Meth Abuse

Medically reviewed by:
Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD., BCPS

Table of Contents

Understanding Meth Abuse

Methamphetamine, or meth, can be prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but doctors do so rarely, as it has a very high potential for abuse and addiction.  However, most individuals who abuse this substance do so in its illicit, crystal form, which has the appearance of a shiny rock or crystalline powder. When abused in this form, meth is usually injected or smoked through a glass pipe.

Individuals who abuse meth can become addicted very quickly and experience a number of severe consequences from their abuse. Attempting to quit meth without treatment is nearly impossible because of the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, cravings, psychological issues, and other problems associated with the drug.

Signs of Meth Abuse

Meth abusers are often easy to spot. This is because the drug can cause a number of side effects, and signs of meth abuse, even when it is not used every day. Common short-term effects of the drug include:

  • Euphoria
  • A surge of energy
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Increased physical activity
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Dry mouth
  • Uncontrollable jaw clenching
  • Increased unpredictable and risky behavior
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Profuse sweating

Individuals who abuse meth will become more talkative and excited. Once the positive emotions wear off, their moods can change very quickly, causing them to become angry, hostile, and even violent. Binge abuse is common, and users often “crash” after staying up for days, sleeping for long periods of time and becoming incredibly depressed once the drug wears off.

When a person binges on meth, they may not eat or sleep for days and become very irritable. This is called tweaking. One can recognize a “tweaker” by paying special attention to their behaviors:

  • A person who has been on the drug for several days and hasn’t slept will exhibit extremely fast eye movements that seem beyond their control.
  • The voice will also quiver because of the intensity of the drug and how long it has been since they have been able to relax.
  • The individual’s movements will be jerky and strange.
  • They are likely to experience paranoia and confusion.

If you think someone you know has been binging on crystal meth, it is important to be very cautious when approaching them. Do not try to get them to stop on your own, especially if they seem like they may become violent or hostile. Tweakers are extremely volatile due to the physical, emotional, and psychological strain produced from maintaining an extended crystal meth high.

Dangers of Meth Abuse

The DEA lists meth as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse, with meth abuse resulting in physical, and psychological dependence.

Meth causes a number of dangerous side effects, many of which can come on quickly. For example, stimulant abusers in general are likely to participate in unpredictable and risky behavior, which can lead to accidents and even death. Other dangers of meth abuse include:

  • Brain damage: The nerve terminals in the brain can become damaged over time as the result of long-term meth abuse. An individual who uses this drug consistently may even start to exhibit symptoms similar to those caused by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
  • Dental problems: Consistent abuse often leads to cracked, broken, and rotten teeth as well as other dental issues. This is because of the dry mouth and uncontrollable jaw clenching and tooth grinding that meth causes, as well as the poor dental hygiene and sugary diet of most users.
  • Psychosis: Like many other stimulants, meth abuse can lead to a full-blown psychosis, causing hallucinations, delirium, and violent behavior. Individuals who exhibit these effects require treatment right away, and even after they subside, some of these symptoms can suddenly resurface years later.
  • Acne, sores, and skin infections due to severe itching and the sensation of bugs under the skin
  • Malnutrition and severe weight loss
  • Contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other blood borne diseases, often due to risky sexual behavior or sharing needles.
  • Anxiety disorders, depression, and other mood disorders

Signs of a Meth Overdose

Can you overdose on meth? The answer is yes. A meth overdose, which can occur at any time, is extremely dangerous, as it can cause seizures, stroke, heart and respiratory failure, and death. A person can die suddenly as a result of this type of substance abuse, either from acute overdose, which can occur even from the first use, or chronic overdose, which occurs when the drug builds up over time in the individual’s system. If you suspect someone has overdosed on meth, call 911 immediately.

Appropriate safety measures should be followed as intoxicated patients can pose an immediate danger to themselves, other patients, and staff. Sedation should be used if necessary. Antipyretics such as Tylenol should not be used to manage hyperthermia. Heart rate and blood pressure should be closely monitored. Seizures should be aborted initially with benzodiazepines.

Meth Addiction

Methamphetamine is in very wide recreational use. It is likely that over 12 million people in the U.S., teenaged and over, have used methamphetamine at least once in their lifetimes. 1.2 million people report using methamphetamine in the past year, and approximately 440,000 of those people said they had used within the past month. Amphetamine-type simulants are the second most common illicit drug class worldwide. Nearly 40 million people between 15 and 64 years old reported using, as of 2010. Use appears to be expanding, too, according to annual data collected by the United Nations.

Are you worried that you have an addiction to methamphetamines?  Medical professionals diagnose substance use disorder by looking for significant instances of at least 2 of the following features of your drug use within the past year:

  • You keep using meth even when it causes negative personal consequences.
  • You can’t carry out major functions at home, or work, or school.
  • You use meth in physically dangerous situations.
  • You use meth even if it’s causing interpersonal problems.
  • You’ve developed a tolerance to meth, and need more of to feel its effects.
  • You keep using meth to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  • You’ve tried to cut down on meth use but can’t.
  • You spend a lot of energy trying to get meth, or recover from using it.
  • You’re losing interest in things that used to interest you.
  • You’ve developed cravings for meth.

Meth Addiction Treatment

Overcoming an addiction to meth requires a professional treatment program. Like for any form of substance use disorder, the most effective treatment for meth addiction is behavioral therapy. Medications may be used to treat withdrawal symptoms while patients detox from the drug, but currently, there are no FDA-approved pharmacological options for treating stimulant addiction.

Therapies like 12-step groups, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and individual, group, and family therapy are all likely to be a part of a meth addiction treatment plan. These different treatments work together to create a supportive community around the individual in recovery while uncovering and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, and teaching ways to recognize and either avoid or cope with drug use triggers.

Professional addiction treatment focuses on minimizing the chance of relapse while helping patients learn healthy attitudes and behaviors and acquire tools that can support a strong recovery. However, meth addiction treatment can take a very long time. Withdrawal symptoms can last for months, and the damage caused to the brain can take years to reverse, if it can be reversed at all.

This is why it is so important to seek help for meth abuse and addiction as soon as possible. The longer an individual continues to abuse meth, the more severe the side effects will become and the longer treatment will likely take. The current treatment options for meth addiction are safe and effective, but choosing recovery over addiction is the first step towards a better life.