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Meth Addiction: How It Happens, Why It Happens and How To Get Clean

Methamphetamine, or meth, is a dangerous and highly addictive drug. Meth is a stimulant, meaning it speeds up and intensifies sensations in the brain and central nervous system. When taken in combination with other drugs, meth can accelerate those drugs’ harmful effects. It also causes short- and long-term damage on its own.

What Is Meth?

Meth is known by many street names, including speed, chalk, ice, crank, uppers, blue, glass and tweak. Meth can be ingested by mouth, snorted, smoked or injected.

The effects of meth on the brain differ greatly from depressants such as heroin and alcohol. Meth is a powerful stimulant that raises the brain’s levels of dopamine far past what is healthy.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that induces feelings of pleasure and alertness. It also is what motivates a person to take action. Too much dopamine causes the entire central nervous system, and every other system in the body, to work much faster and harder than is healthy or sustainable.

Excessive dopamine also causes a person to overreact to small and even imaginary sensations. Sleeping and eating release small amounts of dopamine, but since meth floods the brain with this chemical, users do not feel the need to do either.

The rush of dopamine causes a high that can last days without food or rest. Large doses of meth cause the brain to feel, hear and see things that are not there, resulting in paranoia, violent behavior or self-harm. Over time, meth use causes permanent damage to the brain.

What Does Meth Look Like?

Meth looks like a pill or powder, and it has a bitter taste. Rarely, meth can be an oily liquid. It is naturally white but can come in a variety of colors depending on how it is cut with other substances.

Crystal meth is translucent and comes in chunks that resemble ice chips or shards of glass. These are clear or blue in color.

What Is Crystal Meth?

Crystal meth is a distilled, more potent form of meth. Its effects are more intense than powder or pill meth, and a smaller dose will produce a stronger high.

Where Does Meth Come From?

A prescription form of meth, Desoxyn, is used rarely to treat ADHD and obesity. Most street meth is made in small illegal operations commonly called meth labs. These are not real laboratories, but they are rather kitchens or RVs where dealers combine dangerous and potentially explosive chemicals to synthesize meth.

NPR reports that Mexican cartels are also producing meth and importing it into the United States. Cartel-made meth is especially dangerous because it is often laced with fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and causes fatal overdoses.

Expensive street drugs like cocaine have to be grown from plants, which are a limited resource. Meth can be manufactured from easily obtainable, mass-produced items such as over-the-counter cold medicine (pseudoephedrine), paint thinner and batteries. This makes meth, including crystal meth, much less expensive and more available than other drugs.

What Does Using Meth Feel Like?

The first experience of using meth can feel pleasurable and electric, giving a person newfound confidence. This is because of the unnatural levels of dopamine meth releases in the brain.

A first dose can feel like biting into a favorite food or accomplishing a difficult task, only many times more intense, and with the energy surge of drinking multiple energy drinks. A person may also feel unusually alert and capable of doing anything well. In some people, meth can bring on euphoria: overwhelming happiness that blocks negative emotions such as stress or past trauma.

Later doses of meth are no longer euphoric. Over time, side effects make meth highs physically grueling. Boundless energy transforms into an inability to rest or stand still, even when exhausted. Basic tasks that require concentration, like brushing teeth and talking to loved ones, become nearly impossible. Confidence increases until the person loses the ability to communicate well with others. They may believe they are invincible, above other people and the law.

Meth damages the reasoning centers of the brain. This makes it difficult to distinguish between real threats and fears from an overactive nervous system. Sleep deprivation blurs this line even further. An extended meth high can often feel like insects crawling beneath the skin, and the drug can induce nightmarish visual and auditory hallucinations.

How Does Meth Work?

After meth is ingested, snorted, smoked or injected, it quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier. Once inside, meth induces a high by manipulating the brain’s natural reward systems.

Healthy brains send constant signals to keep the body alive, releasing precise amounts of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Hormones from the body can also travel to the brain to influence behavior.

For example, an empty stomach produces ghrelin, a hormone that tells the brain that the body is hungry. If a person then eats, neurons in the brain release serotonin as a reward for meeting this need. Dopamine can also be released in anticipation of meeting a need, providing a kick of motivation to gather food and stave off hunger.

