Crystal meth is an illegal form of the stimulant drug methamphetamine that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies as a Schedule II controlled substance. Within the United States, the only legal form of methamphetamine, called “meth” for short, is Desoxyn, which is occasionally prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obesity.

While meth is usually a white powder, crystal meth resembles pieces of glass or white/blue rocks, also called Tina, ice, and glass for slang. Meth is commonly “cooked” up in clandestine and illegal laboratories, either domestically or in labs run by Mexican drug cartels, the DEA publishes.

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As a powerful stimulant, crystal meth increases energy levels, focus, and excitability, while decreasing a person’s need for sleep or food. Meth increases the levels of some of the brain’s neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. High levels of dopamine produces euphoria or a “high,” while norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline. Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rates, and body temperature are all increased with abuse of crystal meth.

Crystal meth is usually heated and then smoked with a glass pipe, or it may also be prepared and injected. Over a half-million Americans who were at least 12 years old in 2014 were considered current abusers of methamphetamine, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) publishes that young adults (ages 18-34) abuse meth at higher rates than teens and other age groups, and the average for starting meth use is 21.

White males abuse meth more than those in other demographics, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. While meth abuse has declined nationally in recent years, in some regions (like Hawaii, San Diego, Denver, San Francisco, and Phoenix), abuse rates remain high.

Meth may be abused for the intense “high” it can create, as a weight loss drug, or for assistance in staying awake, alert, and therefore more productive at work or school. Meth is considered to be highly addictive, and it is commonly abused in a “binge” and “crash” pattern, wherein an individual takes back-to-back doses of the drug to prolong the “high.” Abusing it in this way can quickly lead to drug tolerance and physical dependence.

Side Effects of Abusing Crystal Meth

Crystal meth can increase body temperature to dangerously high levels when used in large amounts and can cause the body to overheat, damaging organs, causing cardiovascular collapse, and convulsions resulting in a fatal overdose. Crystal meth abuse may also cause someone to suffer from serotonin syndrome and experience agitation, restlessness, confusion, rigid muscles, seizures, and rapid heart rate and blood pressure, which may be life-threatening.

Over 100,000 individuals received medical care in an emergency department (ED) in 2011 for a negative reaction to methamphetamine abuse, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports. Methamphetamine (and amphetamine) were the fourth most involved drugs in ED visits related to illicit drug abuse, DAWN publishes.

Crystal meth’s initial euphoric effects, the “high,” may begin quickly after smoking or injecting the drug. Abusing drugs in this manner sends them rapidly into the bloodstream. The “feel good” part of meth may wear off in 4-6 hours, but some of the mind-altering effects may hold on for up to 12 hours, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) publishes.

The intense pleasure crystal meth can stimulate may create feelings of invincibility and “super strength,” and individuals under the drug’s influence may be more prone to put themselves into potentially hazardous situations. Meth can increase sex drive and may therefore heighten the risk for contracting a sexually transmitted disease. IV drug use can also be a risk factor in infectious disease contraction, as individuals may share needles that are not sterile.

Side Effects of Abusing Crystal Meth meth mouth

Chronic meth abuse can actually change the way a person experiences the meth “high,” as regular abuse of the drug may cause extensive damage to the cells that produce dopamine and serotonin, the DEA reports. Violence, aggression, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, confusion, anxiety, insomnia, and other psychotic symptoms may be side effects of regular meth abuse. Anorexia and significant weight loss are also side effects of chronic meth abuse, as the drug suppresses appetite.

In addition, blood vessels constrict with regular meth abuse, potentially aging a person physically, causing their skin to look gray and wrinkled, Psych Central publishes. Skin picking and infections are further physical indicators of perpetuated crystal meth abuse, as individuals may suffer from delusions or hallucinations that they have bugs under their skin. Dental problems, such as broken and decaying teeth, often referred to as “meth mouth,” are additional side effects of long-term meth abuse.

Patterns of Regular Meth Abuse and Withdrawal

When a person takes crystal meth regularly, changes to the chemical structure and makeup of the brain are altered. The brain may become accustomed to letting the drug stimulate the production, movement, or absorption of some of its naturally occurring chemicals.

Regions of the brain involved in learning, memory, reward processing, and impulse control may be damaged, resulting in a potential risk for stroke, difficulties concentrating, memory issues, confusion, mood alterations, increased distractibility, cognitive deficits, and even a heightened incidence of developing Parkinson’s disease (a disorder involving the central nervous system, degradation of cells related to dopamine production in the brain, and a person’s movement, resulting in tremors and other issues), NIDA warns.

