The Facts about Meth Addiction

Looking for some information on meth and crystal meth? This exhaustive guide contains the most popularly asked questions and answers related to meth use, the many signs and symptoms of use, and the preferred method of quitting. Read on to learn more.
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What Is Crystal Meth?

Crystal methamphetamine is a synthetic psychostimulant drug that speeds up the inner working of the brain and affects the central nervous system, with long-lasting effects on the body. Nicknames include crystal, speed, zoom, go, crank, tweak, ice, glass, rock candy, shizzo, yaba, fire, uppers, poor man's cocaine or shards. Some people call it Tina when out in public, because it sounds like they're talking about a person rather than a drug. Crystal methamphetamine can be swallowed as a pill, injected intravenously, snorted or smoked, and can either look like little shards of glass or an odorless, bitter-tasting powder, ranging in color from clear to pink, or off-white to brown, depending on the ingredients used to make it. The drug has devastating effects on those who become addicted to it. According to, the meth addiction factor is extreme—it's "one of the most addictive substances" out there today.

Why Is Meth Addiction So Widespread?

Today's regularity of crystal meth addiction can be traced back to the creation of amphetamine and methamphetamine drugs more than a century ago. Amphetamine was first synthesized in Germany in 1887, when ephedrine was isolated from the ephedra shrub. In 1919, crystallized methamphetamine was produced in Japan. A derivative of amphetamine, methamphetamine was two to three times stronger as a stimulant, its effects lasted much longer and it was easier to make. Crystal methamphetamine was also more addictive and more toxic. Because so little was known about the negative side effects and risks for addiction, meth tablets were distributed to German soldiers during World War II so they could fight day and night without eating or sleeping, according to the Science History Institute.

Military-grade amphetamine was also readily available to British and American soldiers to "combat fatigue and boost morale."

By the 1950s, amphetamine, marketed as Benzedrine, was widely used to treat asthma, hayfever and colds. Recreational use grew as well. During the Vietnam War, amphetamine, nicknamed "pep pills," was issued to American soldiers to "increase alertness" during lengthy jungle expeditions. Once the drug wore off, many soldiers reported feeling anxious, angry and aggressive.

By 1971, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (USDEA) classified all amphetamines as Schedule II controlled substances, citing the potential for abuse, dependence and addiction. According to the Journal of Psychopharmacology, amphetamine today is a "highly restricted" Food and Drug Administration-controlled nervous system stimulant, prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy (common drugs are Adderall and Dexedrine). The pure form of methamphetamine, Desoxyn, is rarely ever prescribed in the U.S. In some countries, it's banned for prescription purposes.

How Is Crystal Meth Made? What's in It?

With amphetamine placed under federal control, illegal drug suppliers found that ephedrine, used in over-the-counter cold medicine, produces methamphetamine, according to Frontline. It didn't take long for crystal meth to become "discovered" in the 1980s. Unlike cocaine and heroin, which are also sold illegally, methamphetamine is made with household products including lithium from car batteries, brake fluid, drain cleaner/toilet cleaner (sulfuric or hydrochloric acid), nail polish remover/paint thinner (acetone), fertilizers (ammonia), fuel, red phosphorous, lye (sodium hydroxide—used "to dispose of road kill because it turns the dead bodies into a coffee-like liquid," according to or antifreeze. According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, the substance is often made in illegal makeshift meth labs within homes, cabins, cars, shacks, motels, etc. The ignitable, corrosive and toxic nature of the chemicals used to create crystal meth can cause fires, produce toxic vapors and wreak havoc on the environment. It's basically a concoction of toxic waste—a poison.

What Happens When You're on Crystal Meth?

Users of crystal meth report initially feeling euphoric, experiencing an intense, long-lasting rush after the first use. This is because methamphetamine floods the brain with dopamine, the feel-good chemical responsible for pleasure, reward and motivation. Blood pressure spikes, thoughts race, users often have to keep moving even though they're accomplishing nothing. "While under the influence of meth, users can have the illusion of being more powerful and productive than usual, and than they actually are. Although this can feel good to the meth user, it can cause real problems. Meth can make people feel more socially outgoing, talkative and self-confident. But equally, they can behave bizarrely and become distant from positive social relationships, and not realize they may appear ridiculous to others," explains Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, in Very Well Mind.

After the rush comes the high. If snorting the drug in crystal meth form, the high will come on in three to five minutes; if swallowing methamphetamine, it can take 15 to 20 minutes. The length of time the drug stays in your system depends on how much was used, your age (as you get older, your body has a slower metabolism, and it can take longer to eliminate toxins) and your health (if you're unhealthy, it will take longer for your body to get rid of substances). The drug's effects can last anywhere from six to 12 hours, which can lead people to continue using to keep the high going. Users who binge on crystal meth can stay awake for as long as 10 days, often subsisting with very little food or drink.

"Tweaking" occurs when the body and mind of the meth addict stop reacting to the drug, and the addict "enters a state that is almost psychotic," according to Methamphetamine Addiction.

"Tweakers" can be unpredictable, with the user experiencing severe symptoms including hallucinations, paranoia, and picking, scraping or digging at the face or skin, either due to breakouts or because they feel phantom bugs crawling on or under the skin's surface ("ice bugs" or "meth sores"). This crawling feeling is due to an increased body temperature, leading to sweating and oily skin, combined with the fact that the body is dehydrated.

The stimulant can also bring about a severe crash when the inebriating effects wear off, causing the user to sleep for days afterward.

Common physical effects of "coming down" from the drug use include body aches, heartburn and feeling extremely lethargic, nauseous and confused. When meth wears off, dopamine and serotonin are both depleted, resulting in anxiety and depression.

