Methamphetamine Addiction: Health Effects, Withdrawal, & Treatment
What Is Meth?
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant drug. Illicitly manufactured sources of methamphetamine are commonly encountered in crystal or white powder form that can be:1
- Swallowed (as a pill).
Meth’s stimulant effects can lead to increased wakefulness as well as heightened physical activity, agitation, and anxiety.1,2
Is Meth Addictive?
Yes, meth is very addictive. Methamphetamine increases brain activity across several neurotransmitter systems including dopamine, a signaling molecule important for motivation and reward. As a result, continued methamphetamine use becomes strongly reinforced—contributing to its addictive potential by making users want to repeat the experience.1
Other pharmacological properties of the drug lend themselves to the very addictive nature of methamphetamine. The drug elicits a powerful high that starts and ends quickly, which encourages repeated use. In fact, it is common for meth users to take meth in a binge pattern (every several hours for days at a time), often neglecting to sleep or eat.1
In 2020, an estimated 1.5 million Americans 12 years old or older struggled with meth addiction within the previous year.3
What Are the Signs of Meth Addiction?
Addiction is diagnosed by medical and mental health professionals as what’s known as a substance use disorder. Specialists use the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) to diagnose methamphetamine use disorder:4
- Using more methamphetamine than intended or using it for longer than was intended.
- Spending considerable time engaging in activities needed to acquire meth, using meth, or recovering from methamphetamine use.
- Wanting to quit or reduce meth use but not following through or making failed attempts.
- Continuing to use meth despite it causing or worsening health problems (including mental health conditions).
- Craving methamphetamine.
- Repeatedly using meth in potentially dangerous situations, such as while driving.
- Foregoing important social, recreational, or work activities to use methamphetamine.
- Missing important obligations related to social, work, or home life to use meth.
- Continuing to use meth despite them causing work or social problems.
- Developing a tolerance to methamphetamine (needing more meth to yield the same effects).
- Experiencing withdrawal when ceasing or reducing meth use.
What to Do if You Suspect Someone May Be Addicted to Meth
Addiction does not just affect the person afflicted with the illness—it affects their whole family. Families in which one person struggles with addiction may experience emotional distress, financial strain, and an increased risk of violence, among other issues.5 However, while family members may be negatively impacted by addiction, they can also be a major positive force in the recovery efforts of their loved one.
Beginning the conversation with a family member or close friend can be difficult. Many people think they need to have a formal intervention; however, confrontational meetings like those on sensational TV shows have not been proven effective and have the potential to backfire.6
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) encourages family and friends to take a direct, but non-judgmental approach when supporting a loved one struggling with addiction and suggests offering reassurance and assistance in finding professional treatment. SAMHSA recommends having a clear conversation with your loved one at an appropriate place and time where you: 7
- Directly express your concerns.
- Listen and acknowledge your loved one’s feelings.
- Offer to help them connect with treatment services.
Short-Term Health Effects & Risks of Meth
Using meth—even once—can be a serious health risk. Some of the potentially harmful short-term health effects of meth use include:1
- Sleep disturbances.
- Loss of appetite.
- Increased respiratory rate (rapid breathing).
- Tachycardia (increased heart rate).
- Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm).
- Raised blood pressure.
- Increased body temperature.
Injecting meth also carries the risk of contracting bloodborne viruses like HIV or hepatitis B and C through the use of non-sterile needles and other injection equipment.1 Needle routes increase the risk of bloodborne illnesses like HIV and hepatitis.1 Continued use of meth can also exacerbate the progression of HIV/AIDS.
Signs of Methamphetamine Overdose
Meth use can also result in overdose or acute drug toxicity.1 16,167 people in America died from a meth-involved overdose in 2019.8 A meth overdose usually results in a stroke, heart attack, or organ complications that result from these catastrophic cardiovascular events.1 A meth overdose requires immediate medical attention from emergency services. Meth overdose signs may include:9
- Chest pain.
- Heart palpitations.
- Rapid rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.
- Circulatory collapse.
- Respiratory failure.
- Acute psychosis.
- Loss of consciousness.
Meth may also contain dangerous adulterants like fentanyl or other synthetic opioids that are fatal in very small amounts.10 Fentanyl-adulterated meth is on the rise, increasing the risk of potentially fatal opioid overdose among meth users.11
What are the Long-Term Effects of Methamphetamine?
Chronic meth use over a prolonged period of time has many negative health effects. These include:1,12
- Symptoms of psychosis (e.g., paranoia, hallucinations).
- Violent behavior.
- Unhealthy weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
- Skin sores caused by constant scratching.
- Tooth decay and rotting gums (“meth mouth”).
- Problems with memory and verbal learning.
- Addiction (methamphetamine use disorder).
Studies also suggest that meth use may exacerbate the progression of HIV/AIDS and related neurological consequences such as cognitive problems.1
Many of the changes to the brain caused by meth use are reversed after a year of abstinence. However, in some cases, it may take longer. Though more research needs to be done, there is some evidence of a potential correlation between meth use and the development of Parkinson’s disease later in life.1
Methamphetamine Withdrawal & Detox
A common feature of stimulant use disorder is physiological dependence.4 This means that when someone who has developed methamphetamine dependence later reduces or ceases using meth after prolonged, chronic misuse will likely experience acute, distressing withdrawal symptoms.1,9,13
What Are the Symptoms of Meth Withdrawal?
Methamphetamine withdrawal rarely presents immediate medical risks; however, it can be extremely unpleasant and sometimes lead to significant depression and an associated increase in suicide risk for some individuals.9,13
Other potential symptoms and complications of meth withdrawal include:1,9,13
- Very intense drug cravings.
- Increased hunger.
- Severe fatigue.
- Psychosis related to prolonged stimulant use and/or sleeplessness.
Acute meth withdrawal begins around 24 hours after the last use and generally lasts about 3-5 days, though cravings and certain symptoms such as excessive sleepiness, hunger, and mood instability may persist for longer.9,14
Medical detox can make the withdrawal process more comfortable, can allow for 24/7 supervision, and is a necessary first step for some people who wish to quit using meth. However, detox by itself does little to help someone achieve long-term sobriety.13,15
Research shows that people may be more likely to achieve longer-term abstinence when they receive additional rehabilitation (which commonly consists of a combination of evidence-based therapies) to better build the necessary skills to stay sober.15
Starting Meth Addiction Treatment
Meth addiction is a treatable condition.15 Many people with methamphetamine use disorder lead rewarding lives in recovery after receiving treatment.
The appropriate setting and length of treatment for meth addiction varies between patients.15 For example, people with serious mental illness or other health problems may benefit from treatment in an inpatient hospital setting, while specialists may recommend residential care or outpatient treatment for others.16 AdCare operates many treatment facilities in varying levels of intensity in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and provides evidence-based treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.
After completing formal treatment, many people benefit from some form of continuing care such as attending weekly 12-step meetings.20 Former patients from AdCare Treatment Centers are granted access to a robust alumni program that allows them to maintain contact with their peers, receive continued support, and be notified of upcoming events.
You can also use check whether you can use insurance coverage to pay for addiction treatment at AdCare.