Due to the high level of interference with dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain from crystal meth abuse, when the drug wears off, a “crash” ensues. Feelings of depression, fatigue, difficulties feeling pleasure, and drug cravings are indicative of this crash period. Since these low feelings can be so dire, individuals may wish to take more crystal meth to avoid them, resulting in “binge” use.

Repeated and prolonged use of crystal meth causes the brain to become used to certain amounts of the drug, and a tolerance is formed. Drug dependence may not be far behind. One of the main side effects of drug dependence is the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when the drug wears off. These symptoms can be intense emotionally in the case of crystal meth. An established “binge-and-crash” pattern of crystal meth use and withdrawal, according to NHTSA, may occur.

Within a few minutes of taking crystal meth, users may experience:

  • A rush of euphoria
  • Dilated pupils
  • Excessive energy
  • Obsessive compulsive thoughts and/or actions
  • Increased sex drive
  • Rapid speech patterns
  • Lack of impulse control functions
  • Excitability
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Faster reaction times
  • Heightened alertness

One hour later, people may experience:

  • A slight dip in euphoric sensations, although still happy
  • Hyperactivity
  • Twitching
  • Blending of thoughts together

Within 4-24 hours (sometimes called “tweaking”), users may experience:

  • Trouble feeling pleasure
  • Thoughts being all over the place
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Aggression and/or violence
  • Drug cravings

Users may experience the following 1-3 days after the last dose (“crash”):

  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness and catnaps
  • Skin itching
  • Drug cravings

Within 2-7 days (intense withdrawal period), users may experience:

  • Depression
  • Intense mental and physical fatigue
  • Lack of ability to feel any pleasure
  • Feelings of having no energy
  • Mental fogginess
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Intense drug cravings

Some of the changes to brain structure and chemistry may be long-lasting. NIDA reports that some of the psychological side effects of crystal meth withdrawal may therefore persist for up to year or even longer. After long periods of abstinence, the brain can heal, however. NIDA published studies showing brain recovery after 14 months and increased healing after two years of sobriety.

How and When to Get Help for Crystal Meth Abuse

Addiction is more than merely drug tolerance and dependence. It encompasses changes across virtually all parts of a person’s life, from work and school to family life and social circles. When a person battles a brain disease such as addiction, physical symptoms like tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal are all potential warning signs, although in order for addiction to be diagnosed, a loss of control must also be present.

Someone who struggles with addiction to crystal meth will be unable to stop using the drug. They may use it in higher doses, for longer periods of time, and in potentially hazardous situations. They may continue using it even though they know it will be harmful to them.

All other activities and behaviors may become second to drug use. Obligations may be overlooked, absences at work or school may become more frequent, and individuals may get into trouble with the law. Erratic behaviors, mood swings, a decline in physical appearance, weight loss, strange sleeping patterns, increased secrecy, and social withdrawal may be apparent. Violent or aggressive outbursts and potential self-harming behaviors may also be signs of crystal meth addiction and that it is time to seek professional help for personal safety and for the safety of others.

After stopping a drug such as crystal meth, cravings and depressed moods can be significant. Psych Central reports that relapse rates may be as high as 90 percent. For this reason, a supportive treatment program that offers a long enough time to heal, provides tools for relapse prevention, and offers aftercare services is vital.

The initial goal of a drug treatment program is to help a person become physically stable without the drug. Detox is often the method used to accomplish this, and medical detox is the most comprehensive form. Medical detox provides a safe and secure environment wherein an individual can receive supportive care while under the watchful eye of highly trained medical and mental health professionals around the clock. This can help to ensure that clients do not harm themselves or anyone else, and that their vitals remain stable. While there are no medications that are directly used for the treatment of crystal meth dependence, the California Poison Control System reports on several that may be helpful to aid in restoring physical balance, such as benzodiazepines, for example. Antidepressants and antipsychotic medications may be useful during medical detox and treatment for crystal meth addiction as well. Medical detox, on average, lasts 5-7 days.

After detox, treatment in either an outpatient or residential setting should follow. Inpatient care provides the most comprehensive treatment model, attending to all physical, psychological, behavioral, and social needs. Over 60 percent of ED visits for methamphetamine in 2011 also involved another drug or alcohol, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes. Polydrug abuse, as well as any co-occurring mental health or medical conditions or disorders, can be optimally treated with integrated care methods in a residential setting.

Various therapies, including, life skills training, educational programs, nutrition planning, relapse prevention tools, and support groups, are all integral parts of crystal meth addiction treatment. Each treatment program will be different, depending on the specific needs of the individual. A thorough assessment, drug screening, and evaluation done at, or prior to, admission can ensure that the highest level of customized care is provided.