As of 2015, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that nearly 6 percent of the American population, aged 18 and older, had abused methamphetamine, or meth, in their lifetime. Close to 1 million people in the United States (over the age of 11) suffered from addiction involving meth in 2015.
Methamphetamine is a Schedule II controlled stimulant drug with rare medicinal uses that is typically considered largely a drug of abuse by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It is often manufactured in illicit laboratories into either a powder or crystal form (crystal meth) that can be smoked, snorted, injected, or swallowed.
As a powerful stimulant, meth raises heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration rates while also suppressing the need and desire to sleep and eat. Energy levels and pleasure are intensified during a meth “high.” Meth increases the amount of dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical messenger, in the brain, creating a surge of happiness during intoxication. When meth wears off, a “crash” may ensue, leaving individuals feeling fatigued, hungry, and depressed. People may then use meth in a binge pattern, often called a “run,” and take multiple doses back to back to prolong the high.
Meth is considered to be an extremely addictive drug that can cause long-term brain damage. It brings on difficult withdrawal symptoms when the drug is processed out of the body.
Spotting Meth Use and Addiction
Meth is a stimulant drug, meaning that it speeds up functions of the central nervous system and impacts levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, thus influencing a person’s emotional state. Meth can overwhelm an individual’s system in as little as one use, leading to an overdose, which is indicated by trouble breathing, chest pain, irregular heart rate, stomach pain, elevated body temperature, agitation, and paranoia. It can then possibly lead to a coma or cause life-threatening seizures. A meth overdose can also be fatal, causing kidney damage or failure, heart attack, hyperthermia, cardiovascular collapse, or stroke.
There are signs of regular meth use that may be apparent to loved ones.
Someone under the influence of meth may have dilated pupils, stay awake without eating for long periods of time, be more physically active than normal, and become irritable and paranoid.
When someone uses meth regularly, psychotic side effects may occur when they are intoxicated. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that chronic meth use can cause a person to suffer intense mood swings and disturbances, vivid hallucinations, and delusions (such as the feeling of bugs crawling under the skin). In addition, the person may become anxious, confused, and even violent. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) publishes that a paranoid delusion caused by meth can last upwards of 15 hours – much longer than with other stimulant drugs like cocaine. Insomnia, memory problems, trouble concentrating and thinking clearly, weight loss, and anorexia are further signs of regular meth use, as are skin sores from picking at the skin and an overall decline in physical appearance. Meth can also cause tooth decay, gum disease, dry mouth, and cracked teeth, leading to a condition often referred to as “meth mouth,” CBS News publishes.
Indications that a person may be battling an addiction involving meth include:
- Increased tolerance for the drug and the need to increase dosages to feel its effects
- Taking more of the drug at a time or for a longer time period than originally intended
- Multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop taking meth
- Dependence on meth signified by withdrawal symptoms and cravings when the drug wears off
- Inability to consistently keep up with schoolwork, job functions, or family obligations, potentially leading to a drop in grades, loss of employment, and/or homelessness
- Mood swings and out-of-character, even aggressive or violent, behaviors
- Near obsession with getting, using, and recovering from meth
- Possible financial problems resulting from spending money on meth
- Legal or criminal justice entanglements related to drug use, intoxication, and possession
- Trouble with everyday tasks and functions as meth disrupts executive functioning, memory, and learning
- Decreased interest in activities that were previously a priority
- Changes in social circles and withdrawal from family and friends
- Increased secrecy and isolation
- Inability to feel pleasure without meth
- Rise in risk-taking behaviors as a result of meth use and intoxication
- Using meth in situations that are deemed physically hazardous, such as prior to driving
- Continuing to use meth even though one is aware of the numerous social, emotional, physical, and behavioral issues the drug causes
- Lack of concern over physical appearance and personal hygiene
- Drastic changes in sleeping and eating habits
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Overdose and death are obvious risk factors of meth use that can be compounded by chronic use and escalating doses. A person may develop a tolerance to certain amounts of meth with regular use, causing them to take more of the drug each time and potentially take it more frequently as well. This often leads to a physical and psychological dependence, and trouble feeling balanced and happy without the drug. Individuals may also take meth in conjunction with other drugs or alcohol, which can amplify the possible side effects.
Meth also has been linked to brain damage as the overload of dopamine in the brain can kill neurons and damage dopamine receptors. The DEA publishes that as much as half of all dopamine receptors in the brain may be damaged by even low regular exposure to meth, and nerve cells containing serotonin may be even more extensively damaged. Individuals will have trouble experiencing pleasure without meth. After repeated exposure, they may become depressed and anxious, and experience powerful cravings to take more of the drug.
Regular meth use also impact the brain’s white matter and can cause cerebral damage, as published by the journal Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Executive functions of the brain that are necessary for reasoning, problem-solving, impulse control, attention span, and memory are disrupted by long-term meth use. Verbal learning, motor skills, and other cognitive abilities are also negatively impacted by chronic meth abuse, NIDA warns. Personality changes, including increased aggression, bouts of violence, erratic behaviors, and psychosis, are additional side effects of long-term meth use.
Meth users are at an increased risk for contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis B and C and HIV/AIDS through the sharing of dirty needles or unsafe sexual practices. Meth abuse can also speed up and amplify the progression of HIV/AIDS and potentially lead to an increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease. Meth can put a lot of strain on the heart, kidneys, and cardiovascular functions, potentially increasing the risk for stroke, heart attack, kidney problems, respiratory issues, and further cardiovascular concerns.
As a highly addictive drug, meth withdrawal can be intense. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) reports that meth can stay active in a person’s system for around 12 hours. Withdrawal symptoms, which include severe depression, fatigue, insomnia, disorientation, apathy, irritability, and intense cravings, usually begin when the drug processes out of the body. Individuals may then have trouble feeling “normal” without meth.
Suicidal ideations are possible during meth withdrawal, and emergency care is needed if they occur. Aggression and possible violent and hostile outbursts may also occur. Neural degeneration in the brain from chronic meth exposure may cause difficulty thinking clearly and problems with memory functions; these issues can begin within two weeks of stopping meth and last as long as a year, per a study published in the Gainesville Sun.
Professional support during meth withdrawal is imperative to manage the multiple emotional and cognitive symptoms of withdrawal. In medical detox, staff members offer clients encouragement, ensure their safety, and provide supportive care to mitigate the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. With the help of psychological and pharmacological care, clients can successfully complete meth withdrawal and proceed into a comprehensive treatment program.
Medical detox often employs the use of medications, such as antidepressants and antipsychotics, to minimize withdrawal symptoms. Nutritional supplements can also be beneficial in replacing nutrients in the body.
Medical detox provides an encouraging, supportive, therapeutic, and stable environment to allow the drug to process safely out of the body. The overarching goal of detox is to promote a level of physical and emotional stability before entrance into an addiction treatment program. The structured detox environment can help get a person through the bulk of acute detox and manage the majority of the withdrawal symptoms. As a result, it is more likely that those in medical detox actually complete the withdrawal process; those who attempt to detox on their own at home often relapse.
A detox program typically lasts around 5-7 days on average and is then immediately followed with an addiction treatment program that is specifically tailored to the individual receiving care. Behavioral therapies, counseling, education, support groups, and relapse prevention tools are offered in addiction treatment. Some of the damage to the brain, as well as behavioral, physical, and emotional side effects of addiction involving meth, may be reversed with professional comprehensive care.