person, which means it accounts for and supports all areas of life, including biological, psychological, and social factors that may be at play. If a co-occurring mental, behavioral, or mood disorder is present, then it’s essential to treat that as well. An integrated treatment plan must be customized to the needs of each individual.
Evidence-based treatment plans for methamphetamine use disorder include, but are not limited to:
- Individual counseling
- Group Counseling
- Family Counseling
- Medication (if needed)
- Community/peer support
- 12 Step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Lifestyle Modifications
- Experiential activities
- Expressive therapies (art, music, journaling)
- Relapse Prevention
- Aftercare plans
- Ongoing community support
When seeking treatment for methamphetamine addiction, it’s important to find a treatment program that includes all the elements above. Each element matters, and each contributes to long-term, sustained sobriety.
The Importance of Lifestyle Changes and Community Support
For methamphetamine users, the damage to the dopamine system means it may take a long time to feel healthy again. This makes the lifestyle and community support elements of recovery critical. The lifestyle changes give a person in recovery from methamphetamine use disorder a framework within which to live life without drug use, and community support gives them the human contact, compassion, and wisdom to help them make those lifestyle changes last.
Well-respected treatment programs – residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, or outpatient – will include the elements above. While effective treatment programs share many common components, each treatment center has its own identity approach to treatment. The best way to the right program is to gather all the available information, then call or visit to get a feel for the clinical staff, support staff, and general atmosphere of the treatment center. Committing to an addiction rehab program is a life-changing decision. Receiving the highest quality professional support in an environment that synchronizes with the specific needs of the person in treatment increases their chances of achieving sustained, lifelong sobriety.