Most addictive drugs are dangerous because they use these systems to deliver massive bursts of reward.

Excessive Dopamine

Neurons create excess dopamine and keep it stored so it is always available when needed. Meth forces neurons to release all of their dopamine stores at once.

Important tasks that normally result in a slow release of pleasant chemicals — such as sleep, self-care, food and positive interactions with others — have no effect because all of the brain’s dopamine is now gone. The only stimulus that feels satisfying is more meth. This keeps people using the drug despite its unpleasant and life-altering side effects.

The next doses cannot replicate this first high because the brain needs time to create more dopamine. Depleted dopamine levels between doses can also cause depression and painful withdrawal.

Norepinephrine Release

Meth also causes neurons to release norepinephrine, the “flight or fight” chemical, in large doses. In healthy bodies, norepinephrine is released only in times of clear, imminent danger. It delivers a surge of energy and alertness while diverting resources from important systems like digestion and immune response for a short time. Continuous “fight or flight” caused by drug use results in permanent damage to these systems.

The combination of dopamine and norepinephrine makes meth an especially dangerous stimulant. Dopamine gives a euphoric high while norepinephrine increases energy and pushes the body past its safe limits.

Is Meth Addictive?

The DEA considers meth highly addictive, more than most other street drugs. As with any drug, it is possible to use meth once or twice and then choose to stop. However, a habit of recreational meth use rapidly transitions into dependence and addiction.

Physical Addiction

Unnaturally high amounts of dopamine overwhelm and damage the receptors in the brain. Damaged receptors require more dopamine to deliver a high, so users take more and more meth. This drug is especially dangerous because it is readily available and inexpensive, so people with addictions do not need to wait or save money to get high again.

Emotional Dependence

Meth addiction progresses rapidly and is hard to conceal. Unlike addictive depressants like heroin or alcohol, a stimulant like meth makes sitting in one place impossible while impaired.

A person using meth generally goes to work, goes out in public or visits loved ones while high. Aggression, overconfidence and erratic behavior brought on by the drug can lead to social rejection and more serious consequences like arrests.

Losing a job or a relationship with a loved one causes stress and negative emotions. To get rid of these emotions, the person generally turns to more meth, creating a vicious cycle.

How Does Someone Become Addicted to Meth?

Meth used to be associated with rural areas because it could be manufactured away from populated communities and law enforcement. However, meth is widespread today and available in most cities in America. Meth addiction affects all social classes, races, and ages from teens to adults.

First Dose

The average age for a first dose of meth is 23. It is often introduced as a party drug. Many people turn to meth as a cheaper alternative to cocaine, another party drug and stimulant.

Subsequent Doses

Some people decide to stop using meth after trying it once, but others find the first dose pleasurable enough to seek out again. Several regular uses is enough to begin an addiction. Addiction is a particular risk for individuals with low self-esteem, as meth produces feelings of confidence and self-assurance while minimizing painful emotions.

Risk factors that make a person more likely to develop an addiction to meth include:

  • Poverty or low social class
  • Family history of addiction
  • Preexisting mental illness, especially if untreated
  • Extreme stress
  • Homelessness
  • PTSD
  • Childhood abuse or trauma
  • Being a survivor of sexual abuse

However, a person does not need to have any of these risk factors to become addicted to meth. Altered brain chemistry is the root cause of drug addiction, not past circumstances. It can truly happen to anyone.

What Are the Symptoms of Meth Addiction?

Meth currently in the body causes many short-term symptoms, but long-term use causes new symptoms over time. These symptoms can continue even after a person stops taking meth.

Physical symptoms of a person currently high on meth include:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • High body temperature (fever)
  • Dilated (wide and large) pupils
  • Teeth grinding
  • Dry mouth
  • Jerking or twitching movements
  • Looking around rapidly
  • Trouble standing still
  • Going days without eating or sleeping

People using meth also exhibit recognizable emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Overconfidence in their abilities
  • Increased aggression
  • Impulsiveness
  • Extreme restlessness
  • New or risky sexual behavior

With long-term use, meth causes more intense symptoms. These include:

  • Gum disease and/or loss of teeth
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Scabs from picking at the skin
  • Inability to concentrate or complete daily tasks

Since meth overstimulates the entire central nervous system, its symptoms can appear in all areas of the body. The exhaustion and starvation brought on by meth use also cause rapid weight loss and an overall sickly appearance of the hair and skin. It is usually easier to recognize symptoms of meth addiction compared to other drug addictions.