Meth addiction is a vicious cycle. Once you develop a tolerance to the drug, it takes more and more methamphetamine to achieve the same stimulating effect. A second consequence of addiction is that when the high is over, the user feels a corresponding low or depression as a result of a depleted supply of dopamine. Users are well aware that such feelings can quickly be countered by another dose. While the depths of this low tend to correspond to the heights of the user's high, the long-term reduction in dopamine levels for people with meth addiction leads to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from simple, everyday things.

How Long Does Methamphetamine Stay in Your System?

Meth remains present in urine for anywhere from four days to a week after use and in the blood for up to 24 to 48 hours afterwards. Methamphetamine can be found in the hair for up to 90 days or longer after use.

How Can You Tell Someone Is Using Crystal Meth?

The mugshots don't lie. There are many physical side effects of long-term meth abuse, such as tooth decay or "meth mouth," body sores, weight loss, hair loss and outward signs of aging as the drug destroys tissues and blood vessels. Because chronic meth use can induce pathological brain changes—basically altering the chemistry of the brain—psychological side effects of addiction can include violent aggression, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, even psychosis, a mental health disorder affecting a person's thoughts and emotions. (Some meth addicts are misdiagnosed as having a mental illness such as schizophrenia.) Psychosis can cause extreme paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, including the feeling of one's skin "crawling" with imaginary parasites. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), psychosis can last for several months or years after the individual quits using. One evidence-based report in Current Psychiatry reported that, among chronic methamphetamine users, "partial recovery of neuropsychological functioning and improvement in affective distress can be achieved after sustained abstinence from methamphetamine, but recovery may not be complete." In other words, it takes some time to recover from meth addiction, and a full return to normal brain functioning is never guaranteed.

Symptoms, side effects and signs of meth addiction may include:

  • Decreased appetite (crystal meth affects serotonin levels in the brain, responsible for regulating mood, appetite and memory)
  • Increased wakefulness and obsessive physical activity
  • Psychosis/psychotic episodes
  • Euphoria
  • Increased sensitivity to noise
  • Nervous activity, like scratching or picking at the skin
  • Irritability, dizziness or confusion
  • Depression
  • Tremors or convulsions
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Paranoia
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure and risk of stroke; irregular heartbeat
  • Mood swings or outbursts, including aggression and violent behavior
  • Risk of HIV/AIDS
  • Hyperthermia (overheating of the body)
  • Dry mouth
  • "Meth mouth" (broken, decayed, stained teeth)
  • Incessant itching
  • Dilated pupils
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Twitching
  • Small wounds from the injection site ("speed bumps")

Meth paraphernalia and other signs of use include: 

  • Water pipes
  • Burned spoons
  • Aluminum foil
  • Rolled up paper slips
  • Needles, syringes, shoelaces, rubber tubing (used as a tourniquet if shooting up)

Long-Term Effects of Meth Use and Addiction

It's not an exaggeration to describe the long-term effects of meth use as profound. According to the NIDA, crystal meth can damage nerve terminals and increase the risk for physical and psychological illness (such as Parkinson's disease). Meth abuse can cause irreversible damage to blood vessels in the brain. Use of the drug can also cause birth defects, profound weight loss and cardiovascular issues, including cardiac arrhythmia, myocardial infarction, stroke, seizures, extreme and unhealthy weight loss and even death. Addiction to methamphetamine introduces its own dangers and exacerbates many others.

Why Is Crystal Meth So Addictive?

Curiosity, boredom, peer pressure, weight loss, to fill a void—the reasons vary for why people try meth for the first time. The common thread of advice among many methamphetamine addicts, though, is don't try it at all. Walk away. It's not worth the risk of getting hooked after just one use. Devastating consequences can come with that first hit. The body can quickly become dependent on the chemicals, leading to methamphetamine addiction. 

Is There a Cure for Meth Addiction?

There is no quick and easy cure for meth abuse/addiction, but substance use disorders can be treated with physical and psychological methods. Meth addiction treatment options include medically supervised detox, inpatient addiction treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient rehab, and relapse prevention.

What Are The Meth Withdrawal Symptoms?

The most common withdrawal symptoms for meth addiction can be extremely intense. It's recommended that people going through withdrawal do so under professional supervision at a trusted meth addiction treatment center. The following are common withdrawal symptoms for chronic meth users: 

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Intense cravings (this can last up to 10 weeks)

Once the meth cravings fade, the patient can begin to engage in treatment programming.

Types of Meth Addiction Treatment

The most effective meth addiction treatment programs include medical detox and cognitive therapies. As reported in Current Psychiatry, "Because cognitive dysfunction can influence treatment outcomes, clinicians need to be fully aware of the cognitive status of those patients, and a thorough neuropsychological evaluation is necessary before initiating treatment." Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on understanding the role of substance abuse in a person's life and helps the development of coping skills to avoid addiction relapse. When addressing substance abuse, the NIDA describes cognitive-behavioral strategies as "learning to identify and correct problematic behaviors by applying different skills to stop drug abuse." By recognizing cravings early on and identifying situations that might put a person at risk, the individual can develop effective coping strategies for managing their addiction.

At Hazelden Betty Ford addiction treatment centers, evidence-based approaches to drug addiction treatment are utilized by a licensed and accredited multidisciplinary care team. Our treatment program options include cognitive-behavioral therapy, Twelve Step facilitation and medication-assisted therapies. If you or a loved one is addicted to meth, call us to learn about rehab options and start living the life you deserve.

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