Authors: Yvette Brazier and Zawn Villines
Crystal meth, or methamphetamine, is a stimulant drug that carries a high risk for physical dependence. In the United States, a different formulation of methamphetamine called Desoxyn is available by prescription to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Crystal meth has a number of street names, including ice and glass. It resembles shiny “rocks” or fragments of glass of varying sizes. It is the most potent form of meth.
The drug is odorless and colorless. As a stimulant it speeds up activity in the central nervous system, which can cause a person to feel euphoric, powerful, and alert.
Illegal labs make the drug by combining ingredients derived from over-the-counter drugs, especially cough and cold medications, with toxic substances.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 0.9% of people in the U.S. will have used meth at some point during the last 12 months. In 2020, 23,837 people died of overdoses from stimulants in the U.S. Methamphetamine was responsible for most of these overdoses.
Crystal meth is a powerful stimulant drug that can cause feelings of euphoria and high energy. People may choose meth because of these euphoric effects.
Meth can also cause rapid weight loss, a higher libido, and intense feelings of alertness and concentration.
Some people self-medicate for these effects, hoping to lose weight, improve their sexual performance, reduce depression, or concentrate more at work or school.
For most people, the effects of crystal meth last for 6–12 hours, making the “high” much longer than that of other stimulants, such as cocaine. Some people choose meth because of its longer lasting effects.
However, as with most addictive substances, the body begins to tolerate meth with prolonged use. This reduces the intensity of the high a person gets. It also reduces other desired effects of the drug, including improvements in libido and concentration. This tolerance may cause a person to use more crystal meth to get the same high they once got with a lower dose.
Over time, this can lead to addiction. People with a substance use disorder may use these types of drugs, and others, to feel normal. If they stop using them, they may experience painful withdrawal effects.
How do people take it?
A person can snort or inject crystal meth. The way a person takes meth may affect the high. For example, smoking offers a shorter and more intense high, including a “rush” when a person first smokes.
Crystal meth boosts the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and stops its reuptake. As a result, it increases the levels of dopamine in the body.
Dopamine plays an important role in motor function, motivation, reward, and how the brain experiences and interprets pleasure.
The dopamine rush in the reward centers of the brain gives a person a sense of euphoria soon after taking the drug.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), brain imaging studies on people who have inappropriately used methamphetamine for a long time suggest that dopamine system activity changes in such a way that it can seriously compromise a person’s verbal learning and motor skills.
Crystal meth can also severely affect the brain’s structure and function. It affects areas of the brain linked to emotion and memory, as well as structures associated with judgment. Due to this, it may radically change behaviors and emotions.
This may explain why people who chronically use crystal meth often develop emotional and cognitive difficulties.
Some of the changes to the brain that result from inappropriate crystal meth use remain long after a person has stopped taking the drug. Other changes to the brain may reverse after long periods of abstinence, but this could take a year or more.
Repeated use can have some psychological effects.
- anxiety, irritability, and aggressive or violent behavior
- alertness and increased concentration
- hyperactivity and insomnia
- increased energy, libido, self-esteem, confidence, and sociability
- delusions of grandeur with a sensation of power and invincibility
- hallucinations and paranoia
- psychomotor agitation and compulsive skin picking, leading to skin sores
- repetitive and obsessive behaviors
- psychosomatic disorders, in which a mental disturbance causes an apparent physical symptom or ailment
When people take crystal meth regularly or in high dosages, it can cause drug-induced psychosis.
A person who regularly uses crystal meth also has a high risk of becoming overly reliant on the drug or developing a substance use disorder.
The drug can also lead to some physical effects.
- anorexia, meaning a loss of appetite
- blurred vision
- face sores
- gum disease and cracked teeth
- constipation or diarrhea
- dilated pupils
- dry mouth and skin
- hyperthermia, which is a high body temperature
- high blood pressure
- pale skin
- profuse sweating
- rapid breathing
- restlessness, twitching, and tremors
- abnormal heart rhythm, rapid heartbeat, and palpitations
Using the drug can lead to lowered inhibitions and behaviors that put the person in danger.
Chronic use or an overdose can lead to convulsions, stroke, and heart attack. It can even be fatal.
People who regularly use crystal meth may develop tooth decay, cracked or broken teeth, or gum disease.
Several factors contribute to tooth decay in people who use crystal meth:
- They frequently grind and clench their teeth while high.
- The use of the drug tends to dry the mouth, reducing the levels of protective saliva.
- They experience a high and may crave sugary drinks.
- People often neglect oral hygiene during the long lasting euphoric period.
Crystal meth produces feelings of euphoria for up to 12 hours and people crave its powerful effects again and again.
However, after several uses, the same dose no longer has the same effect. A person develops drug tolerance and needs more of the drug to achieve the same effect.
A person can develop a substance use disorder after using meth only a few times.
In time, the need for the high becomes more important than other factors in the person’s life, while the use of the drug increasingly achieves only a break from withdrawal symptoms. If a person tries to break the cycle, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Although the person’s blood will be free of the drug after 1–3 days without using it, the psychological symptoms may continue for a while.
This is because crystal meth, like some other drugs, changes the person’s brain chemistry. Moreover, a person may use meth to cope with other problems, such as depression, boredom, or sexual dysfunction.
Some withdrawal symptoms that a person may experience include:
- agitation and anxiety
- severe depression
- fatigue and insomnia
The person will likely also experience emotional turmoil and strong cravings for some time.
These symptoms can last for days or weeks, depending on how long the individual has used crystal meth.
Substance use disorder is a medical diagnosis that warrants medical treatment. It is not a moral failing, and people cannot think or will their way out of it.
Instead, treatment focuses on:
- managing physical withdrawal symptoms
- supporting a person to manage the underlying issues that led to the harmful use of crystal meth
- cultivating healthier coping skills
Drug rehabilitation programs can help people through the withdrawal process, allowing them to achieve their goals related to crystal meth use.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not currently approved any drugs that can help a person recover from substance use disorder. However, behavioral therapy programs have proven effective. One such program, the Matrix Model, lasts for 16 weeks. It combines cognitive behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes, family therapy, and 12-step programs.
Incentive programs that offer rewards for remaining drug-free may also be helpful.
No specific drug can treat methamphetamine withdrawal. However, a doctor may prescribe medication for other symptoms, such as depression or anxiety. A person with severe withdrawal symptoms may need to go through a medical detox program, where a doctor can monitor them and treat any symptoms as they appear.
For anyone concerned about a loved one who may have a substance use disorder, the NIDA provides information and guidance about what to do.
Crystal meth has no medical use, and it carries a high risk for physical and psychological dependence. Prolonged use can cause serious health issues, including gum disease and tooth loss. It may also affect a person’s relationships, finances, and future.
Regardless of a person’s reason for using crystal meth or the length of time they have been using it, treatment is possible. People should contact a doctor or specialist who deals with substance use disorders for support.