Can You Overdose on Meth?

Yes, meth can cause fatal overdoses. The most up-to-date data from the CDC reports that 15-20% of drug overdose deaths in America involve meth. This number is increasing with the rise of fentanyl-laced meth.

Pure meth can be fatal as well. Excessive norepinephrine puts stress on the body, resulting in heart failure, organ failure or stroke.

How Does Meth Negatively Impact Health?

Meth induces a false feeling of health and invincibility while causing major harm to the entire body. Similar to redlining a car engine or overclocking a computer processor, pushing the body past its maximum capacity for extended amounts of time leads to permanent damage.

Physical Health Problems

Meth puts intense strain on the heart and circulatory system. This both increases the risk for heart attack and stroke and causes chronic headaches. Meth also suppresses the digestive and immune systems, leading to much slower healing and long-term nausea. Norepinephrine restricts blood flow to the liver and kidneys, damaging those organs.

Reckless behavior while high on meth also harms a person’s physical health. Combining other substances such as alcohol or opioids with meth increases damage to the liver, kidneys and brain. Aggression due to meth can lead to fatal car accidents and physical confrontations. Unprotected sex or injected meth use puts people at increased risk for HIV/AIDS.

Since meth highs can last for days at a time, people who use meth often neglect their physical needs. Severe and irreversible dental damage is a common side effect of meth, as well as malnutrition and unhealthy levels of weight loss. Skin damage from meth can cause permanent scarring.

Psychological Health Problems

Psychologists are still studying the many destructive effects meth has on the brain long-term. One study compared current meth users to those at different stages of abstinence from the drug, taking MRI images of their brains while the patients performed various tasks.

The study found that some of the brain damage caused by meth is reversible, with participants who had been clean for two years showing similar scans to those who had never used meth. However, brain function was not fully restored.

Many psychological symptoms can recur years after quitting meth. These include:

  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression
  • Distraction
  • Memory loss

Periods of intense stress can trigger psychosis or make psychological symptoms worse.

How Long Does Meth Stay in Your System?

Meth has a half-life of ten hours, meaning that it takes ten hours for half a dose of meth to leave a person’s body. The full amount of a dose can take up to four days to be fully metabolized. Even after meth leaves a person’s system, they still experience psychological and physical health problems from the drug. It can also show up on certain drug tests.

Urine Test

How long a dose of meth will show up on a urine test depends on several factors. Larger doses take more time to leave the body, and a young relatively healthy person processes the drug faster than an older person in poor health. The total time can be anywhere from three days to one week.

Blood Test

A blood test will be positive for meth for up to three days after a dose. Meth is easier to detect in urine than blood since it leaves the body through the urine.

Hair Test

It can take between three and six months of being clean for a hair test to come back negative for meth.

What Is the Best Way To Get Off Meth?

Recovery from meth addiction is very much achievable. Many people formerly addicted to meth maintain their abstinence and go on to fulfilling lives, careers and families. Over time, brain function returns to normal levels and relationships can heal.

Unfortunately, there is no approved treatment or halfway step to ease an addict off of meth, like methadone is used to ease heroin withdrawal. The only option is complete abstinence. Meth damages areas of the brain responsible for decision making, patience and self-control, so weathering the early stages of meth recovery can be more difficult than other substances.

The best chance of success is with inpatient treatment. Withdrawal symptoms from meth are extremely intense, as your brain is used to large amounts of dopamine. Careful medical monitoring helps prevent relapse.

Psychological counseling is an important aspect of long-term treatment for meth addiction. Many people turn to meth because of low self-image. Finding the root cause and addressing it can reduce emotional dependence and speed the recovery process.

What Facilities Help People Recover From Meth Addiction?

Clean Recovery Centers in Florida has a three-step program that has helped hundreds of people survive and recover from meth addiction. A combination of close inpatient monitoring followed by treatment of root causes places patients back on the path to health.

Stigmas prevent many people who use meth from seeking treatment, but our centers reject labels and focus on the full person in need of aid. Contact us for more information about addiction treatment and for assistance in getting clean.


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