Methamphetamines and their side effects

1) Alice,

Although I really dig your web site and will recommend it to others, I noticed that you present no 411 on methamphetamine. Could you tell me some about this type of drug (crystal, glass/ice, etc.)?

new fan

2) Dear Alice,

I've smoked crystal meth about five times in two months and have stopped for about a week. Even now I have side effects like dry mouth, dehydration, and sweaty hands. The side effects are gradually slowing down except for the sweaty hands. I am wondering if this side effect will go away or if it is permanent. I also think that my CNS has taken some damage. Is that also permanent?


Dear new fan and Frozen,

Methamphetamine, often referred to as “meth,” is a stimulant drug that’s been around for ages. Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi first isolated methamphetamine from ephedrine in 1893. It was used in wartime to energize soldiers and even made a brief foray as a diet pill in the 1950s. Once the side effects and addictiveness of meth were better understood, it was taken off the general market in the United States. Today, it's classified as a Schedule II drug marketed as Desoxyn to legally treat obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, the more common recreational meth is obtained illegally often through drug trafficking organizations and, on a smaller scale, secret domestic laboratory operations. Common street names for methamphetamine you may hear include crank, crystal, chalk, ice, shabu, tweak, and yaba. Much like its names, methods of use can vary, including smoking, swallowing, snorting, or injecting it. While usually found in pill or powder form, “crystal meth” is another form of methamphetamine that, namely, resembles a rock-like glass fragment. Regardless of name, method, or structure the high experienced by meth use is commonly associated with some short-term, long-term, and permanent side effects.

Meth directly targets the central nervous system of the brain, accounting for most of its effects. When meth is absorbed by the body, it causes a huge release of dopamine. Dopamine regulates your ability to recognize pleasure and rewards, feel motivated, and participate in motor functioning. For this reason, the release of dopamine stores by meth may provide a brief rush of euphoric feelings. This short “high” period encourages a pattern of repeated doses known as “binge and crash.” Oral ingestion of meth has been known to provide a longer lasting high. Many meth users report feelings of elation while high; however, others also report increased agitation, irritability, anxiety, confusion, mood swings, and aggression as well as episodes of paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions.

Dopamine release is a functional part of your body’s “fight or flight” response. With or without meth, dopamine signals for your blood vessels to constrict, your sweat glands to open up, your heart rate to increase, your pupils to dilate, and your GI tract to slow down. For this reason, meth stimulation of dopamine may cause the side effects of dry mouth, dehydration, and sweaty hands. Other short-term effects of meth use include decreased appetite, irregular heartbeat, increased wakefulness and physical activity, rapid breathing, increased blood pressure, nausea, tremors, dizziness, and hyperthermia (overheating).

When you flood your brain repeatedly with dopamine, these short-term reactions may affect your body long-term. Research has shown that chronic meth can cause changes in brain structure and function, including in the areas of the brain involved with emotion and memory. This could explain why many chronic meth users report emotional and cognitive problems. For example, abuse of crystal meth, specifically, is thought to destroy dopamine receptors, making it difficult to experience feelings of pleasure. Other long-term mental effects of meth use include addiction, anxiety, confusion, memory loss, anorexia, sleeping problems, and violent behavior. Physically, people have reported intense itching and severe dental problems leading to skin and mouth sores, respectively, as well as impaired motor functioning. Studies have shown that long-term use of meth may lead to the muscle cells of the heart becoming strained, larger in size, and fibrotic — meaning they lose elasticity and ability to pump blood. This, in turn, could increase the chance for heart attack. Additionally, chronic increases in blood pressure can lead to a brain hemorrhage or stroke. Some side effects can be reversed pretty soon after you stop using the drug, as you describe, Frozen. Others, such as the death of heart muscles during a heart attack or changes to brain cells may be long-term or permanent. Identifying short- and long-term effects is made even more challenging given that other chemicals, carcinogens, and toxins are often mixed in with illegally purchased meth. If sweaty hands or any other side effect impacts you in a negative way, you may consider making an appointment with a health care provider. They may also be able to help uncover any other lingering effects from the drug that might not be so immediately visible.

The euphoric state of mind often caused by meth may provide you with a false sense of intense power and energy. This leads users to push their body further than it's meant to go, resulting in a physical and mental breakdown as the high wears off. This notorious “crash” and the rapid release of high levels of dopamine make it difficult for people to stop using meth. Due to its high addictiveness, chronic meth users also report negative experiences of withdrawal, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, inability to sleep, craving for the drug, and psychosis. If you’re concerned about meth addiction, try talking with a health care provider or mental health professional to share more about your concerns. Recovery from meth addiction is possible. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational incentives are common methods to treat addiction. Additionally, due to the implications of this drug, it may be beneficial to think about the reasons why you use or consider using meth. You may take some time to reflect on what using or not using in the future means for you. Ultimately, asking questions about how these substances may impact your health may help you to make informed decisions and to take care of your body long term.

Last updated Nov 05, 2021
Originally published Dec 03, 1999

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